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.