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Watching the Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara documentary at Royal/T Cafe showed how influences of Japanese contemporary art are pervading our everyday consciousness.
Japanese contemporary art has genuinely become a part of the American pop lexicon in the last few years. Its presence has much to do with this increasingly digitally-connected era, the leading trendsetters that have recently adopted it, as well as the conflation between formal art and everyday design. Kanye West commissioned Takashi Murakami to design the album art of his 2007 album Graduation. Pharrell Williams partnered with A Bathing Ape (BAPE) designer Nigo Nagao to open the Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream clothing store in New York. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne is frequently seen in BAPE hoodies, as he does what he does to defend his self-affixed "Best Rapper Alive" title. They're among the influential that build a nation of rap hopefuls, skateboarders, and everyone else in between who view contemporary art as a lifestyle.
For many who embrace the art, it encompasses more than fashion. It is a choice to surround your senses with a particular style and expression. This couldn't be more apparent at the March 1 screening of Koji Sakabe's Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara at Royal/T in Culver City. Visitors of Royal/T can shop for Japanese contemporary art items, dine at adjoining café complete with servers in maid costumes (as inspired by maid cafés in Tokyo's Akihabara district), all while viewing latest installations of pop art from both Japanese and non-Japanese artists.
As one of the more established figures of this movement, New Pop artist Yoshitomo Nara is known for his paintings of large-headed girls with petulant stares that hint preternatural knowledge. They challenge onlookers to question whether children are unquestionably guileless. These paintings are not only a signature of his, but in some circles they have become synonymous with Japanese pop art. Along with Murakami, Nara has brought much international attention to contemporary Japanese art. Nara's figurative pieces are particularly influential to the following generation of Japanese artists. Art critic Midori Matsui considers him an integral figure in the genre she coined Micropop, composed of artists whose work respond to life in the late postmodern world.
Nara has said the paintings are an unconscious extension of his experiences growing up in Hirosaki, when he felt much estrangement and loneliness. What even his fans and followers may not know is the extent to which his childhood has not only been a wellspring of inspiration for his art, but a reverberation in his everyday life as well.
Sakabe used this symbiosis in Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara to study him in a holistic manner, clearly believing his personal background is just as compelling as his artistic perspective. The first minute is a concise, yet telling, fairy tale-like narration, tracing how Nara's artistic trajectory reflects that of his intrapersonal revelations. Sakabe intersperses such brief interludes throughout the film. They sprinkle Nara's story with a paradoxical sense of wonderment and consciousness that Nara stokes in others, and even himself.
The documentary accompanies Nara along with an Osaka-based design team called graf as they meticulously craft some of the small houses that display his pieces at exhibits across the world. Sakabe only captures several of the 26 small houses built in different exhibitions. Collectively, the houses eventually become an imaginary town with streets named after the letters of the alphabet, hence the Hirosaki exhibit shown at the end called "A to Z."
Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara may span nearly a year through several cities, but Nara's continual self-reflexive sojourn into his childhood shows the true significance of traveling alongside him. Sakabe guides the audience into seeing that Nara takes a hands-on approach in curating spaces for his pieces, in order to create a context for his work. Nara first realized the significance of these houses when a professor told him how much his arrangement of art on concrete panels resembled his college dorm room, even in the way the sketches were affixed. He realized then that he wanted to return to a "place where he felt most comfortable." It may very well explain his decision to be documented by Sakabe in the first place: to understand him allows for knowing his artistry.
Even so, Nara is not one to bask in his fame. He is somewhat shy and reticent, at one point referring an interviewer to his book for further information when she asks a question he doesn't want to elaborate on. While Sakabe manages to coax him to talk about his projects, the bigger clues to Nara are tacitly shown. When he travels, he stays at unfussy hotels. He drinks beer with graf members after a day of construction. When asked what he eats, he tells a member that he has mostly curry, rice, and or pork cutlet because he doesn't cook; yet, he never gets tired of the taste. Nara is a person of routine, familiarity, and understatement. He frequently returns to certain points in his past experiences for insight on the present.
The most revealing, however, is the parallel to a young Korean female fan named Sehee, whom Nara meets at his fan gathering in Seoul. Nara notes at the end of the gathering that she was the only one there who truly looked at his art. As described by her mother in a thank you letter to Nara, the seven year-old is an aspiring artist who rarely voices her innermost thoughts. She longs to return to the countryside where it feels less claustrophobic. On the way home from meeting Nara, Sehee admitted her desire to be an artist. Her mother wonders whether she felt energy from Nara, enough to be motivated to speak aloud.
Nara recalls in an interview that, as a child, he had thoughts but could not speak. Sometime near the completion of "A to Z," he reflected on the way his collaborations have changed him. He believes he has learned how to interact with others, in turn affecting his artistry. Nara finds that: "When you share the joy, it gets twice as big." And while he admits his art is no less desolate, it has deepened with the experience.
Though perhaps inadvertently set up this way, screening the documentary at Royal/T heightened one's awareness of contemporary art as a lifestyle. Like the small houses in exhibits that showcase Nara's pieces, Royal/T maximized the impact of Sakabe's portrait of Nara. The space also guaranteed that the audience constituted mostly those who at least have some knowledge of the movement. The combined effect made Nara's journey fuller and somehow more relatable, in turn revealing why some adopt art like his as their everyday personal expression.
Date Posted: 3/20/2009