Rejecting their country’s typically “cute” art, young Japanese artists are provoking ideas about nature and technology at the new show Bye Bye Kitty in New York.
Natural disasters have a way of waking us up to what really matters. In their waterlogged, power-outaged state, many Japanese must be wondering (once again) how they ever cared so much about Hello Kitty handbags and fuzzy-logic rice cookers. A few Japanese artists seem to have gone sober before the earth began shaking.
Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art is the tragically apposite title of a show at the Japan Society in New York that surveys 16 of those artists. It happens to open Friday, one week after the Sendai earthquake and tsunami. Its artists present a dark worldview that pushes back against Japan’s culture of cuteness and commodity.
By far the most potent piece in the show (it has its share of duds) is a work by Kohei Nawa, titled PixCell Deer #24. It is a real, taxidermied buck, preserved in a lifelike pose and with every inch of its hide covered in clear plastic spheres, ranging in size from marbles to crystal balls. It presents a poignant though mutated image of the confrontation of nature and culture, of wildlife and technology. The clear balls are lovely, twinkling things that seem to decorate, and almost to protect, the creature caught inside them, like a fairy-tale animal carried aloft by soap bubbles. Of course, those spheres also encase it in a petrochemical prison.
The balls have a magnifying effect, so that each hair on the deer’s hide looks huge and preternaturally sharp: The animal seems more present to our sight than it might in the wild. And yet that magnified presence, coupled to the fact that we can’t actually get at the creature trapped inside, just makes the deer seem all the more stranded.
There’s no simple, take-home message in this work. (Luckily.) But it is a powerful fetish for all the tensions between what the earth provides and what we do with it: For uranium ore, even, and its second life as manmade plutonium.
It is a powerful fetish for all the tensions between what the earth provides and what we do with it.
Blake Gopnik writes about art and design for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He previously spent a decade as chief art critic of the Washington Post and before that was an arts editor and critic in Canada. He has a doctorate in art history from Oxford University, and has written on aesthetic topics ranging from Facebook to gastronomy.