Sebastian Masuda is a tastemaker and leader of Harajuku culture. Originating from its namesake neighborhood in Tokyo, Harajuku culture cannot be easily defined, as it is a conglomeration of youth cultures that each expresses their ideas, in-group attitude, and what members of the group consider to be important by their mode of dress, and that co-exist within the Harajuku ecosystem. These groups at various points in time included: the Take-no-ko-zoku (late 1970s/early 1980s) where youth were seen dancing to disco sounds emanating from their boom boxes; Gothic Lolita (1990s~), where girls dressed in frilly silk and lacy fashions reminiscent of European rococo attire with a hint of Addams-Family-goth; and Cyber (late 1990s), where ravers dressed in futuristic science-fiction styles. The sensational kawaii subculture (kawaii is the Japanese word for "cute") and its various incarnations is perhaps now most recognized as representing Harajuku culture throughout the world. Known for its explosive bursts of color, and its appropriation and interpretation of a first world conspicuous consumption attitude, it has become mainstream to the point of being adapted (not without its own sets of essentializing problems, of course) by the likes of Gwen Stefani in Harajuku Girls and Nicki Minaj with her idea of Harajuku Barbie.
Masuda has seen almost all that is Harajuku, and most certainly lives to tell. Having worked in avant-garde theater and art, he has been based in Harajuku since the 1990s, first opening his wildly popular 6%DOKIDOKI store in 1995. Since then, he has continued to serve as an original ambassador for Harajuku culture (for example, acting as concept and artistic director to Kyary Pamyu Pamyu), and has now finally made his debut in New York with his first solo art installation, presenting his own interpretation of the Seven Deadly Sins.
In Colorful Rebellion~Seventh Nightmare (2014), Masuda's installation takes up almost the entirety of the project space. Upon entering the room, the visitor notices a vintage bed. Surrounding the bed are the various zones of sin: desire; the future; delusion; fate; wound; and reality. Each zone features wall panels of protruding objects of visual material culture layered, glued, taken apart, and re-mixed. While this might appear to be visually chaotic, the experience of the work is strangely calming, as the viewer feels cocooned by the tonal layers of color and texture. The work is apparently a self-portrait of sorts, as Masuda has interpreted six mortal sins he has committed or experienced. Masuda also mentions that the work is meant to be experienced by one person at a time, lying down on the bed and letting the visual explosion of color flood the viewer's senses. In this way, the seventh sin is left for to the viewer to interpret, requiring the viewer to complete the experience of the work.
Art is created with imagination and skill and...expresses important ideas or feelings. Here, Masuda has attempted to make evident the process by which people are "attracted to, and become dependent on, kawaii things." However, through the title of the installation, Colorful Rebellion, Masuda also appears to hint at the revolutionary possibility of positive action through this very process of developing dependence. In this way, Masuda--using an aesthetic that is reminiscent of Mike Kelley's stuffed animal installations and Yayoi Kusama's colorful infinity patterns--represents a uniquely Japanese vision of culture-as-revolution. But in doing so, he provides his viewers with the courage to celebrate and interpret culture as a fantastical, but very real, form of free expression…which is universally applicable and extremely powerful.
Does this all sound too theoretical for you? If so, I would encourage you to read this Tumblr post (with 2,405 comments and counting) from someone reacting to Masuda's installation.
Sebastian Masuda's Colorful Rebellion~Seventh Nightmare is at Kianga Ellis Projects until March 29, 2014. The installation will be activated at specific times with performances during Armory Arts Week--details are available here.
© Sebastian Masuda. Images courtesy of Kianga Ellis Projects; photography by GION.
Ai Wei Wei is currently (yet again) a trending topic. On February 16, 2014, Dominican-born artist, Maximo Caminero was arrested at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) after smashing one of Ai's painted urns from Colored Vases to pieces. Caminero has alternately said that his action protests PAMM's choice of displaying international (rather than local) artists, and that his performance shows solidarity with Ai's dissident stance. Apprehended by police, Caminero was charged with criminal mischief and released after posting bail.
