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Childlike Charm: The Art of Yoshitomo Nara


 

It is probably fair to say that the bestknown and most widely appreciated contemporary Japanese artists today are Yayoi Kusama, Takashi Murakami, and Yoshitomo Nara. All three have not only created a unique aesthetic style and language, but have long transcended the confines of “pure art” and become household names in areas such as crossgenre fusion, pop culture, fashion, literature, and commercial art. Yayoi Kusama is known for a fanatic devotion to her art that sometimes borders on the obsessive, and her works are brimming with dazzling visual images. Takashi Murakami’s oeuvre boasts animation and manga style characters that are colorful, fun, and perfectly in sync with the latest popular trends and fashions. Yoshitomo Nara’s work is in some ways the “warmest,” most approachable of the three, easily touching and fascinating audiences with instantly recognizable images of beautiful simplicity that etch themselves unconsciously into the observer’s mind.

 

Even those of us who do not frequently visit museums, galleries, auctions, or art fairs – a large part of the general public, that is – have likely encountered the work of these three artists, be it in bookstores, cafés, and boutiques, or printed on posters and audio or video merchandize. Yoshitomo Nara holds particular appeal among the younger generations, who are intimately familiar with his designs from items displayed in department stores, such as the doggie radio or Rimowa luggage. Years ago, Nara burst into popularity in China when the protagonist of the Chinese television series “Dwelling Narrowness” received a “Little Pilgrim” doll in one of the show’s episodes. Soon, China was flooded with cheap knockoffs. For the artist, it was painful to see his rights infringed upon on such a grand scale, but for all his indignation and frustration, at the time Nara declared that he simply didn’t have the time or energy to deal with the many imitation products and often crude copies sold without his authorization. However, when rumors surfaced in March 2016 that there were plans to hold an exhibition in Shanghai titled “You Are Not Alone: Experiencing the Works of Yoshitomo Nara,” for which tickets were to be sold a few months down the road, it was too much for the artist. The organizers boasted that they had acquired Nara’s permission for the event, and that they wouldn’t show any of his original artwork – instead, the main focus was to be on selling visitors merchandize featuring the artist’s designs. On his own social media sites, Nara published a statement saying that he had not given his consent to the planned exhibition, and that such an unauthorized event would constitute a serious infringement on his rights as a creative artist.

 

Ironically, the repeated problems with copyright infringements and ubiquitous knockoffs are also the best possible proof of the enduring popularity of, and high demand for, Yoshitomo Nara’s work: a shy and rather introverted artist whose iconic output nonetheless commands a powerful, almost mesmerizing appeal. Previously, his exhibitions in Nagoya, Yokohama, and Seoul all set new visitor records at their respective venues. In March 2016, Nara won one of the three most coveted Asia Arts Awards prizes, awarded by the Asia Society “in recognition of his achievements as an artist and his contributions to the development of Asian art.”

 

The Little Star Dweller

Yoshitomo Nara was born on Dec 5, 1959, into a simple small-town family in Hirosaki, a city in Japan’s Aomori Prefecture. With his parents both busy – his father a civil servant and his mother an office worker – and his two brothers much older than he, Nara was a typical latchkey kid that spent many hours alone, getting used to daydreaming and roaming the fields of his own imagination. The Kanji characters of his name can also be read as “Michi,” which is however a girl’s name and was originally reserved for his older sister, who died in her mother’s womb. The family decided to keep the name for the youngest son, now pronouncing it “Yoshitomo,” a male moniker. Because of his ambiguous name and the fact that as a child he enjoyed “girlish” things and activities, Nara was often mistaken for a little girl when he was growing up. During junior high school he was sent to take judo lessons in an attempt to nurture his masculine side. Nara is on record as saying how he often feels that his dead sibling somehow became a part of him, and that he has always kept a special place in his heart for his older sister. The delicate feelings and empathic attitude reflected in these statements are also strongly mirrored in his later depictions of children, which tend to have a “neutral,” neither particularly male nor female, look.

