Friday, July 26, 2013

The ‘Moe’ You Know: 'three' Opens Figurine Disfiguring Studio To The Public

'Mike' cubicized by the artist collective 'three'.

UPDATE: three's exhibit three is a magic number 7 opened Aug. 27.

The Japanese concept of moe (pronounced MO-EH) is a connection one has with a manga or anime character somewhere between first love, a priest’s eternal devotion and an otaku’s obsessive infatuation. A footnote from the catalogue to Little Boy, Japan Society's massive 2005 exhibition that was wall-to-wall moe, explains that it means "literally, 'bursting into bud'; a rarefied pseudo-love for certain fictional characters and their related embodiments."

Anyone suffering from a deep case of moe might not survive a visit to three’s temporary studios at Japan Society.

JapanCultureNYC described the scene in graphic detail in their recent article about the Fukushima-based artist collective:
One room of Japan Society’s gallery is an organized mess. There are plastic figurines everywhere. Miniature representations of manga, anime, and pop culture icons, five hundred are from Japan, with a small but growing collection from the US. The action figures are waiting to be assembled, photographed, meticulously categorized, unapologetically dismembered, and melted into rectangular “bits.”
When we visited the studios, the dismemberment was well underway, and you could barely make out recognizable figures [figyua in Japanese, a transliteration of "figure"] within the heaps of plastic cartoon and human shaped characters dissembled and spread all over.

But what three lacks of moe’s typical reverence, they more than make up for in obsessive, painstaking devotion. These hundreds of figurines are being melted into cubes of plastic perfection, identifiable only by familiar color schemes and the very occasional flattened body part. As the JapanCultureNYC article noted, three creates “a kind of interactivity between the sculpture and the viewers to see which characters stand out and to capture the reactions.”

This Saturday people will have a chance to meet the artists at a free open studio, and see some of the work-in-progress before 555 sculptures go on display in Japan Society A-Level in late August.

As the artists were rushing to get work done for the open studio, we had the chance to speak with them about their work and also how their first time in America has been. Shy but effortlessly cool and concentrated, the anonymous three artists that comprise three had much to say about their experience.

How did you feel before you came to New York?

It was around 3-4 months before coming to Japan Society when we were officially invited to be a part of the residency. While getting ready, we couldn’t believe we would actually be going to New York and America for the first time. We felt very honored to be a part of the program especially since there are three of us. We have heard it is quite unusual to accept more than one artist at a time. The fact that as a group we could go together really made it hard for us to believe. Our feelings were more disbelief than excitement.

Have you noticed big differences between the Japan and the U.S.?

Through the process of finding animation figures we realized there are certain differences between Japan and [the U.S.]. First of all, their form is totally different. What’s interesting about American figures is that they all have joints to allow people to bend their legs and arms to create their favorite pose. Also, the texture of the American figures are much harder than ones in Tokyo. This makes it easier to bend and position them in the ways you want.

What were some difficulties in finding figurines here?

There were so many different types of figures from the same animated series. It was difficult for us to find standard Spongebob figures for example. There are so many different versions of this one character based on different episodes and special stories. There were so many different types of Spongebobs!

Where did you find the figurines?

We went to Midtown Comics, Forbidden Planet near Union Square, another store around Union Square but we forgot the name (please forgive us). Oh we also went to Toys"R"Us! It was the first store we went to in New York. Amazing and full of toys!

Have you seen any good exhibits or discovered new artists?

We have only been to MoMA so far. We have not had much time to experience anything [besides work]. However we are very excited to do so after the residency!

What do you want people viewing your art to feel?

We want them to feel delight. We want them to have fun thinking what the cubic figure was like before. For the exhibition, we are using a minimalistic approach by getting rid of the wall text descriptions and using QR codes. [People can scan it and see the original figure on their smart phones.] There are also some American figures mixed with the Japanese, so we hope some people can also have an “AHA! I know this” type moment.

Another thing is we want Americans to take note of is the difference between Japanese and American animation. The difference in color (color compression) is quite notable between Japanese and American figures. In Japanese figures the color of skin is dominant. What this means is that most figures are likely to expose their skin more than American figures. Also the Japanese figures that we use are mostly female. Some of their clothing is also removable (and surprisingly they wear underwear). When we melt them down into cubic form, the skin tone is much more prevalent than with melted American figures.

Why do you think Japanese figurines show more flesh?

The purpose of buying figures is different for Japanese and Americans. Let’s just say that the Japanese figure industries produce with moe in mind.

Are you excited about your open studio at Japan Society on July 27th?

It’s quite rare that we "three" interact with people individually because we have been anonymous. This will be our first time to meet with people and discuss our work. We think this is a great opportunity for us to explain our working process and are very nervous but excited.

--Interview by Susan Berhane. Translation assistance by Reika Horii. Special thanks to three and the Japan Society Gallery team for their assistance.

[UPDATED 7/29/13]

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Revived Residency Program Sends Ripples Of 'three' In NYC

Detail of three’s Tokyo Electric.

A piece of Japan Society’s history is being restored this summer with the return of the long-dormant artist residency program. Throughout the month of July Japan Society hosts the Japanese artist collective three, which reshapes popular and mass culture into three dimensional sculpture, installations and video.