Here's an installation view of Ai's work:
Here is an example of a painting by Caminero:
Ai himself is no stranger to run-ins with the law. Undertaking performative acts that are deeply steeped in political messages, Ai almost appears to be challenging the authorities to censor him or restrict his activities. For example, after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai became a vocal critic, calling for an acknowledgment that a lack of solid infrastructure may have lead to the increased number of school children deaths in the area. In 2009, he was allegedly beaten by the Chinese police in Sichuan while trying to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, another Chinese activist.
With respect to the incident at PAMM, Ai has been reported as stating that he does not agree with Caminero's strategy: "You cannot stand in front of a classical painting and kill somebody and say that you are inspired" by the artist.
At issue, here, is whether what is legally defined as an act of criminal mischief can be considered an artistic act with a political message that is worthy of protection. Under Florida law, a person commits criminal mischief if "he or she willfully and maliciously injures or damages by any means any real or personal property belonging to another, including...the placement of graffiti thereon or other acts of vandalism thereto." Therefore, according to this specific definition, just as much as Banksy cannot paint one of his iconic graffiti works on the side of a building he does not own if he intends to do harm, Caminero is similarly not permitted to break one of Ai's painted urns out of intended spite. However, Ai drawing a Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty urn or smashing a Han dynasty urn to pieces and creating artwork out of such actions is permissible, as long as Ai rightfully owns the urns. This being the case even if Ai's very act of purchasing and defacing cultural antiquities in the name of creating new art is impudent, co-optive and destructive.
It will be interesting to see whether criminal charges against Caminero continue to be pressed. Upon a plain language reading of the law, it appears that Caminero most likely committed criminal mischief, unless there is not enough evidence that he maliciously intended to damage Ai's work. In my view, though, the situation is a bit more nuanced than just proving whether a criminal act was committed. If I were PAMM's in-house lawyer (and of course, I'm not, and views in this post and throughout this blog are my own, made in my personal capacity, and not the views of any institutions with which I am affiliated), I think it would be important to discuss with PAMM's management the various risks involved in pressing criminal charges against an artist from the local community. While what Caminero did was disrespectful to the exhibited artwork, does it serve the interests of the general public to prosecute criminal charges? Would it not make more sense to hear Caminero's thoughts, identify his reasons for his actions, have him issue a public statement or apology--ideally, voluntarily-- and then document the event in a legally and art historically appropriate manner? Simultaneously, management should alert the insurance company that was covering the display of Ai's Coloured Vases, have an appraiser determine the value of the damaged urn (in relation to the composite whole), and make Ai financially whole.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is a well-curated group exhibition of work by contemporary Chinese artists from the 1980s to the present. Choosing to use, or focus on, the medium of ink painting--at times for its formalistic qualities, and at other times to signify the long history of the traditional art form--these artists create thought-provoking works with a wonderful variety in output.
Some artists appear to deliberately use the traditional medium in a confrontational manner by depicting modern imagery. An example of this is seen to the left: Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo (1995), by Ai Weiwei (b. 1957), perhaps one of China's best-known contemporary artists. Displayed in a gallery even before the exhibition space, Ai has branded an ancient Western Han jar with the ubiquitous Coca-Cola logo, alluding to the complex nature of modern China as it moves on its path towards globalization.
Another such artist is Yang Jiechang (b. 1956). Yang's Crying Landscape (2002) is a set of five triptychs in which he paints beautifully detailed man-made structures, alluding to a portrayal of modern society and its progress. While depicting structures that appear infallible in grandeur, however, Yang implies that these interventions are artificial and thereby have the possibility of being toppled.
Other artists interpret the traditional medium using newer media. For example, Yang Yongliang (b. 1980) uses the horizontal hand scroll format to present a traditional-seeming Chinese landscape of mountains with pines and lapping oceans in View of Tide (2008). Up close, however, one notices that Yang's medium is photography. Yang has printed a composite photograph where the mountains reveal themselves to be skeletal crags of high-rise buildings and the pine trees are actually power lines. As a format, ink hand scrolls have been used to tell a story as the narrative progressed through its unfurling. Here, Yang tells a story of how the effects of industrialization have affected the venerated Chinese landscape.