 

The female pronunciation of his name,“Michi,” reappears in “michinara3,” the artist’s username for numerous social media accounts, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. People have asked Nara point-blank whether the protagonists in his paintings are boys or girls, but the artist is decidedly non-committal on this issue. “All my paintings are portraits of my own inner self, representing a dialogue with my personality. As for the ultimate sources of the images, I can trace them all the way back to memories of my childhood that surface during this inner dialogue.” As an artist and person, Yoshitomo Nara is always true to himself, be it in his artistic style, his individual character, and even the various facets of his everyday life. His approach and attitude were shaped by many formative influences during his adolescence, including Western rock and punk music, but also traditional Japanese ukiyo-e painting. All these influences helped to produce the distinctive appeal of his work, which speaks to people of all ages and cultural backgrounds, and also exerts a considerable influence on contemporary subcultures.
 

 

Aomori Prefecture, where Nara grew up, is famous for its apples, and forms the northern tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island, with Hokkaido lying across the Tsugaru Strait. Nara recalls his childhood days, “I remember that the skies were mostly gray and cloudy when I was a kid, and the weather was very cold. I felt sort of isolated from people and the world in general. I didn’t talk much, but spent a lot of time in my imagination.” Withdrawn and reticent, Nara might have come across as a bit slow, but his head was always full of images and ideas. For these he found an outlet in painting, his greatest natural talent. Immersing himself in music and illustrated books, he learned to communicate with the world through his drawings and paintings, which remain the main channel for validating his existence.

 

After graduating from Hirosaki Senior High School, Nara managed to get admitted to the sculpture department of an art school in Tokyo, but since his interests lay in painting rather than sculpture, he decided to pass and take the university entrance exams again the next year. He traveled to Japan’s capital for the first time at 19, pretty much a country bumpkin in the big city. However, a year later he was accepted into the Musashino Art University in Greater Tokyo. As a student, he spent much of his time going to rock and punk concerts, or browsing the city’s many record shops. Throwing himself into music and youth culture, he failed to muster any interest in the theoretical classes dominating the academic curriculum, and after another year he quit university and went backpacking through India, Pakistan, and Europe.

 

Memories, especially the most distant ones from his childhood, are a very important source of inspiration for Yoshitomo Nara. In a way, his travels in Asia and Europe marked the end of his adolescence, serving as a rite of passage into his new life as an artist. His experiences on the road also opened up new channels of communication with the world around him, encouraging him to explore the mysteries of life.

 

Returning from abroad, Nara had the good fortune to be accepted into the Fine Arts Department of the Aichi University of the Arts near Nagoya. His international travels had made him a more mature person, teaching him the kind of things no academic curriculum can hope to impart. Vacillating between the intellectually oriented studies of his syllabus and the more emotional stimulus provided by travel, he was able to strike some kind of balance during his second career as a student, and received his master’s degree after seven years. During that time, he went to Europe again twice. On the second of these trips in 1987, he visited the Documenta 8 in Kassel – an important impulse, which contributed much to his decision to go to Germany for further studies in the following year.

 

Self-Portraits from Childhood: Wide-Eyed Waifs and White Puppies

Nara ended up living in Germany for 12 years. For the first six of these, from 1988 to 1994, he studied at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, while spending the later six (1994-2000) setting up a studio and working as a professional artist in Cologne. Since he was unable to communicate fluently in German, he again had to resort to using his art as a medium for conveying his meaning. Just as he did when a little boy, he spoke to people through his paintings, at the same time raising his awareness of his own identity and existence. During those years he also began to write a diary, not as some kind of official record, but entirely for the purpose of a dialogue with his inner self. Living in what for him was a rather remote and secluded environment, his sense of loneliness prompted him to start a fresh examination of his childhood years. The solitude he had felt in the wide lands of his native Aomori metamorphosed into the vast spaces of his compositions, into which his protagonists are placed with a delicate sense for contrast, balance, and proportion. In Germany, Nara began to gradually develop his trademark artistic style, with flat, simplified backgrounds and a firm focus on the children or animals that are the usual subjects of his paintings. The artist seems to have oscillated between feelings of isolation and happiness when reflecting on his life, and his youth in particular. At first, sadness and melancholy appear to have dominated his mood, and the rawness of his emotions is clearly mirrored in the looks of his protagonists, especially the expressions in their eyes, which range from challenging and provocative to apathetic, callous, or downright evil.
 

