Bye Bye Kitty!!! | Japan Society, 3.18.2011-6.12.2011

There’s so much talent and such freshness of vision evident in these works that it’s hard to pick out just a few to discuss.


For many Westerners, Hello Kitty, that ever-so-kawaii staple of J-Pop, has become the face of modern Japan. But however popular Kitty White may be (some estimate that sales of Hello Kitty products total half a billion dollars annually), she’s not the whole story of contemporary Japanese culture, and neither are two other popular Japanese imports, manga and anime. Bye Bye Kitty!!!, an exhibition at the Japan Society in New York City, offers a look at the work of fifteen Japanese artists whose work goes far beyond the kawaii aesthetic (although sometimes incorporating aspects of it) to address both the cultural heritage of Japan and the concerns of modern Japanese society. 
I have to admit up front that I spent over three hours at this exhibition and it simply blew me away. There’s so much talent and such freshness of vision evident in these works that it’s hard to pick out just a few to discuss. But choose I must, so let’s start with the striking pen and acrylic paintings of Manabu Ikeda. He works at a large scale and yet incorporates so much detail that a magnifying glass comes in handy to really see what’s going on in his works. Ikeda’s paintings wouldn’t be out of place as concept art for a science fiction series—Ark presents a city built into a gigantic rock rising out of the ocean while History of Rise and Fall portrays a fantastic series of temples which seem to have sprouted from a gigantic tree—and he seems to be channeling both Hieronymous Bosch and M.C. Escher as well as contemporary pop culture as gigantic disembodied hands appear on the temple roofs and a series of waterfalls and spaghetti-like roads and railroad tracks weave through his fantastic constructions.
Manabu Ikeda (1973– ) History of Rise and Fall, 2006. Pen and acrylic ink on paper, mounted on board, 78 3/4 × 78 3/4 in. (200 × 200 cm). Photo: Kei Miyajima. Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Takahashi Collection. Copyright © IKEDA Manabu.

The art of Miwa Yanagi, one of several female artists included in this exhibition, uses photography as a means to examine the role of women in Japanese society. She asked young women what they wanted to be 50 years in the future, then made these dreams real in photographs, using models and digital manipulation. The results are fascinating even if you don’t know the back-story, as each image seems to distill the essence of one aspect of Japanese culture into a single, detail-packed picture. They gain even more resonance when you realize that each photo represents the hopes and dreams of a contemporary young woman and that they see themselves as becoming everything from a geisha (My Grandmothers/GEISHA (AKIYO/MAI/HITOMI/NORIKO))to the first female head of a Japanese television station (My Grandmothers/HYONEE).
Miwa Yanagi (1967– ) My Grandmothers/HYONEE, 2007. C print, plexiglass, text panel, 51 1/4 × 39 3/8 in. (130 × 100 cm). Courtesy of the artist and Yoshiko Isshiki Office. Private collection, New York. Copyright © Miwa Yanagi. 

Makoto Aida, working in acrylic, offers reinterpretations of two of Japan’s archetypal figures. The young women featured in Harakiri School Girls seem at first to be a straightforward riff on one of Japan’s gifts to popular culture: the schoolgirl in uniform with loose socks (ruzu sokkusu) and an extremely short skirt. Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that these fresh-faced schoolgirls have all committed ritual suicide or are about to do so. Ash Color Mountains plays a similar trick on the viewer: from a distance it appears to be a conventional landscape painting, but when you get close you can see the "mountains" are made up of the bodies of discarded salary men and the tools of their trade. Look even closer and you’ll be rewarded by the sight of a few jokey inclusions, Wall-E and Waldo (of Where’s Waldo? fame) among them.
Makoto Aida (1965– ) HarakiriSchool Girls, 2002. Print on transparency film, holographic film, acrylic, 46 3/4 × 33 3/8 in. (119 × 84.7 cm). Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Photo: Kei Miyajima. Watai Collection. Copyright © AIDA Makoto.

Detail from Makoto Aida (1965-) AshColorMountains (2009-2010) Acrylic on canvas. 118 x 276 in (300 x 700 cm). Courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery. Taguchi Art Collection. Copyright © AIDA Makoto.

Sculpture is not neglected in Bye Bye Kitty!!! One of the most striking installations is breathing wall, blessing wall by Tomoko Shioyasu, which consists of a gigantic sheet of delicately-cut paper (111 3/8" by 177 1/8") and a light shining through it. The result is that you see the same swirling, abstract patterns three times: in the paper itself and in the shadows it casts on the floor and wall. The shadows in particular seem to be living beings, shifting with the slightest air current. Nearby, Kohei Nawa’s PixCell Elk #2 present a taxidermied elk covered with glass balls of different sizes. The result is to preserve the basic shape of the elk while also distorting parts of it (an effect which should be familiar to anyone who has dealt with digital images). Paradoxically, the most distorted parts of the elk, those covered with the largest glass balls, are also the most clear because they act as a magnifying glass, revealing in close-up the hair of the actual object hidden beneath the shiny surface.

Kohei Nawa (1975-) PixCell Elk #2, 2009. Mixed Media. 94½ x 98¼ x 78 in (240 x 249.5 x 198 cm). Work created with the support of Fondation d’entreprise Hermès).
Tomo Shioyasu (1981-) breathing wall, blessing wall, 2006. Paper, 111 3/8 x 177 1/8 in. (283 x 450 cm). Courtesy SCAI THE BATHHOUSE.

Hiraki Sawa’s HD video Within evokes childhood by taking the viewer on a fantastical journey through a keyhole into a dream-world Victorian house whose furnishings include an antique rocking horse and a moon which appears both indoors and out. Sawa, who used to conduct educational workshops at the Hayward Gallery in London, remarked that he was impressed by how children transformed ordinary reality through the addition of illogical elements. He captured this spirit in Within, creating a magical world unencumbered by the logical reality of the average adult. You can see a bit of it at the beginning of this video interview with the artist:
The exhibit closes with a small photograph (Untitled, 2008) by Yoshitomo Nara, probably the artist best-known in the West of all those included here. The subject is a tomb for pets over which two Hello Kitty figures stand guard. The juxtaposition of the traditional stone tomb with the familiar kawaii figures provides the perfect closing image for an exhibition in which much of the art is concerned with incorporating and re-interpreting existing elements in traditional and popular Japanese culture.
You can read more about Bye Bye Kitty!!! at the exhibition’s web site ( and you can also order the exhibition catalogue from that site. Beautifully illustrated and featuring essays by curator David Elliott and Tetsuya Ozaki (founder of Art iT magazine and publisher of, it’s the next best thing to seeing the show in person and, at $35.00, a whole lot cheaper than a plane ticket to New York City. | Sarah Boslaugh

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