Reminiscent of German artist, EVOL, Duan Jianyu (b. 1970) appropriates some of China's best-recognized landscape images and paints them onto small pieces of cardboard in Beautiful Dream, 2, 3, 4, 7 (2008). Using a silhouette style, Duan signifies how trivialized some of the most iconic images of China are, especially because she uses the quotidian material of cardboard as her canvas. In doing so, however, she also succeeds in creating small intimate scenes that make good use of the texture of the recycled cardboard.
The highlights of the show were, perhaps as expected, the works by Xu Bing (b. 1955). Known for his expansive works that examine the significance of the written word, the selection of Xu's iconic works proved to be the show's climactic end. In the early 1990s, Xu had begun to experiment with the representation of English words in Chinese calligraphic forms. Known as "square word calligraphy", Xu created a system by which each English word was composed into a Chinese calligraphic-like square structure. Xu allows non-Chinese-character-readers the opportunity to understand that each Chinese character represents not just a sound, but also a concept, and that each character is composed of different parts. Seen to the left is a detail from Xu Bing's 'colophon' to The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats (1999), a pair of hanging scrolls on which Xu has transcribed the Yeats poem using square word calligraphy.
Xu's Book from the Sky (ca. 1987-1991) fills up the last room of the exhibition. As an installation of hand-printed books and scrolls that cover the ceiling and the walls, the printed material contains invented Chinese characters that cannot be interpreted even by a Chinese-character-reader. The characters were created by Xu and then hand carved into wooden printing blocks to create the printed material. The mass of black marks on the page cannot be decoded, posing questions about the linkage between language and culture.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until April 6, 2014.
James Turrell: A Retrospective at The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is an expansive show featuring works by James Turrell from over five decades. Using a variety of techniques, Turrell has attempted to elucidate the "seeing that occurs within"; in creating an environment where reality collaborates with the visitor's subjective perception, what Turrell refers to as the "thing-ness of light…itself becomes a revelation." LACMA's show spans light projections (such as Cross Corner Projections where Turrell projects light onto corners creating the semblance of objects, Space Division Constructions where light creates a sense of surface across an actual opening, and Wedgeworks that use architecture to frame light), prints, drawings and models of his Roden Crater project, holograms, as well as immersive environments. I had the wonderful opportunity to experience three immersive environments (Light Reignfall, Dark Matters and Breathing Light)--each contemplative, revelatory and mind-blowing in their own ways.
Light Reignfall (2011) is essentially akin to an Aten Reign (2013) on fast forward for one. Not for claustrophobes, the work is from the Perceptual Cell series, which are enclosed structures that provide single-viewer experiences. From the outside, the structure looks like a globular MRI apparatus. A white lab-coated attendant asked me to choose between a "hard" or "soft" program (I chose the former), and handed me a very detailed (but extremely comprehensive and well-written!) waiver to sign. Having taken my shoes and spectacles off, and given a "panic" button lanyard and headphones, I was slid into the chamber. In the next 12 minutes, a light program enfolded before my eyes, while a constant noise emanated through the headphones. I initially panicked, as I perceived the intensely hued blankets of light layer onto my eyes like multi-colored blindfolds. Eventually, however, I settled into letting the pulsating light wash over me. While I kept my eyes open at all times, the experience of seeing in the Perceptual Cell was similar to the experience of closing one's eyes really tightly and seeing colorful bursts--a phenomenon that is apparently known as phosphenes. Strangely enough, the experience felt extremely short, and of course, singular and unique.
After coming out of Light Reignfall, I experienced an entirely different kind of perception experiment through Dark Matters (2011). This work is from Turrell's Dark Space series (which Turrell describes as facilitating the difficulty of
"[differentiating] between seeing from the inside and seeing from the outside"). Directed by a wonderful guide with a calming voice, I was led through a snaky unlit corridor into a pitch black room and asked to sit down. After what seemed like a few minutes of staring into complete nothingness, my eyes adjusted to focus on a faint glow far off in the distance. Contemplative yet still unnerving, the experience allowed me to focus on how my eyes adjust to the environment around me.