 

Deep down inside, the artist’s greatest wish must be to stay like a child forever. As long as he can paint, he will be happy. When he was small, Nara’s mother would often give him promotional flyers and handouts. The backs of these, which usually had nothing printed on them, provided the perfect drawing paper for Nara, allowing him to paint or even just doodle away to his heart’s content. To this day, he still enjoys doodling and scribbling just for fun. It is not surprising, then, that his work radiates a childlike charm, and that the artist often comes off as less than a grownup. His children with wide eyes and sad-faced white doggies betray a deep-seated fragility and vulnerability. In the documentary “Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara” there is a passage where the voiceover says, “Somewhere hidden inside everybody’s heart there is a lonely, sensitive child trying very hard not to cry.” When we look into the stubborn and willful eyes of Nara’s protagonists, we involuntarily recall our own “childishness,” and are able to identify with the feelings conveyed by the artist’s characters.

 

In 1995, at an exhibition in Tokyo, Yoshitomo Nara for the first time launched one of his trademark characters, the little doggie, in the format of a large sculpture. After that, he began to make many others of his favorite characters, mostly children and animals, into FRP sculptures and figures, a move that met with much popular and critical acclaim. In 1999, Nara created a series of intriguing “kuso” (Jap., lit. “shit; crap”) works that for some critics came across as campy parodies of traditional ukiyo-e paintings. All this shows that the artist is constantly looking to refine and redefine his approach and style, even though the subjects of his art remain centered around his childhood reminiscences. Beginning in 2001, Nara cooperated with well-known Japanese writer Banana Yoshimoto on a number of projects, including several jointly published books. Both found inspiration in each other’s work, and largely as a

result of these collaborations Yoshitomo Nara is also known as an illustrator – a designation he doesn’t object to, since for him it all represents creative work, regardless of the specific genre.

 

Unlike many other internationally renowned artists, Nara prefers for the creative process to be a solitary affair. Of course, for bigger projects, such as large exhibitions or pieces of installation art, even he requires the help and participation of others, as in 2006: together with the furniture and interior designers Graf, he installed more than 40 huts in a dilapidated brick house in his hometown of Hirosaki, a piece of largescale installation art titled “Yoshitomo Nara + Graf A to Z.” Because of its compelling visual and emotional impact, the project was a big success, and is now considered a classic of installation art. The huts, which were made of recycled wood materials, were wonderfully eloquent and deeply symbolic expressions of the artist’s empathy and inner warmth.

 

When one is happy and at peace with the world, things may look as if they’ll just go on like that forever. But Nara’s career as a painter was dealt a blow, together with all of Japan, in 2011 when the March 11 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami wreaked havoc in the country’s northeast, with the artist’s home prefecture of Aomori not very far from the disaster area. For a while, Nara’s creative juices stopped flowing because he was overwhelmed with sorrow and grief. But then he began his gradual healing process by making clay statues and figures. And although he had so far given politics a wide berth, he had always been a pacifist with a strong anti-nuclear stance. In 1998, he drew a picture of a little girl holding a “No Nukes” banner, and this was later appropriated by participants of anti-nuclear demonstrations, putting the image of the defiant girl firmly in the public eye. Nara didn’t mind his painting being used in this way, because he supports the underlying cause: to rid Japan of nuclear power.

 

Between 2003 and 2004, the artist started to work on a series of oversize“billboards.” In contrast to his works on canvas, these items emphasize the aspect of “delivering a message,” like public posts in social media, or iconic works of pop art, and were aimed at more direct and efficient communication with his audiences. All these billboards were created by magnifying a smaller sketch, preserving the typical confident, cartoonlike lines of the drawings and allowing them to merge with the texture of wooden plates. In 2016, the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London held an exhibition of Nara’s recent work, displaying the artist’s refined techniques of billboard painting, which feature the mounting of linen cloth on wooden boards for subtle layered effects of color and texture that give exquisite expression to his most complex moods and emotions.

 

 

Success at International Exhibitions and Art Markets

His entire life, from the early days of doodling and drawing as a little child, through his time as a student, both in Japan and abroad, right up to the present day, when he is an internationally known and appreciated artist, Yoshitomo Nara has been able to do what he likes best. In 1984, at the age of 25, he held his first ever solo exhibition in Nagoya. It was what one calls a resounding success, for all his works found a buyer. He recalls with a smile how even the most expensive painting went for “about the price of a vinyl record.” Nara once described his creative philosophy with the Japanese word “shoshin,” which consists of two Chinese characters meaning something like “original intention” or “initial resolution.” Says Nara, “I’ve never lost sight of my roots, never forgotten who I was at 25, and how all I was doing at that time was to follow my own dreams and pursue my own goals.” He adds that whenever he encounters difficulties or feels under pressure, he only needs to enter into dialogue with his own self at 25 to find the answer to his problems or perplexities.

