By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Japanese artist known only as “Mr.” grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, absorbing the pop culture and in particular the manga and anime of that time. He grew enchanted by the “kawaii” (cute) aspects of the big-eyed, long-legged girls featured in those narratives. But he never capitulated completely to the fun and escapist elements of what he saw. He kept one eye on anime, as he says; but he remained mindful of what “kawaii” wasn’t telling him.
The “Live On” exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum devoted to Mr.’s work, marks the first solo exhibit he’s ever had in a U.S. museum. It climaxes with the first piece curator Xiaojin Wu showed me, an immense installation entitled “Give Me Your Wings—Think Different.” Its debris, several thousand discrete objects mashed into an immense pile, overflows. The artist spent a long time collecting them from the streets around his studio.
And the collection sprawls, through the central pile, an enormous mound comprising magazines, comic books, articles of clothing, plastic bags, discarded technology, small objects assembled into a central point—leaves the mind gaping. You could argue that the Japanese have more, or less, street trash, than other countries, and you could argue that the artist’s location, Saitama Prefecture just outside the Tokyo city limits, has more trash than other Japanese locales; but the pieces, and the work, look simultaneously very Japanese and characteristic of any large industrialized city. This is what we throw aside, often without much of a thought.
Embedded in the mound you’ll find video screens with street scenes, tunnel traffic scenes, and shots of a bespectacled fellow who could be the artist himself. His central reference point was the tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, and the subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. The brilliant ugliness of his assemblage echoes the chaos and death which emerged sudden and deadly, from order. Curator Wu says Mr. thought of the whole thing as a “caterpillar,” with the rebirth/rejuvenation metaphor spiked. Such an ugly caterpillar can only produce an ugly, possibly malevolent, butterfly.
Mr.’s canvas works aren’t so brazenly pessimistic, but they work, upon, close inspection, to undercut the cuteness of all those anime ladies. The victorious ninja warrior in “Making Things Right” has two different-colored eyes. A small family lives inside her left eyeball. Bright, happy faces stand out against greyer, muddier backgrounds suggesting street graffiti.
The exhibit also includes “Nobody Dies,” a live-action video about Japanese schoolgirls who fight using toy guns. Actually, Mr. had to give them toy guns, since real guns are almost impossible to obtain in Japan. This did result in some alarm in certain parts of the world, because the action in the film could be mistaken for a school shooting, but that was not the artist’s intention. He handpicked the five young women, designed costumes and props for them, and supervised the entire project. The final film, roughly a half-hour, shows on a loop at the exhibit.
The artist wanted to explore war with “Nobody Dies”—how Japan is forbidden from making war, and how that compares and contrasts with war, and attitudes towards war, in other parts of the world. As always, he’s happy to lay out a flashy and upbeat surface in his works before diligently scratching beneath it. Except for his different thinking when he created “Give Me Your Wings—Think Different.” There, the spew of the street tells its own story. (end)
Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop runs through April 5th, 2015, at Seattle Asian Art Museum, 1400 East Prospect Street at Volunteer Park. For prices and hours call 206.654.3100 or
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.