Flat Pop

Lecherous teddy bears, chart-topping dummies, and hypersexed schoolgirls bubble up from the Walker's "Superflat" exhibit of Japanese art

The work of the young Tokyo artist Mr., for instance, speaks volumes about otaku culture's darker underside: His sketches of anime pinup girls, done by the hundreds on the backs of receipts, seem the artifacts of an unquiet mind. Mr. is not wholly uncritical of his obsession, though. One video installation shows the artist in an industrial barrio, swinging a sword around in a parody of manga's action-hero fantasies. Another shows him lying in the mud with eyes closed, apparently manipulating his pokémon.


A similar morbidity flavors much of the work by younger artists in "Superflat"--a redolence, perhaps, of Japan's burst bubble economy. One gallery wall, for instance, is adorned with the heads of Teletubbies mounted like big-game trophies. Elsewhere, the manga artist Kentaro Takekuma offers his "dream-like plan for the Thomas-ification of JR Chuo-line Locomotives." The idea--painting the face of the lovable Thomas on the front of Tokyo's trains--seems cute until you read the accompanying text. The artist, it turns out, is miffed by the number of suicides--casually referred to as "tuna sushi" by railroad workers--causing train delays.

Half moppet, half strumpet: Work by Bome in "Superflat"
Half moppet, half strumpet: Work by Bome in "Superflat"

Dominating the same gallery is a creepy installation by the Tokyo advertising/graphic-design firm Groovisions consisting of a phalanx of identical mannequins wearing garishly orange jumpsuits and narcotized, childlike smiles. There's definitely something malevolent about Groovisions' version of global pop-cultural homogeneity: Theirs is a world of pod people. And yet these clones, called Chappies, have become an advertising phenomenon in Japan. In an absurd example of pop music's infinite plasticity, they've even managed to release their own CD. Their popularity seems to support the unspoken, and rather disheartening, premise of "Superflat": that art and advertising stand on level ground. For all its visual pleasure and provocative social observation, "Superflat" sometimes seems not just inclusive but shallow. This neo-pop admits no hierarchy of ideas, and thus no criterion for judgment; it's all as smoothly artificial as the commercial culture from whence it springs. By the exhibit's logic, we may have to declare those television spots featuring Lara Croft hawking Pepsi as masterpieces of the avant-garde.

Despite its stated purpose, "Superflat" doesn't draw a very strong connection between otaku culture and traditional Japanese art. Part of the problem is that Murakami includes none of the latter to buttress his arguments about the former. An example of the whimsical, proto-cartoonish 18th-century prints of Soga Shohaku, for instance, might go a long way toward illuminating the mythological and aesthetic allusions in Chiho Aoshima's computer-created murals. And the "Superflat" pieces that seem to best demonstrate the continuity of the superflat aesthetic are, in fact, only peripherally linked to manga and anime. U.S.-based Shigeyoshi Ohi's pacific photos, for example, blend a traditional Japanese landscape--silhouetted fish swimming up waterfalls--with ingenious modern technique, using long exposure times to create the illusion of meteor showers in the sky above. Ohi's photos suggest a deeply reverent modernization of traditional scroll paintings, in which natural landscapes were flattened vertically and infused with a floating luminescence. Ohi's work represents the possibility of superflatness--not as a cartoon version of Edo-period drawings, but as a hyperrealism not beholden to distance or depth, gravity or volume.

Given that Murakami organized "Superflat" to demonstrate this possibility, it's rather a shame that he didn't see fit to include more of his own work, since his paintings--a graceful synthesis of nihonga technique and contemporary imagery--might also help to give shape to the amorphous "superflat sensibility." In what can only be an act of self-effacement, Murakami's single contribution to this exhibit, a digitally rendered mural of outsize cartoon eyes, is hidden above the entrance to the Walker's lobby.

Even if Murakami's piece were visible, it would be eclipsed by Katsushige Nakahashi's stunning sculpture of a World War II fighter plane constructed from 15,000 Polaroid photos of a small plastic model of the same. More than any other work here, Nakahashi's speaks to an essential pessimism in contemporary Japan: The plane, which seems to be sliding wearily off the gallery wall, refers both to the fragmenting experience of the war--thousands of images pressed into a semblance of reality--and the humiliation of the postwar period--the mighty Japanese war machine turned flaccid. Yet the piece doesn't just engage history: In an act of ritual purification, Nakahashi has paraded similar sculptures through the streets, then burned them. His work, set against the adolescent pop fantasies and ephemeral jetsam of manga culture, bespeaks an emotional maturity not dreamt of in "Superflat" philosophy.

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