Sunday, September 06, 2009

Turning Japanese

As soon as I finished high school, I booked a one-way ticket to London via Japan. I was seventeen. I went with my best friend. Tokyo and Osaka were our first experiences of a world outside Australia.
We were guests of a Japanese family who were keen to show us as much as we could digest of Japanese culture. It soon became apparent that they also liked to be seen with us. We resembled a pair of
ill-matched manga action figures come to life. My angular, six-foot-tall frame and severe, high-cheek-boned face reflected a fetishistic Japanese ideal of a Caucasian warrior woman – without the wavey blonde hair and pneumatic tits. All I needed was a sword. My friend was the petulant but pretty schoolgirl, a paedo-sexual fantasy, right down to the huge doe eyes, long eye lashes, small nose, full lips and pert but ample-chested body.
Even then, I had an interest in erotica. It pervades Japanese popular culture and doesn't refrain from the fleshy, forensically intricate display of every sort of weird sex – and not just between humans. I bought paperback books of photographs by Nobuyoshi Araki from Aoyama Book Store and pored over his saturated colour 35mm and Polaroid close-ups of rope-bound young women (an example above) and hairless vaginas penetrated by fish, plastic dinosaurs and tiny Japanese cocks, and replicated by orchids, as well as his monochrome snapshots of the inside of Shinjuku 'soap lands' and 'love hotels'.
I hadn't expected so-called 'high art' to be exhibited in department stores, as if it was just part of an enhanced shopping experience. Years later, the Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas, reminded me of this when he wrote, "Perhaps the beginning of the 21st century will be remembered as the point where the urban could no longer be understood without shopping." In Tokyo, the boundaries that separated so-called 'high culture' from everything else didn't exist. Every form of visual art was everywhere.
So was sex. Every Japanese read manga and grey-suited, inscrutable salariman sat on rush-hour commuter trains unembarassedly absorbed in hentai cartoon panels filled with uncensored, hardcore (and often sadistic) sex and gore-laden violence.
's most popular characters were also sold as action figures and rendered on every imaginable type of merchandise, from t-shirts to tiny vibrators. Many young Japanese, especially geek-ish otaku fan-boys, collected these with a connoisseurship that matched a professional curator's.
These days, Japanese artists have global recognition. But they still appear intent on blurring the boundaries between commerce, entertainment and art. Takashi Murakami operates a slicker, more sober and commercial version of Warhols 'factory, with scores of young artist apprentices and protegĂ©es. He oversees the production of work ranging from cartoony 'Shock Pop' (a term he invented) paintings and resin statues to anime films, home wallpapers, rugs – as featured on Murakami's factory website, Kaikai Kiki – and collaborations with the designer Marc Jacobs and the French fashion house, Louis Vouitton. In Japan, Murakami's colourful, Vuitton-branded fashion accessories are also exhibited as artworks.
Another Japanese artist, Yoshimoto Nara, also reproduces his original art, which has an international cult following, on merchandise, including ashtrays, clocks, drinking glasses, postcards, and the covers of diaries. This sort of productisation would cause disdain if done in the Western world by a Western artist, especially if they weren't sold in galleries as an attempt to legitimize them. Nara's products are available to the mass market through the boutique toy shop Sweaty Frog, Kaboodle, and even Amazon.
Tomoaki 'Nigo' Nagao doesn't call himself an artist but he acts like one – well, a peculiarly Japanese, mutant version, a gene-splice of Jeff Koons, Malcolm McLaren and the Beastie Boys. He began designing limited edition clothing under the label A Bathing Ape In Lukewarm Water, shortened to BAPE, but has expanded the brand to include BAPE Cuts hair salon, BAPE Sounds records (for which he is producer/director) and BAPE CafĂ© and Gallery. Each is independently successful, and enhanced – rather than diminished – by an increasingly distributed and popular brand.
I've often been criticised within Australia for my non-traditional approach to both to my work and career, especially my insistence on serial (albeit handmade) paintings and my talk of the 'productisation' not only of my art but myself. Unarguably, I'm influenced by – and supportive of – the attempt by Japanese artists to redefine the purpose and meaning of art and to a large extent, democratise it.
I'm unconvinced that their motivation is really about art as much as it is about cashing in. So I've been very careful to ensure that in my case, the art comes first and that its 'productisation' is recognisable as part of a broader conceptual approach. Then again, maybe I'm just clinging to a threadbare, Romantic notion of art within an increasingly creaky Western context. Australian curators have already consigned me to a box marked 'post-Murakami, manga-influenced', regarding me as a local artist with little connection to any identifiable Australian tradition.
In 2007, my work featured in a show titled BLAST! The Influence of Manga and Contemporary Japanese Popular Culture on Australian Artists that toured regional public art galleries in Queensland. For the first time I realised that my art did belong somewhere – just not in Australia.


ArneA said...

Intriguing post.

karo Akpokiere said...

This post gives me more reason to love what you do. I admire your honesty and your ability to keep things personal not real.