Sunday, January 11, 2015

Delight in the Details: A Closer Look at Japan Society's ‘Garden'

Manabu Ikeda's Foretoken.

Whether diabolical or divine, details in art capture (and sometimes overwhelm) the imagination, and can transform a single instant into an hours-long adventure of discovery.

A prime example of this is early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch's masterpiece Garden of Earthly Delights. According to Taschen’s recently released Hieronymus Bosch: Complete Works, the piece is "populated with grotesque scenes of fantastical creatures succumbing to all manner of human desire, fantasy, and angst… alongside traditional hybrids of man and beast, such as centaurs, and mythological creatures such as unicorns, devils, dragons, and griffins, we also encounter countless mixed creatures freely invented by the artist."

Bosch's thematic complexity, compositional density and artistic playfulness inspired the title of Japan Society Gallery's current exhibition Garden of Unearthly Delights, which showcases three Japanese masters of their craft, or takumi: Manabu Ikeda, Hisashi Tenmyouya, and the collective teamLab, all of whom are creating what the New York Times calls "Japanese art 2.0." 

In the artists' works, "the past, the present, and the future collide creating hallucinatory visions like The Garden of Earthly Delights," writes Director of Japan Society Gallery and exhibition co-curator Miwako Tezuka in the catalogue. "Just as Bosch did, the three Japanese artists allegorically depict urgent cultural and social issues in a manner informed by their contemporary environment—in their case, today’s world of spectacle an information overload."

Spectacle indeed. Though only showing 25 works, Garden of Unearthly Delights encompasses a vast treasure trove of stimulating and subtle wonder, the antithesis to the blaring lights of Times Square or the constant bombardment of advertising from our TVs, mobile devices and almost every surface we encounter on our commutes and travels. 

In honor of the Garden of Unearthly Delights closing today, here are some surprising, thoughtful and/or humorous details visitors may have missed.


Manabu Ikeda is known for the painstaking detail of his work, which often takes more than a year to complete.The exhibition's other co-curator Laura J. Mueller writes, "Ikeda, through the medium of his meticulously executed pen-and-ink drawings, creates dreamlike worlds on his canvas that visually explicate some of the major dilemmas that we face today--such as climate chaos and the resulting natural disasters--questioning mankind's role in both causation and correction."

Meltdown, pictured above, was created in response to Japan's 3/11 earthquake and tsunami. The waste spewing, ice-encrusted industrial plant hovering over an idyllic landscape is a stark commentary of mankind's impact on nature and the potential (or actuality) of cataclysm. To further heighten the tension, pure white silhouettes (a common motif throughout Ikeda's work) of animals appear in and out of their natural habitat, oblivious to the looming man-made disaster.


A giant snake rising in the mist and toadstools buried in the trees dominate Ikeda's Mountain and Clouds, but take a magnifying glass to the bottom right corner to find apparitions haunting the trees. Are these kodama, tree spirits from Japanese folklore, or is this an homage to Japan's tragic Aokigahara forest at the base of Mt. Fuji, also known as "Suicide Forest"?


Visitors entranced by the electric waves of Ikeda's impressionistic and relatively straightforward Imprint may have missed a barely visible torii, the iconic gateways to Japan's Shinto shrines, submerged in the darkest blue of the center stillness. 


A tiny bee and spider hitch a ride on the back of Ikeda's vegetative Grass Mantis.


Some visitors have said they spent hours scouring every inch of Ikeda's breathtaking 780 square foot Foretoken, pictured in full at the top of this article. In this work Ikeda cleverly reverses the kineticism (and perhaps symbolism) of Hokusai's famous The Great Wave at Kanagawa, an obvious source of inspiration. Hokusai's titular wave not only threatens three fishing boats with its awesome, all-consuming momentum, but dwarves the static and typically dominating Mt. Fuji in the background. In Ikeda's work, Mt. Fuji is nowhere to be seen, and the wave, literally frozen in time, is brimming with life, from birth to playful specters of death, as seen in the details above, as well as countless scenes of humorous, imaginative invention.


In not one but two places, skeletons enjoy the aftermath of a plane crash. Note the silhouetted vultures in the second detail enjoying the show.



Homages to icons of Japanese mythology abound like like this dragon and fisherman landing a giant koi (carp) using koinobori as bait.


