Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop at the Seattle Asian Art Museum is, to use an old slang term, frantic. My friend and museum companion hadn’t been through the permanent collection yet, and after an hour or so of contemplating mainly contemporary ink pieces, delicate snuff bottles, and lavishly detailed Persian paintings set in the elegant art deco building, we arrived at the eye-popping, jarringly neon moé world of Mr.’s neo-pop art.
The exhibition features paintings as well as an installation piece (Give Me Your Wings – think different) and a video (Nobody Dies). The SAM website has an excellent introduction to the pieces and to Mr. and his art, part of which I’ll excerpt here:
The devastating disaster of the March 11, 2011 tsunami and the nuclear accident afterwards were both a shock and inspiration for Japanese Neo-Pop artist Mr. In response, he composed a massive installation made of hundreds of everyday objects from Japanese life. It’s the central work in this exhibition, presented here with a series of new paintings and other work. A reminder of the debris that blanketed the Tohoku area in the aftermath of 3.11 tsunami and earthquake, the installation embodies the post-disaster fear and frustration of the Japanese people since the catastrophic events.
Live On, which is organized by SAM, presents Mr.’s art of the past 15 years and is his first solo exhibition in a U.S. museum. Born in 1969, Mr. is a protégé of Takashi Murakami, internationally acclaimed icon of Japanese Pop art. He borrowed the name “Mr.” from “Mister Giants” (Shigeo Nagashima), the superstar clean-up hitter of the postwar Yomiuri Giants baseball team.
Having grown up during Japan’s postwar “economic miracle” period, Mr. often exercises his art as a weapon against social expectations. As a member of the otaku subculture, his work ties closely with the lifestyle, which is marked by obsessive interests in anime and manga and being confined in one’s room with limited interactions with other people. He says,
“I’VE HAD ONE EYE ON ANIME SINCE THE DAY I WAS BORN.”
The exhibition includes a group of Mr.’s new works that take kawaii (cute) Japanese Pop art to a new dimension, known as moe (which literally means budding). Through fictional, adorable characters, moe speaks to a longing for youth, or youthful energy. It grew out of Japanese youth subculture, and its rebellion against authority and political engagement in favor of fantasy and virtual experience.
While Mr.’s art often appears playful at first—even cheerful—its veneer of bright imagery expresses darker themes and addresses anxiety. The works seen here offer his personal and artistic responses to trauma—whether natural disaster, war, psychological angst, or social anxiety—and demonstrate defiance against such adversity.
What I found interesting about the exhibition was that even while working in the moé aesthetic, the characters Mr. paints defied a lot of the moé stereotypes I dislike. While there are drawings of girls with doe eyes and a few stray peek-a-boo panties, the characters Mr. draws often look at and “engage” with the viewers instead of looking shyly away. The characters with bodies (some are just heads) are often in action poses. The level of detail in the backgrounds is incredible, and the fake product names are fun.
METAMORPHOSIS: GIVE ME YOUR WINGS, 2012, MR. JAPANESE, B. 1969, INSTALLATION VIEW, LEHMANN MAUPIN, NEW YORK, 2012, COURTESY THE ARTIST AND LEHMANN MAUPIN, NEW YORK AND HONG KONG, © 2012 MR. /KAIKAI KIKI CO., LTD. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
Give Me Your Wings – think different reminded me of getting lost in some of the less-upscale recycle shops of Ishikawa. (Also, there was a Takarazuka magazine!) There’s just so much stuff–video tapes, weekly manga, cups, furniture, clothing. It’s reminiscent of not just recycle shops, but hoarding and the excess of material goods. (As someone who just moved apartments, I can relate.)
Is all of this necessary? What do we keep for sentimental reasons, and where does collecting and keeping objects or furnishing a home fall between, for lack of a better term, capitalist materialism, creature comforts, and necessity? Or, perhaps, where is the line between what is necessary for individual happiness and comfort (treat yourself) and what is learned materialism?
Nobody Dies: all the girls’-movie and war-movie tropes mashed together really made me re-examine both genres. War games and strategy heroics can be fun in paint ball, video games, and sports, but how easy or hard is it to slip into real fighting?
When asked about Nobody Dies, his video about school girls-turned-warriors, Mr. responds by discussing Japan’s constitutional renunciation of war. He explains that after traveling abroad, he became interested in the way that some countries engage in war, some don’t, and some can’t.
To me, watching the actresses perform not just war games akin to what we see in film but also femininities (or rejections thereof) in Japanese culture was fascinating, and the film examines the social construction of these tropes. Team Rabbit, our heroines, are spunky high-schoolers decked out in brightly colored, cheerful (but useless for hiding) camouflage. The opposing team are more the outsider fashions–the ganguro, the biker, the yakuza-type. In a way, they represent the fear of rejection of the social acceptable femininity of the day and menace the cute, innocent (?) high schoolers. That said, the military prowess of the schoolgirls also calls into question assumptions that one cannot perform femininity and be tough or that fighting and masculinity go hand in hand. These girls have their bunny keychains, cell phone charms, knee socks, and cutesy army gear, but they are neither portrayed as weak and silly nor as “strong female characters” in the reductive sense. They’re cute girls who like cute things and are athletic, brave, reckless, and tactical.
Caveat: there is a ridiculous amount of butt cam. The girls have agency, but with the addition of the creepy camera, are they really just performing for themselves (capturing the flag and taking revenge on their enemies and for girl power) or is there an aspect of performing for the male gaze in general (not just in the butt shots)?
My favorite quote from the SAM exhibit information:
“I definitely see no point in mimicking the style of Western artists. Instead, I choose my Asian, Japanest, capitalist, born-after-the war, every-day self as my starting point. ” – MR (via SAM)
There’s a lot to take in with this exhibit–not just the bright colors and detritus of post-war capitalist, but the agency of the female subjects as depicted by a man (and for whom?). Live On examines but never fully answers questions on the topics of the girl-power aspect of third-wave feminism, the adolescent girl as heroine and subject, performing contemporary femininities, and the creation of these identities (by men) for consumption by girls and women.
LIVE ON: MR.’S JAPANESE NEO-POP
NOV 22 2014 – APR 5 2015
Seattle Asian Art Museum