The last work I experienced was Breathing Light (2013), an entire room. In fact, you need to line up in an external corridor, then wait in a corral area, and then ritualistically enter the temple to light that is the work. It's a Ganzfeld--the German term for "entire field"--where being inside the space deprives you of all clues as to any sense of direction or depth. In comparison to the other two immersive works, Breathing Light was extremely calming and peaceful. Having experienced an afternoon of Turrell, I was reminded that Alain de Botton commented in Art as Therapy that Turrell is a "choreographer of experience [we] might have" and not a recorder of an experiences he once had. And master choreographer he most certainly is.
I was reminded that one of Turrell's Skyscapes is installed very close to home. Open during certain afternoons, it's Meeting (1978), created in MoMA PS1 since 1986. A parting image from my experience of the work in 2012:
James Turrell: A Retrospective is on view at LACMA until April 6, 2014.
All images (except Meeting) by Florian Holzherr, courtesy of LACMA
All works © James Turrell
Mori Art Museum's 10th anniversary exhibition, Out of Doubt: Roppongi Crossing 2013, features a diverse group of Japanese artists, and portrays an interpretation of the current state of Japanese artists working today. 29 artists are included, many of whom were born in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was exciting to see artists from much earlier periods also featured, including Akasegawa Genpei (b. 1937), one of the only living artists tried (and unfortunately convicted) for free speech concerns (more on that here), Nakahira Takuma (b. 1938), and Suga Kishio (b. 1944).
Works in the exhibition appeared to reference certain historical moments, modern and post-modern global perspectives, and social awareness of historical events. While varied in mediums, the display of the works often featured the end results of process-based experiments. Each work chosen to represent the artists in the exhibition effectively helped the viewer to navigate such larger questions as 'what is art' and 'what role(s) should art play in society.' Seems rather heavy, but the exhibited works themselves often displayed levity, wit, and absurdity.
Take for example, Kazama Sachiko's Nonhuman Crossing (2013) (detail below). Working in the traditional medium of woodblock prints, Kazama creates arresting images of contemporary Japan in manga-like detail. Nonhuman Crossing features Shibuya scramble, one of Tokyo's busiest intersections (photographed at left). Kazama depicts modern-day individuals willfully participating in a world of control and surveillance--humans are policed not just by external forces such as the military, the police and structured religion, but also by their own willingness to participate in the virtual reality of the internet. Kazama seems to imply that participating in such a realm makes us feel safe while simultaneously being spied upon.
Featured in the same room as Kazama were paintings by Nakamura Hiroshi (b. 1932), active in the 1960s. Resonating with Kazama's work, Nakamura's paintings also evidence a concern with top-down control and limitations on civic freedoms. Pictured below is The Sacred Fire Relay from 1964, the year of the Tokyo Olympics. In preparation to be in the international spotlight, Tokyo had rapidly modernized, perhaps at the risk of forcing its citizens to conform.
Other works directly referenced Japan's recent history from the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Arai Takashi (b. 1978) photographs modern subjects using daguerrotypes, an antiquated photography format. Referring to different, yet equally harrowing moments in Japanese history, images of fishermen from the Fukushima area post-3/11 are exhibited together with photographs that, among others, feature a Japanese fishing boat that was exposed to fallout from U.S. nuclear tests in 1954.
Not all of the works in the exhibition directly reference sociopolitical or historical issues. One of the last works in the exhibition is an installation by Ryui Koji (b. 1976). Ryui is a sculptor that imbues three-dimensional objects with an animistic sense of life and movement. In one portion of an installation entitled HAVE A NICE DAY (Horizon, Untitled, Bachelors, Mirrors, Emoticon) (2013), lumps of clay are wrapped up in ubiquitous smiley-face plastic shopping bags, ready to liquify and wiggle around on readymade IKEA shelves. Simultaneously creepy and playful, these creatures are caught in a suspended moment within a microcosmic universe.
No survey can ever hope to capture the full spectrum of artists working in a region, but this exhibition is thought-provoking and energizing in its variety. While the selection of artists and the particular works exhibited are well curated, perhaps one of the exhibition's strongest qualities is its ability to allow the viewer to contemplate the potential power inherent in art to effect social change.
Out of Doubt: Roppongi Crossing 2013 is up until January 13, 2014.