Hirosaki City, Japan

“A to Z”

Yoshii Brick Brewhouse

Although frequently grouped with Takashi Murakami as representative of the new “Pop” tendency in contemporary Japanese art, Yoshitomo Nara, unlike Murakami, avoids any ironic distancing from contemporary Japanese culture. Instead, his strength lies in his evocation of childhood. His paintings and sculptures of children and dogs, through their malformation, convey loneliness and anger but also forgiveness, indicating the simultaneously destructive and restorative power of innocence. For that reason, Nara has attracted the general public, who recognize in his work an embodiment of the inner child repressed in the process of socialization. Nara’s work has become a contemporary equivalent of folk art, representing and consoling even people who otherwise feel alienated from modern art; in his Snoopy-Buddha sculptures and graffitilike drawings, this audience recognizes the hybrid creativity in which the low and despised attain qualities of personal mythology.

Nara’s personal mythology is effectively revealed through an installation using a hutlike structure. Introduced in his solo exhibition of 2001, I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, a roomlike structure made of timbers containing traces of the artist’s studio and fragments of his work and materials, was extended into a large-scale installational frame in the 2004–2005 touring exhibition “From the Depth of My Drawer.” The Japanese architectural collective graf provided an environment that maximized one’s sense of taking a tour inside the artist’s mind. Now “A to Z,” a group show organized by Nara in collaboration with graf, embodies his vision of an artists’ Utopia: forty-four huts built inside a former sake brewery displaying works by Nara and nine guest artists, including Hiroshi Sugito and Kenji Yanobe. Planned as a non-institutional project entirely based on personal fund-raising and volunteer work, the exhibition conveys Nara’s idea of contemporary art as something that can reach the public directly and count on its support.

The double aspect of the exhibition as an embodiment of Nara’s personal vision and a testing ground for collaboration was reflected in the structure of the installation. Each hut staged an individual artist’s imaginary world, through such diverse theatrical setups as an artist’s studio, a gallery, a movie theater, and a stable. Eight of the nine invited artists occupied a single hut (Rinko Kawauchi’s work filled a room), while the other thirty-six huts and three rooms, big and small, were dedicated to Nara’s work; some pieces by the guest artists were installed individually, on the roofs and elsewhere, according to their dramatic effects. Having staircases, underground rooms, passageways, windows, balconies, and towers, the huts provided a variety of viewing experiences, while making the audience themselves part of the installation. The arrangement of the huts indicated the community’s growth from a pioneer settlement to a town. At the end of the installation was a large plaza, surrounded by white walls, with an octagonal chapel containing Nara’s sculpture The Fountain of Life, 2001, a fountain consisting of stacked-up heads of weeping children.

The exhibition succeeded in conveying the principle of all-inclusivity implied by the title “A to Z,” but at the same time, its highly symbolic presentation seemed to reduce the audience to passive recipients of Nara’s imaginative reveries. This was especially true of the presentation of his own works as quasi-religious experiences. One hut contained a single painting showing a girl’s meditative face with closed eyes (The Little Star Dweller, 2006); a shrine-like structure contained a small statue of a dog-Buddha (Your Small Dog in Bangkok, 2006).

At once a populist entertainment and a courageous challenge to art institutions, “A to Z” is a deeply ambiguous project. The potentially radical spirit of “minor art production” by artists who do not subscribe to the institutional standards of contemporary art but invent refreshing styles by making the most of their peripheral or independent positions was undermined by the highly mimetic representation of the artist’s singular symbolic universe. The exhibition’s popular success—with nearly 80,000 visitors—did not conceal the incongruity of coupling democratic openness with regressive populism, reflecting the contradictory effects of art’s expanding canon and the growth of the commercial art market.

Midori Matsui