|Bye Bye Deer! Photo by Richard Goodbody.|
Since the time when Japan opened up to the outside world, its people and culture have often been scrutinized through the lens of kawaii aesthetic, or the fondness for all things small and cute. Laying the background for kawaii that has dominated not only the cultural phenomena within Japan but also how Japan is viewed from the outside, David Elliot, curator of Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art, writes in the exhibition catalogue:
The paternalistic outsider’s view, equating lack of Western modernity with premodernity, feudalism, and by extension, a state of immaturity, was founded on the notion that Japan was essentially “different” from other countries, and Japanese “childishness” could easily be proven by a perceived taste for miniature versions of things or a preference for natural beauty and materials.It is not rare that views regarding Japanese contemporary art take a trajectory quite similar to how Japan was viewed from the outside and as result, render Japanese contemporary art devoid of maturity and originality. Elliott continues:
Since the early twentieth century, Japanese art has developed in conversation with Western modernism, but Western commentators have too easily dismissed Japan’s recent and contemporary art as a derivative reflection of its own image (some children are very good at copying) or embraced it as quaintly traditional, otaku, or kawaii – a stereotypical expression of childlike grace that the simply drawn, mouthless features of Hello Kitty epitomize in their bland inscrutability.Hello Kitty, a character developed by Sanrio and marketed with huge success far and wide epitomizes the dominance of kawaii. A 2004 Japan Times editorial entitled "Time for Goodbye Kitty", highlighted, albeit with reservations, the reign of Hello Kitty in commercial as well as non-commercial spheres. Calling Hello Kitty “the expressionless icon celebrating its 30th anniversary [in 2004]” the editorial cited its appearances on a MasterCard debit card in the United States and as a UNICEF “special friend of the children” to raise funds for girls’ education programs.
Takashi Murakami, the curator of Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, an exhibition presented by Japan Society in collaboration with the Public Art Fund in 2005, argued that Japanese art forms showed a “retreat from the adult world into an infantile, ‘superflat’ universe” owing to “Japan’s political emasculation” following World War II. Bye, Bye, Kitty!!! is an attempt to present the work of artists who have, in Elliott's words, “produced work that indicates a more complicated, adult view of life, melding traditional viewpoints with perception of present and future in radical and sometimes unsettling combinations”. The artists featured in the exhibition were born between mid-60s and early 80s (with the exception of one) and have been witness to rapid, and at times, drastic and overpowering transformations in multiple facets of the Japanese society.
This hybridity, one of the essences of Japanese pictorial creativity, has created a fertile seedbed in which the struggle between extremes of heaven and hell, fantasy and nightmare, ideal and real take place. There is no room for Kitty’s blankness here. But the boundaries between the extremes are often unclear. In a fiercely critical, socially rigid, and historically loaded environment, where irony is used as a weapon, one element may be unveiled to reveal its opposite.Bye, Bye, Kitty!!! presents the work of 16 artists, half of them women. Among over 40 objects, three new works were unveiled including Kohei Nawa’s taxidermized deer covered with a skin of plastic beads to form an irregular, globular skin that confounds expectations of sight and touch; Tomoko Shioyasu’s large-scale installation, employing a version of the decorous Japanese art of stencil cutting to snip, slit, cut and slice a ten-foot sheet of paper into a membrane-like form that animates surrounding space with projected light; and Chiharu Shiota’s installation Dialogue with Absence, recently unveiled in Paris, which combines a painted wedding dress with pumps, tubing, and red-dyed water to create an umbilical network of linked veins that suggests a dreamlike, unconscious state of anxiety.
While the exhibit closes this Sunday, it will live on online, in apps (for both iPhone and Android), and in the catalogue published by Yale University Press as part of their Japan Society Series.