Rising Sons

New York

Left: Robert Wilson, Yoko Ono, and Takashi Murakami. (Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc) Middle: The Japan Society facade. Right: Alexandra Munroe and Robert Rosenkranz. (Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc)

It fascinates this Jew to see another culture still trying to digest WWII. Brilliantly curated by Takashi Murakami, “Little Boy” is a hi-lo survey of “otaku” (pop-culture fanaticism) and its relationship to the Japanese avant-garde.” Artist/otaku impresario/Vuitton handbag doodler Murakami chose “Little Boy”—the code name for the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima—to locate “these new cultural forms in the trauma and generational aftershock” of the postwar period. It’s a Japanese “loser art” meets Pop meets Shoah moment. Indeed, there is more to Hello Kitty than I thought.

“We’ve only seen the pop stuff,” said Jeffrey Deitch—himself quite the impresario and Japan maven—as we wandered among the cartoony violence and pubescently sexualized space-age mutants: “This is serious,” he nodded appreciatively, “though only time will tell which work holds up as art.” Aficionados congratulated him for the whopper piece he loaned: Noburu Tsubaki’s Fresh Gasoline, 1989, a bulbous acid green texturized boulder with tree branches shooting out. The first quote to ship the thing from Deitch’s San Diego warehouse was thirty-six thousand dollars. It is large. And apparently holds up as Art.

Project Directors Tom Eccles of the Public Art Fund and Alexandra Munroe of the Japan Society realized Murakami’s instructive intro to trauma-based Pop 101. At the opening cocktail party, I tagged along with the exultant Monroe as she lead a small pack of VIPs, including director (and Japan Society honoree) Robert Wilson, on a personal tour of the various vintage and neo-Pop artifacts. Slim, vivacious, and patrician in black-chiffon layers, Monroe evoked a younger Auntie Mame enthusiastically explaining “the underlying hysteria of postwar trauma” and “kids coming of age in the `60s infantilized and stuck in the fantasy world of thirteen-year-olds.” An avid fan of Japanese fan culture, she traded air kisses with well-heeled well wishers without missing a beat in her eloquent, ongoing, infectiously giddy commentary. The energy jolt was almost alarming when she fixed her gaze on me and turned me on to a wall display of illustrated army-toy packaging from which postwar Japanese kids learned their WWII history.

Left: Hello Kitty paraphernalia. Right: Artists Mr. and Chinatsu Ban.

Near a comprehensive line up of various Godzilla action figures, underneath a wall text of the Renunciation of War article added to the Japanese Constitution in 1947, an older gentleman was grinning like the cat that swallowed the canary. A younger, blonde, gal-Friday type—“I’m not his wife”—introduced him as a major Murakami collector: “Not the biggest—the best,” he couldn’t resist divulging, like a proud Little Boy. He owned three of the big ones photographed recently for the Times. I nodded appreciatively. When they heard I was a writer, they scurried away.

At the dinner at the United Nations afterward, Wilson, Murakami, and Yoko Ono were honored for their respective oeuvres. Ono sported a jaunty white Britney-esque newsboy cap. From the podium, the ever-ebullient Alexandra officially anointed this very important presentation of “otaku” culture to New York. “Otaku” can be loosely translated as “geek” or “pop-culture fan”: “You know, stay-at-home,” two Japan Society ladies at my table glossed for me, “when you don’t want to leave the house!” They were amused to see such banality celebrated in such a high-powered setting. In the elegant dining room with the city’s swankest skyline twinkling outside, each time a socialite at the podium raved about “otaku” this or “otaku” that, the ladies looked my way and giggled. For them, this must have been the cultural equivalent of a Japanese socialite raving about a lavishly funded, groundbreaking American “couch-potato” culture show in Tokyo. Imagine.

Left: Robert Rosenkranz, Alexandra Munroe, Richard Schwartz, and Shelia Schwartz. Right: Yoko Ono and Alexandra Munroe. (Photos: Patrick McMullan/PMc)

Left: The scene at dinner. (Photo: Patrick McMullan/PMc) Right: Jeffrey Deitch and Anne Pasternak.