Yoshitomo Nara

The children in Yoshitomo Nara’s paintings have a malicious air, and they are quite alone. The puppies are good and patient. Whose childhood is this? Your Childhood, 2001, a large installation, consists of a mirror with the words YOUR CHILDHOOD affixed to it in letters made from sulky-looking rag dolls; on a facing wall the soft, friendly resigned snout of a white dog pokes out from under a blanket in its dog bed. The entire oeuvre—installations, paintings, and drawings—of this artist born in 1959 seems to deal with childhood, that happy period regulated more by instinct than morals, let alone imposed social rules. My surprise on observing here that much of Nara’s audience is composed of adolescents provoked this snap sociological analysis: Nara’s young public probably already experiences these works through nostalgia for the childhood they are still attempting to renounce. For them, this art captures a poignantly dose but already lost state of existence.

In Nara’s paintings there is neither background nor context, and these elements are also disappearing from his drawings. A uniform background isolates his figures, and one can merely guess at their mood, looking at the always frowning expressions or reading the words that sometimes accompany the images. One of these phrases, I DON’T MIND, IF YOU FORGET ME, gives the title to the entire exhibition, a major survey traveling to five Japanese museums. The phrase is spelled out by a group of dolls that hang over some shelves containing small toys. It’s the kind of line that might be spoken out of spite by a child hoping to obtain the opposite effect. In Fountain of Life, 2001, a large sculpture in white resin, an enormous cup on which the faces of these same perfidious children float overflows with the tears of Nara’s dolls.There is solitude and sadness, and sometimes a bit of rage; a small iniquity expressed perhaps to demonstrate one’s existence.

Is it only Japanese youths who can identlfy with the artist’s dolls, or do they embody a common condition of adolescence? Nara’s work displays a clever synhesis of refined illustration, the tradition of Japanese manga, cartoons from music videos (which somewhat recall, for example, the adolescents from the Gorillaz videos), and memories of Disneyland. But the work also possesses the disarming tenderness of Saint-Exupéry’s illustrations for The Little Prince. In the end an adult—even one like Nara who takes the stance of an overage adolescent—who interprets childhood helps his adolescent public attain adult status, since maturity implies coming to terms with one’s regrets for what has been and for what might have been. The crowd of extremely young visitors yearning to possess models of Nara’s figures as if they were in a department store and the realization that this generation already feels nostalgia for its own quite recent experience of childhood imbued these works with a subtle melancholy.

Marco Meneguzzo

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.