What happens when a colorful fantasy world populated by doe-eyed cartoon characters is invaded by an earthquake and tsunami that kill tens of thousands? How do people sheltered from violence for most of their lives make sense of such devastation? Following the 2011 Tohoku earthquake, the Japanese artist known as Mr. had to ask himself these questions. For his exhibition at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, he has created a massive installation in response to the tragedy. Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop, his first solo show at an American museum, is a retrospective of his work up to and in the aftermath of that moment.
Mr. is a protégé of art world superstar, Takashi Murakami and is known in Japan as a painter and conceptual and performance artist. His paintings draw their visual style from anime, manga (comic books), and video games, and their subjects from popular culture. (The name “Mr.” is itself a pop culture artifact, referring to a Japanese baseball star for the Yomiuri Giants, known as “Mister Giants.”)
At first glance, his paintings appear colorful and fun, full of cute schoolgirls in trendy fashions, surrounded by the trappings of a materialist society. But materialism has its dark side: the densely decorated surfaces camouflage undercurrents of cynicism and rebellion. A girl perches on the ledge of a building overlooking a dramatic aerial view of Tokyo (“The Endless Landscape of This Reality,” 2008); is she poised to jump or just enjoying the feeling of danger? Ninja Children lead a peasant rebellion in a town whose bourgeois society is revealed in comic-strip balloons (“Making Things Right,” 2006). Gritty urban graffiti sneaks in around the edges or forms the background of several paintings.
As a student, Mr. was fascinated with the Arte Povera (literally “poor art”) movement, making experimental work with materials found in the garbage. Following Japan’s economic rise and fall in the 1980s and ’90s, he returned to anti-materialism with works that blur the line between destruction and creation. Dissatisfied with early iterations of “Journey” (2003-’06), he set fire to the blue tarp on which it was painted, reassembling and repainting the burnt scraps. A video of the fire shows alongside the finished collage.
The 2011 earthquake and tsunami inspired him to revisit the theme of destruction. Within weeks of the disaster, Mr. travelled to Sendai, spending some 100 days immersing himself in the devastation. One wall is covered, floor to ceiling, with photos from this visit. His room-size installation “Give Me Your Wings—Think Different” (2012–present) evokes the massive piles of debris left by the tsunami, a cruelly ironic re-ordering of a material society. The viewer wanders between towering mounds of furniture, clothes, toys, building materials, plastic bottles, books and magazines that fill the gallery to the ceiling. Fragments of billboards and paintings line the walls while video monitors from computers, televisions, and game consoles wedged among the trash show images of destruction or traffic on the streets of some untouched city.
Much of the material for the installation at SAAM was scavenged from sources in Seattle. For all of us living on the Pacific Rim, today’s art could be tomorrow’s reality. Following this visceral response to the tragedy, Mr. considered whether he should continue to work in this darker vein, but decided instead to return to painting. Speaking through a translator at the show’s opening, Mr. explained: “I realize I am living in a capitalist society. Trends toward a slower more natural life are running away from reality.”
“Nobody Dies” (2008) is a pivotal work connecting Mr.’s paintings with his documentary installations. The 33-minute live action video is accompanied by sketches, storyboards, and costumes used in its making. It tells the story of a group of adorable schoolgirls who go to war in a game of capture the flag. They are deadly serious in their training, weighing the merits of different BB gun ammunition and discussing battle strategy. In action sequences that parody war movies, they skulk through the forest in candy-colored camouflage fatigues accessorized with toys and rhinestone-studded guns. The artist explained that, following World War II, Japan’s constitution was amended to renounce all military force; Japan has no army. While the media bombards them with images of violent conflicts that are a daily reality in many parts of the globe, for Japanese people of his generation, war is a sort of surreal fantasy in which they can never participate. Mr. perfectly captures the irony of war as unreality for an entire culture. As in a video game, no one dies.
Live On: Mr.’s Japanese Neo-Pop at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on Capitol Hill through April 5, 2015. For more information, call (206) 625-8900 or visit www.visitSAM.org/liveon.