The Japanese art world, the flesh, the devil

Modern art has always been widely discussed. We all know some people who claim they could have done the same (maybe even you said it; the Tate saved you their best wall). There are also those who get their kicks out of an abandoned pair of glasses sitting on the ground. This debate being nowhere near its end, let’s just agree to never agree and mutually concede one simple thing: in the contemporary art world, Japan is a UFO.

For all the Jeff Koonses and Damien Hirsts on the artsy planet, for all the prattle and tattle that come with their kind, none came closer, and with such a truly sincere momentum from the soul, to the original, fundamental question…WTF? And we love it, obviously, since we keep asking for more. Let’s use the “Yayoi Kusama: in infinity” exhibition at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (starts this month, check it out) as an excuse to look into some of the crazy stuff.

Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation #2, Photograph, 1966.
Yayoi Kusama, Accumulation #2, Photograph, 1966.

In fact, Kusama is a great starting point (or dot?) for her vocation started with hallucinations. And that was even before settling in 1970s New York, which as we all know, came with its deal of psychotropics. But no, little Yayoi began seeing the world in dots and colours as a child, and it might have had something to do with her tyrannical creators. After witnessing her father’s numerous infidelities, she developed a profound distaste for the male organ and sex in general. This lead to the chaste birth of her “obliteration” concept in which she overwhelms her anxiety by surrounding herself with endless dot-covered phalluses. Fighting obsession through repetition… might work.

Of course, Kusama-sama is neither the only nor the first Japanese artist to pull the poor unblemished (but oh so willing) spectator into her inner disorder. Nobuyoshi Araki’s first book of photographs, Sentimental Journey, was a documented album of his honeymoon in 1971 featuring pictures of his wife having an orgasm. Years later, he photographed her in a hospital bed, then in her coffin. If those shots didn’t fail to alarm the self-righteous at the time, what should we say about his famous photographs of nude young women in bondage? Araki (who plays on the consonance with the English word “anarchy”) surely doesn’t care about what you think: “I hate perfection. I mix beauty and crude, sex and death, desire and repulsion, and that is why I am clearly superior to everyone else.”

Nobuyoshi Araki
Nobuyoshi Araki

Though all the Kusamas and Yoko Onos artistic views have flourished throughout the make-love-not-war peace-pusher seventies, Japan has been known to possess an impressively fertile tradition of deviant and sometimes brutal sexual practices for a very long time. Yes, Araki brought bondage back to cool, and everyone knows what to expect with an octopus around, but did you know about the fetish for severed limbs? (Just to name one.)

Now drop the offended act and let go of your priest emergency contact, and check out the 1814 woodcut The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife. The subject might be fishy in many different ways, it is still by the great Hokusai. Do you believe me now when I say it is art? Long before the missionaries sailed to Japan to inspire some good old Christian shame, the Japanese were quite unrestrained sex-wise and, on the whole, fancied to associate it with death – the other essential issue of existence.

Makoto Aida, Blender, 2001. Acrylic on canvas, 114 x 82.9 in. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Takahashi Collection
Makoto Aida, Blender, 2001. Acrylic on canvas, 114 x 82.9 in. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Takahashi Collection

This concern for pleasure throughout the ephemeral kept being a hot topic in the Land of the Rising Sun (another transient beauty), and a source of gasps, awe, and tickles for the intrigued Western public. Talented younger artists (Makoto Aida, Takato Yamamoto, Yasuyuki Nishio and many many more) emerged in Japan and followed the path set by their elders toward exploration of sexual trauma, a mix between pop culture and tradition, crudeness and intellectualism. One thing is certain: with Japanese contemporary art, you will never get bored.

What now? You can keep the modern art debate alive by learning more about the Art of the 20th Century, or fish for some shunga (the Japanese erotic woodcuts) in Ukiyo-e, at Parkstone Publishing.

By Capucine Panissal.

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