Japanese Obscuration

Takashi Murakami, Jesus 2009-2011 Photo by Amirul Afifi


In Singapore Art Museum’s Chimera show I was drawn to several artworks by Japanese artists which I’d like to talk about, in particular, Tabaimo’s Midnight Sea, Takashi Murakami’s Jesus and Yayoi Kusama’s Sex Obsession. I appreciated their very different styles, however it amazed me how in Yayoi’s piece, was even more unusual and although I couldn’t not relate to it as much as the other two in many ways it was the most memorable and powerful.

Entering a dark corner of the exhibition, the audience discovers a projected animation of waves on to the floor. Three huge mirrors stood at the sides, creating an illusion of infinite waves. The beautiful illustration of waves echo the Ukiyo-e woodblock Japanese prints, like The Great Wave Off Kanagawa’ by Hokusai. Extremely detailed line works, graphical and precise are installed in a modern setting with projections and intelligent use of the huge mirrors in creating illusion of the infinite sea.

The animation is like a surrealistic dream. I stood in the darkness, watching the low-framed animation, presenting images like fragmented snapshots of the sea stitched up together, a partial recollection of memories of the sea. I reflected and relished the repetitive slow churning of the waves, almost hypnotic and meditative; mysteriously drawing us to the piece. They overwhelm our senses as if we are inside them and slowly descending into the depths. The low rumbling sound makes it even more immersive.

There is always something about watching sea at night. Its dark, romantic nature and its mystery never fail to captivate. However you always wonder what lies underneath the darkness, if there is a creature or something from your imagination? Tabaimo’s depiction of beautiful waves and eerie ambience had brought me closer to the artwork and to myself. A sense of awe and fear combined.  So what really lies underneath? As the waves unfold, it reveals eerie creatures underneath. A strange haired creature starts to appear and swims underneath the surface of the sea in a ghostly manner.

Strange images of hair inside of the sea cause discomfort. The idea of death comes to mind. How many lives have been taken by the sea, and how calm oceans can turn into ferocious tsunami in a blink on an eye. The art piece represents both a dream and a nightmare, beautiful on the surface but as you stare into the mirrors, which create the space of the sea, it made me wonder about the infinity of space and bottomless depths of the cold sea. The thought of an endless journey makes the mind restless.

According to the artist, the waves are like wrinkles (in Japanese another word for waves). She likens the waves to the skin of old people. However, waves are timeless whereas human wrinkles depict aging, withering and death. Tabaimo compares the power of the sea with the fragility of human life.

Takashi Murakami is one of the superstars in Chimera; well known internationally, in the United States and the high fashion world. He collaborated in a Louis Vuitton collection and has designed jewelry for Kanye West.

Murakami’s works have an Anime and Manga element which is specifically Japanese. He also has a quirky sense of humour, including weird elements and creating out-of-this world environments and characters with a child-like imagination. His art is often an escape from the real. Behind that humour, in Jesus he touches on a very delicate issue juxtaposing religion with the modern craze for worshipping celebrities.

At first glance it looks like a fancy oversized Bling-bling made for a famous popstar (which it originally was). But when you take a closer look, it’s like a golden Buddha sitting where pilgrims can encircle and worship it. The act of walking around this piece mimics the act of worshipping, and I myself became a pilgrim within that small space.

Yayoi Kusama, Sex Obsession 1992 Photo by Amirul Afifi

Popstars today are “worshipped” almost religiously. Fans all over the world would ‘die’ to watch them perform or perhaps have a glimpse of their idols in real life. They follow their fashion trends and every move on Twitter or Facebook. Murakami seems to be making a statement whereby it’s a crazy world out there where the world of worshipping Gods and Deities is no longer the ‘trend’ and now instead we knowingly worship mere mortals. Murakami inidcates that the obsession has blinded us from religion and our spiritual selves. There is no more spiritual connection with oneself; only obsession with other fellow human beings and material wealth.

Lastly I’ll talk about Yayoi Kusama, a Japanese artist but one of the first avant-garde female artists in New York where she really wanted to find success., While she is still making art today she is being taken care of in a mental institution. In the beginning I really couldn’t relate to her work. But after I read up about her life story and get some prior knowledge about her artworks, it began to make sense. Her art is her life. It represents her struggles not just to be an artist, but an Asian female artist. I felt these struggles conveyed in her piece.

She’s a very colourful and energetic character; very different in her approach in contemporary art. Like most of her works, Sex Obsession uses varying sizes of infinite dots to make up long squirmy worm-like figures intertwined with each other. This is reminiscent of her sculpture ‘The moment of Regeneration’ where 55 worm –like sculptures stood upright on the floor in a space. She also had a series made up of penis-shaped chairs. In these works she makes bold statements about sexual freedom even though she is from a traditional conservative Japanese family. At that point of time in her life and in the 60s,  promiscuity was becoming a trend. In this piece she reflected society’s obsession with sex.

The shapes look like slimy worms or penises slowly wriggling next to one another, almost depicting an orgy of phalluses caressing each other bodies in search for the ultimate orgasm.

The colours yellow and black might representing danger. Kusama is obsessed with polka dots, as she sees them as representation of the Sun and Moon. They have a lot of energy, soft, senseless and unknowing.

For me the Japanese Artists were really more interesting that the other artworks in Chimera. The first two had certain Japanese quality to there graphical imagery and quirky humour. However Yayoi Kusama’s work is truly contemporary and avant-garde. Her works just shows her state of mind, hallucinations, and the infinite universe that she has created.