Pop artist’s view of childhood nostalgia

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Pop artist’s view of childhood nostalgia

There is something undeniably “Japanese” about the works of Yoshitomo Nara.
As one of the most influential Japanese artists to represent the pop art movement of the ’90s, Nara’s drawings of little children who are seemingly vulnerable and innocent, reveal an aspect of Japanese culture that obsesses over “cuteness.”
On the other hand, the distorted features of children’s faces ― slanted eyes, animal-child heads, elongated arms ― in his exhibit often pose a disturbing metaphor of Japan’s controlled and increasingly hybrid society.
In Nara’s works the faces of children often pose an ambivalent state of mind; it’s hard to guess whether the characters are upset or happy, whether their expressions are real or they are simply pretending to whine to look cute. It’s hard to tell humans from animals, females from males, innocents from evildoers.
But most of all, Nara’s works pose a typical model of contemporary art in Japan, one of the few art scenes in the world that embrace pop culture in the realm of high art. Except for a few celebrities like Andy Warhol, it’s not easy to name a contemporary artist whose works sell like hotcakes in museum shops. Yet in Nara’s exhibit, one of the most crowded rooms of the exhibition tends to be the museum’s gift shop, which sells T-shirts and bags printed with images of the artist’s characters. In the Seoul exhibit, a gaggle of teenaged giirls swarmed into the gallery on the opening day, taking pictures of the artist’s works with their phone cameras.
Yet the overpowering sensibility of the artist’s works in his first solo exhibit in Korea at the Rodin Gallery, titled “From the Depth of My Drawer,” is that it stimulates nostalgia for our childhood memories, or what the artist compares to “the experience of looking into an old drawer.”
“Seoul House,” a temporary house in the gallery built out of rough patches of wood, is designed in the style of an old cabin in a way that enables visitors to freely walk around to discover the artist’s sketches and doodles hidden throughout the rooms.
The nostalgic sensibility of the exhibit owes itself to the background of the artist, whose works are based on his childhood memories of time spent in a peaceful countryside home in Aomori prefecture. The works also reveal the cultural influences of the artist, who spent his youth listening to punk music that celebrates rebelliousness, an aspect that also appears frequently in his characters. A picture of a cute little girl holding a banner that says “No Nukes” became Nara’s trademark.
Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the exhibit is that it taps into the horror and strangeness of reality that is evident in the humor of Japanese pop culture.
In “Hula Hula Garden,” the artist has deliberately arranged his installation so that visitors can only “peak in” to the closed room full of small dolls and plastic flowers sprouting from the room’s cedar floor through the holes that are made on each side of the cube. The scene depicts three girls lying on the floor to play hide and seek. Yet the experience of peaking in on children playing through the holes leaves a strangely perverted and unpleasant aftertaste for visitors.
Overall, the exhibit is filled with girlish fantasy, laced with dark humor and mixed comments about humanity and innocence. In the end, though, it seems the works are a bit redundant.

by Park Soo-mee

“From the Depth of My Drawer” runs through Aug. 21. There will be an artist’s talk in the international conference room of the Samsung Insurance building in Taepyeongno tomorrow at 2 p.m. For more information call 02-2259-7781.
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