For much of their craft, three utilizes found plastic materials, from anime and video game figurines to soy sauce containers, to create dynamic, large-scale works of art. Highlighting many of three's recent works, design site Spoon & Tamago noted the social consciousness of their art:
Hailing from Fukushima, the artists were direct victims of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear fallout. In fact, their latest work "Tokyo Electric" was created for the 2nd anniversary of the earthquake. The imposing cubic structure stands over 3 meters high and is built to the same scale of the Fukushima nuclear power plant, explains the artists. It was made from 151,503 soy sauce containers – another symbolic number that happens to represent the number of displaced citizens.
During their residency they will gather materials from around NYC to create new works of art. The public will have an opportunity to visit the group’s onsite studio and see the works in progress and meet the artists on July 27, before the final work is displayed on Japan Society’s A-Level in August and September.

Beginning in the 1950s Japan Society supported a handful of Japanese artists during their influential developmental stages, expanding American understanding of Japanese art and culture and providing an outlet for Japanese artists to hone their talent.

In 1959 one of the first such artists was Munakata Shiko, an illustrious printmaker who produced amazing, expressionistic woodblock prints. A grant from the Rockefeller Foundation allowed Japan Society to sponsor Munakata in the U.S. for six months, during which he gave four exhibitions and twenty lecture-demonstrations, according to the Society’s 1959 annual report. That same year he opened Munakata Shiko Gallery.

When the Japan Society Fellows Program was established in 1965, Kusama Yayoi became another artist supported by the Society. With a four month grant for study, exhibitions and travel, she created some of her iconic infinity series of paintings. In 2012 the Whitney presented a highly acclaimed and broad sweeping retrospective of Kusama’s work.

Japan Society’s Gallery Director, Miwako Tezuka, is passionate about the reappearance of the residency program and its continuation for years to come. “In my own experience,” she says, “any hands extended to help people learn and experience the broader world create ripple effects that can result in amazing accomplishments and lasting influence.”

--Susan Berhane

Monday, July 15, 2013

Choice Cuts: The Bleeding Heart And Soaring Soul Of JAPAN CUTS 2013

AKB48 spreading music and hope in Japan.

While JAPAN CUTS is known for action packed, manga-inspired and genre-twisting blockbusters, especially those co-presented with NYAFF, there is another side to the festival encompassing impacting films that pull at heartstrings with their depth and far reaching soulfulness.

As the New York Times wrote in a feature about the more emotionally harder-hitting films this year:
A well-made bummer can be a beautiful thing, and while many countries have distinguished histories in the genre, none currently outdo Japan when it comes to outdo Japan when it comes to malaise and depression.
One of the more quietly devastating films in the lineup is Japan’s Tragedy. Directed by Masahiro Kobayashi and sharing the concept of the 1953 work of art, A Japanese Tragedy, the film focuses on an elderly father (played by  legendary Akira Kurosawa actor Tatsuya Nakadai), who while pain stricken by the death of his wife must cope with terminal illness. His son, who suffered major losses in the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, remains lost emotionally and struggles to aid his father in recovery. Through his own affliction, the father tries to help his son one last time, deciding it best if he were allowed to die.

Shot mostly in black and white, the gravity of the themes and anguish of the characters are palpable and timely. In the tsunami that struck the northeastern Japan, some say “Japan’s elderly were hardest hit by the crisis” and even over two years later are displaced from their homes and not getting the care they need. When BAFICI first screened Japan’s Tragedy, they called the film “a profound analysis of the human condition and its unpredictable derivations” and noted that the titular tragedy is never pinpointed, stressing “the imprecision of that discomfort that afflicts Japan”. This silent yet pertinent theme is beautifully, painfully illuminated in Japan’s Tragedy.

Another powerful story is the documentary Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story. After being exposed to its language, culture, and history by her elementary school teacher, Taylor developed a love for Japan, ultimately taking part in the Japanese government’s Japan Exchange Teaching Programme (JET), which supports non-native Japanese to teach English in Japan. Tragically, Taylor is lost to the tsunami, but her life and legacy--shown through pictures, home videos, and heartwarming personal accounts within the film--offers a sense of hope that can only come by following one’s dreams.

Today the devastation from the tsunami can still be felt by the families of the 19,000 people dead or missing in Tohoku and the hundreds of thousands displaced, many still without permanent homes. Amidst slow recovery there are pleas to not forget those affected and still suffering. Live Your Dream shows us that even through loss, the memories we leave behind can never be forgotten.

For the JAPAN CUTS screening of Live Your Dream Taylor’s father and the documentary’s director will be on hand to introduce the film and take part in a Q&A it afterwards. Knowing many JET participants and hoping to apply for the program in the future, I see this film as a testament to Taylor and her family’s resilience. It’s a very moving portrayal and inspires people that despite everything one should never give up on their dreams.

Touching on similar themes, JAPAN CUTS presents the North American premiere of DOCUMENTARY OF AKB48: Show must go on. Japan’s pop music phenomenon AKB48, which boasts nearly 100 members, finds ways to give back to those in need in the months after 3/11. With some members hailing from Sendai (the largest city in the Tohoku region), the group tours the area and establishes the “A Project for Someone”, where they donate funds to the Tohoku region.

With three of JAPAN CUTS’ 24 feature films this year focusing on 3/11, it is evident the impact the devastation continues to have on Japan, from hardship to hope (related: Japan Society maintains regular updates of the recovery work funded by the Japan Earthquake Relief Fund). These films offer an opportunity to immerse oneself in the heartrending, often painful, but ultimately transforming stories that come from those experiencing and ultimately overcoming tragedy.

--Susan Berhane

Taylor Anderson and friend.

Images: (Top) DOCUMENTARY OF AKB48 No flower without rain © 2012 AKS Inc. / TOHO CO., LTD. / AKIMOTO YASUSHI, Inc. / North River Inc. / NHK Enterprises, Inc.  All Rights Reserved. (Bottom) Live Your Dream: The Taylor Anderson Story © 2012 Global Film Network All rights reserved.