Japan Supernatural

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ (AGNSW) new Sydney International Art Series ‘Japan Supernatural’ is the first exhibition of its kind in Australia, showcasing more than 180 works from over three centuries of Japanese art. It's a captivating exhibition based around the ‘spiritual,' materialising the paranormal and the mystical. Yet the exhibition’s reliance on superstar names like Takashi Murakami to pull crowds suggests a need to engage with Japan in less superficial ways.

Dimmed lights and a sky of paper lanterns at the entrance ‘Japan Supernatural’ demarcates the crossing of thresholds. While these immersive elements transport visitors into the metaphysical realms of Japanese folklore, they are also part of an anthropological curatorial approach, clearly evoking notions of the ‘traditional’ – a loaded concept ineluctably tied to the equally slippery idea of ‘authenticity.’ Such theatrical features invite skepticism around the sensationalisation of Asian Art in Australia and was a concern unfortunately confirmed with the inclusion of art superstar Takashi Murakami, whose works have dominated the marketing of the exhibition.

Murakami’s theory of ‘super-flat’ was first coined in 2001, writing that Japanese ‘society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two dimensional,’ reflected in the pictorial surface and in contemporary Japanese culture that, to Murakami, was preoccupied with empty consumerism.

However, nearly twenty years on, how significant is ‘super-flat’ to an Australian audience? Specifically, how is it relevant under the framework of this particular exhibition? Is it a commentary on the loss of spirituality and tradition amongst Japanese capitalism?

Over the decades, as Murakami has developed a cohesive, marketable brand and aesthetic, his work has become largely homogeneous. When he had first emerged in the 1990s, his work was a biting post-modern critique and subversion of tradition, a solid rhetorical analysis of Japan’s self-image. Today, his visually-satiating mega-murals read merely as affirmative pop art. In an exhibition entirely based around Japanese culture, his work is subsumed by the very essentialisation and homogeneity he had initially challenged twenty years ago, exemplifying how difference can be easily transformed into cultural commodity.

The mural that cost AGNSW a mysterious ‘seven-figure sum’ is Japan Supernatural: Vertiginous After Staring at the Empty World Too Intensely, I Found Myself Trapped in the Realm of Lurking Ghosts and Monsters (2019), which is ten metres long and three metres tall. Based on Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s 1847 nippondaemon, a central feline spirit is surrounded by nekomata (dancing cats) and samurai soldiers. These symbols are based off Edo period (1603–1868) folklore. According to historians Carol Gluck and Marc Steinberg, the Japanese Edo booms of the 1980s and 1990s in art identified the Edo period as ‘the site of the lost-but-not-forgotten authentic Japan … the regeneration of Japanese tradition.’ By using Edo period imagery it may be argued that Murakami contributes to what sociologist Yoshino Kosaku identified as nihonjinron-ism in 1992, a fixation on the essentialist notions of national culture in Japan, or as Kosaku writes, ‘an excessive emphasis on Japanese peculiarities, can ironically have the unintended consequences of strengthening cultural nationalism.’

A number of Japanese cultural critics such as Yoshiko Shimada, Azuma Hiroki and Yoshitaka Mori have raised concern with Murakami’s turn tonihonjinron-ism, as early as 2001, asserting that Murakami’s works may exacerbate the simplification of Japanese culture to satiate a Westerner’s fascination with ‘exotic’ Japanese subculture. In Mori’s words, ‘the concept of ‘superflat,’ ‘Japan,’ ‘Japanese,’ ‘Japanese culture’ and ‘Japaneseness’ are all absolutely essentialised as a homogenous set of values and art simultaneously set up as an international commodity to be consumed by overseas consumers.’ Considering these caveats, the AGNSW’s decision to include not just one large Murakami, but two, must be interrogated. Murakami’s bombastic works, dominating such enormity of space, threatens to flatten the entire exhibition.

Indeed, his other mural, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow (2014) which is twenty-five metres long, shares a room with a number of 1700s ukiyo-e prints. On one side of the room, these prints are all densely packed, presented in a maze-like construction, whilst Murakami’s mural is brightly lit and occupies an entire wall, to the disappointing effect of completely dwarfing the detailed, intricate prints. Some prints were presented four to one wall, making it difficult to move amongst crowds, so that it was more likely for visitors to give one desultory glance or dismiss them entirely.

Meanwhile, Murakami’s enormous room was placed adjacent to works by newer artists like Miwa Yanagi and Fuyuko Matsui whose quieter, sensitive photographic and video works created poetic counterpoints. Matsui’s series of paintings, including Joining the conversion (2011), takes on a political inflection, as the wall texts states, ‘although her exacting paintings reference Japanese traditions, her images present the cumulative weight of life’s small pains, particularly in the contemporary lives of women in Japan.’ Matsui began this series in 2004 reconsidering Buddhist paintings of the Kamakura period (1185–1333), which were designed to eliminate carnal lust from monks by presenting decaying female bodies, ‘a representation of women’s bodies that Matsui finds abhorrent.’ Matsui’s works did not merely replicate tradition for the sake of aesthetic, but rather seemed to be actively developing upon ‘tradition’ by commenting on it in a clearer way than Murakami.

This review was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 50, 2020

Japan Supernatural
Until 8 March 2020
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

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