 

Devoted to their creative work, most artists need a professional agent to help them organize exhibitions and represent them in the art market. The year 1996 saw the establishment of the Tomio Koyama Gallery in Tokyo, and from the start its owner had a knack for discovering up and coming talent. Koyama, back then in his thirties, chose to promote young artists of his own generation, and he had acted as an agent for both Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami long before they gained international fame. It is no exaggeration to say that Koyama’s support and marketing skills were an important factor in introducing these two artists to audiences around the world. Today, the Tomio Koyama Gallery is one of the most influential Japanese galleries in the global art market.

 

In addition to Koyama, Yoshitomo Nara has worked with various other international galleries, including Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, who have been showcasing his work on a regular basis since 1997. Other galleries more recently featuring Nara’s work include London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery, Munich’s Zink & Gegner, New York’s Marianne Boesky Gallery, and Hong Kong’s Pace Gallery.

 

 

In 1995, Yoshitomo Nara won the Nagoya City Art Award, and his work has been shown in solo exhibitions at many distinguished venues in Japan and around the world, including the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2000), the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (2000), the MoMA PS1 in New York (2001), the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Ohio, the Contemporary Art Museum St Louis, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the Honolulu Museum of Contemporary Art (2003-2005 US Exhibition Tour), the Kanazawa Museum of 21st Century Arts in Ishikawa, Japan (2006), the GEM Museum of Contemporary Art in The Hague, Netherlands (2007), the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, UK (2008), the Reykjavik Museum of Fine Arts, Iceland (2009), the Asia Society New York Center (2010), the Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan (2012), and the Asia Society Hong Kong Center (2015).

 

The artist’s works are currently part of the collections at many museums and other

public art institutions, including the Aomori Museum of Art in Japan, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), the Art Institute of Chicago, the British Museum in London, the Center of Contemporary Art in Malaga, Spain, the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art and the Towada Museum of Modern Art, both in Japan, the National Center of Visual Arts in Paris, the New Museum Nuremberg in Germany, and the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art (QAGOMA) in Brisbane, Australia. Private collectors from all over the world also cherish Yoshitomo Nara’s work, which is constantly gaining in popularity with a new generation of art aficionados.

 

 

It deserves particular mention that in April 2013 a special auction in Hong Kong presented a collection of Nara’s works under the heading “You are not alone – Yoshitomo Nara Works from the Kurokochi Collection,” consisting of a total of 35 lots, including oil paintings, works on paper, prints, and limited edition items. The original owner of these works, a Tokyo bank clerk, had assembled the collection between 1988 and 2006, using savings from his wages to gradually acquire works by Nara, an artist whose style he loved very much and with whom he shared a similar background as a generational peer. Reportedly, Kurokochi denied himself lunch for half a year to save up enough cash to buy his first painting by Yoshitomo Nara. His youthful enthusiasm and persistence, as well as his good eye for art, were richly rewarded when his collection sold for a total of HK$41.13 million (US$5.2 million): an admirable feat for someone starting out as an amateur collector.

 

At fall auctions in 2015, two of Nara’s paintings featuring little children were sold, one in London and the other in New York, for more than US$3 million (more than NT$100 million) each, which currently constitutes the record price for a painting by the artist. At the age of 44, Nara published a very personal biography titled The Little Star Dweller, which was released both in Japan and Taiwan. The exceptionally charming illustrations, ingeniously combined with an uncomplicated but touching narrative, give fascinating insights into the artist’s past, as well as his outlook for the future. At the age of 57, Nara still boasts the innocent heart of a child. The fame and

wealth that his art have brought him appear to have changed him very little: he is still wearing the same unpretentious clothes, still living the same simple life, and still has the same unaffected manners.“I don’t need a fancy car or a luxury mansion, although it’s nice to have them. I don’t need money, although it’s better to have some than to have none. I’ve been knocked down before, but I don’t run from a challenge.” These words are written on a little piece of paper pinned to the wall of his studio. The market value of an artist’s work is, in the end, a poor yardstick for measuring his creative talent and aesthetic accomplishments. But there can be no doubt that this artist, unwilling as he is to grow up, continues to live a richer and deeper life than many adults. The history of art is written before our eyes, and we should consider ourselves lucky to witness the achievements of this “Peter Pan.”



 



 
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