Beyond Pop

It was a lucky coincidence. A few short days after seeing the Past in Reverse contemporary Asian art show at the Kemper Museum, I heard a segment on Public Radio International’s Studio 360 about notions of “cute.” Interviewers discussed cuteness with sources such as a psychiatrist who has found that we don’t love big eyes just because of their association with puppies; we are, in fact, neurologically wired to say “awww.” Hence the allure of those creepily cute Sad Eye Kid paintings — available at flea markets, estate sales and yard sales near you.

But I didn’t catch that interview. Nor did I catch the interview with the anti-cuteness spokesperson, though I wish I had. As fate would have it, I was driving around only during an interview with Japanese pop-art legend Takashi Murakami, whose adorable, well-designed art and toys have taken the world — the Western world, in particular — by storm, making the artist an international sensation. Murakami has promoted other noteworthy Japanese pop artists, too — Yoshitomo Nara, Chiho Aoshimo and Aya Takano to name only a few. The last of these almost inspired me to get a tattoo, with her fabulous drawings of women doing backbends, their abdomens transforming into horizons of strange worlds.

That said, it’s got to be a serious pain in the ass for contemporary Asian artists who aren’t working in the pop tradition to watch their photography, painting, video and conceptual art fade into the shadow of all that is exportably sweet.

Having seen the astoundingly varied fine art in the Past in Reverse, I couldn’t help but feel that Murakami’s radio comments on Japan’s culture of cuteness conveyed only one small sliver of the truth. Murakami compared Japan to a “Little Boy” — the title of a show he has curated for the Japan Society in New York, as well as the name of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. That made me think about the Kemper’s photographs by Shizuka Yokomizo, a Japanese artist living in London.

There is nothing especially youthful about these photographs. They show people in their own living spaces, each depicting a moment when people have zoned out and forgotten the photographer’s presence. A woman lies on her bed in a dark room, staring peacefully at the ceiling, her hands folded over her chest, while cracks of light come through the blinds behind her. Another woman stares deep into a refrigerator as light from inside pours out onto her. Another sits on a floor, looking down at her own outstretched leg, not really seeing it. Still another appears lost in her own reflection as she pulls back her long hair and looks into a mirror, seemingly past its surface.

In an e-mail interview, Yokomizo told me that she doesn’t see her work as being Asian in particular. “It is something other people may find in my work,” she allows, “but not by myself.” At first, I was with her. The photographer could just as easily have been French as Japanese, from the look of the work itself.

But the premise of the show is that its artists refer to historical Asian media and traditions while putting their own contemporary — and perhaps less regionally influenced — spin on things. In what way was her work doing this? The show’s curator, Betti-Sue Hertz of the San Diego Museum of Art, told me that the “interiority” in Yokomizo’s work ties it to a tradition of Asian portraiture. But there was something else, too. “Here she is working in London,” Hertz says. “But she’s created photos that have the intimacy and closeness of Japanese architecture, and the way she uses screens and light is also sort of Asian.”

Yokomizo helps to clarify how work by the G8 Public Relations group is connected to tradition as well. G8 is a Taiwanese collective made up of a handful of artists and one art critic; it’s based more in modern media, PR machines and technology than in any kind of regional art tradition. The group seeks out people who engage in behavior worthy of publicity and — unbeknownst to these “protagonists” — promotes them.

“We want to find some people who are not professional artists to become professional artists,” explains Jin-Hua, one member of the collective, over the phone. This is a way of confronting and democratizing art institutions.

The first protagonist the group latched onto was an activist — and mailman — by the name of Ke Tsi-Hai who fed his leftovers to stray dogs in an effort to keep them alive at the same time the government was ordering stray dogs to be euthanized. G8 members reacted by talking to restaurant owners who had met Ke Tsi-Hai to figure out where he had left food for dogs. Then they left barbecued ribs in the same spots to re-enact the scenes. Sometimes they were able to photograph feasting dogs, other times only abandoned meat — but they got important Taipei landmarks in the background whenever possible. One of the most intriguing photos depicts dogs eating leftovers in front of a Louis Vuitton boutique.

“We never contact him,” Jin-Hua says of Ke Tsi-Hai. “We just do work for him.”

Like Yokomizo, Jin-Hua is hesitant to call his or G8’s work Asian. “When I do my art, I don’t think about, I’m Taiwanese or Chinese or Asian. I don’t do that,” he says. “I also don’t like to join big shows. Eventually, maybe Americans will get tired of this kind of show. I don’t want people to invite me to do a show because I’m Chinese. I want people to invite me because of my art.”

Hertz, for her part, sees a relationship between G8’s work and traditional Taiwanese “rituals for addressing the powers that be.”

That the tie between these artists and Asian traditions is so subtle as to be undetectable by viewers and artists is part of what makes Hertz’s enterprise unique.

Hertz began her research by contacting Asians whom she had met and asking them who to talk to about art in the communities where they lived. Her goal was to show contemporary Asian art that is important in Asia — and not just big cities in Asia. And yes, she made a conscious decision not to focus on pop art.

“I purposely avoided the pop artists because I feel like we have been seeing a lot of that here,” Hertz says.

So even though Yoshitomo Nara’s books still have a place of honor on my coffee table, I keep thinking back to the last piece I saw as I left Past in Reverse.

It’s by a Korean artist named Yiso Bahc. Called “Wide World Wide,” it’s a light-blue canvas upon which white Korean characters — spelling out the names of little-known places around the globe — form continents on a world map. Tacked on top of where these little-known towns are located, tiny pieces of paper spell out their names in English. It’s a powerfully simple reality check for those who believe that the world has become smaller, that the entire globe is at our fingertips thanks to modern technology. The piece is lit by electric votive candles, in respectful commemoration of the unknown.

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