And finally (but by no means completely) in terms of Ikeda's detail, Tezuka explains the ubiquitous hovering spirits, above, and their poignant meaning for the artist: "The deity riding the flying animal is chanting a Buddhist sutra, in this case 'Namo Amitābhāya' (in Japanese, 南無阿弥陀仏 or Namu Amida Butsu), literally meaning 'Homage to Infinite Light.' There are several such figures in Foretoken, and Ikeda has said that at least one of them was his grandmother when she passed away."


Hisashi Tenmyouya "appropriates imagery and creative techniques from traditional Japanese art, reinterpreting them in a shockingly contemporary manner with references to subjects such as modern warfare and street violence," writes Mueller. "Taking cues from Buddhist themes and imagery, Tenmyouya imbues his art (whether intentionally or subconsciously) with meditative and religious meaning."

Tenmyouya’s iconoclastic Neo Thousand Armed Kannon, above, painted shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S., shows the beloved Buddhist goddess of mercy with her arms splayed behind her, each hand holding a menacing and militaristic gun or knife. Some have seen this piece as purely sacrilegious. But upon closer inspection, two hands at her chest hold something different, almost as an offering: a grenade in her left, and a can of spray paint in her right. Does this represent a possibility for art amidst overwhelming threat of violence? Does it symbolize an imbalance between destructive and creative forces in our world? Is it implying that art is dangerous—for the artist, for the viewer, for the establishment?


Much has been written about the "anti-Zen" garden in Tenmyouya's installation Rhyme, especially how there is no blood spilled in the epic mirrored battle scenes on the wall. The blood, however, has pooled amongst the skull-embossed rocks below, in the form of crimson sand, which was carefully, almost meditatively raked by the artist days before the exhibition opened. Is this anti-Zen? Or has the artist found an ultra-Zen method to process violence in art and life?

Another detail that may have been overlooked: only one of the dozens and dozens of yakuza-like warriors in the painting has eyes, and, to eerie effect, they are the same shimming goldleaf color of the background.


Finally, the most important detail of the exhibition: all of the people who came to Japan Society Gallery to explore and enjoy Garden of Unearthly Delights. Above are 25 of the hundreds of Instagram selfies taken by people in teamLab's immersive and interactive Flowers and People installation created exclusively for the exhibition.

The show may be over, but enjoy it one last time (or in perpetuity) with this video walkthrough brought to you by Japan Society Gallery.

--Shannon Jowett



Images (top-to-bottom): Manabu Ikeda, (b. 1973), Foretoken, 2008; pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on boards; 72 x 132 in; collection of Sustainable Investor Co., Ltd. © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Manabu Ikeda, Meltdown, 2013; acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board, 48 x 48 in.; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colonel Rex W. & Maxine Schuster Radsch Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.24. Manabu Ikeda, Mountains and Clouds, 2012; pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 24 x 27 3/5 in; Private Collection, Tokyo (courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo), © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Photo by Kei Miyajima. Manabu Ikeda, Imprint, 2011; pen, acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 24 x 36 in.; Collection of Mr. Harvey Sawikin and Mrs. Andrea Krantz; © Manabu Ikeda, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, photo by Kei Miyajima. Manabu Ikeda, Grass Mantis (Kusakamakiri), 2004; acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board; 9 1/16 x 11 7/16 in.; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, John H. Van Vleck Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.25. Hisashi Tenmyouya, (b. 1966), Neo Thousand Armed Kannon, 2002; acrylic, wood; 89 ½ x 68 5/16 in.; Takahashi Collection, Tokyo; © Hisashi Tenmyouya, courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Hisashi Tenmyouya, Rhyme, 2012; acrylic paint, gold leaf on wood; inkjet print on paper, mounted on wood; each 49 7/8 x 118 1/8 in.; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colonel Rex W. & Maxine Schuster Radsch Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.23.1-.2a-b; fiberglass reinforced polyester, calcium carbonate; variable dimensions; Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison, John H. Van Vleck Endowment Fund purchase, 2013.23.3a-g; installation photograph by Richard P. Goodbody. teamLab (est. 2001), United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World (detail), 2013; interactive digital work, 8 screens; endless, 9:16; sound by Hideaki Takahashi; courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery; images via Instagram. teamLab, Flowers and People—Gold and Dark, 2014; digital work, endless; courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery; surrounding Ever Blossoming Life—Dark, 2014, and Ever Blossoming Life—Gold, 2014, both digital works, endless, courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery; images via Instagram.

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