When Kimerly Rorschach took the job as director at Seattle Art Museum a few years ago, she said SAM needed more contemporary Asian art. SAM could excel in it, she said, given not only Seattle's position on the Pacific Rim but also SAM's strong historical collection of Asian art—which was the basis of the founding of the museum in the first place, back in the 1930s. Now we're seeing the fruits of her ideas, in two contemporary Asian exhibitions organized by SAM curators at SAM's two locations: City Dwellers: Contemporary Art from India at SAM downtown and Live On: Mr.'s Japanese Neo-Pop at Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park.
City Dwellers surveys a handful of photographers and sculptors who grew up in Indian megacities. Though it's all culled from a single, local, private collection—and could have been a vanity project—it instead comes across as a lens focused on a specific swath of current art we haven't seen very much of.
Live On: Mr.'s Japanese Neo-Pop surveys a single artist—he calls himself Mr.—but is shallower. That shallowness owes mostly to the artist himself, but is unhelped by the presentation, which feeds audiences the same old lines about (and views of) contemporary Japanese art.
Mr. is a self-described protégé of Takashi Murakami, the Japanese neo-pop superstar who's head of a post-Warholian empire of anime-influenced art. Maybe Murakami's most publicized move has been installing a Louis Vuitton bag store at the center of his 2007/2008 retrospective at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. The bags were printed with his designs, and the store caused heated debate between those who believed it sullied the institution of the museum and those who believed it was a clever ante-upping in a game already played by Duchamp and Oldenburg.
Wah-wah. Same old arguments.
In 2001, Murakami made more of a contribution when he proposed a Japanese art "movement" called "Superflat" and organized a touring group exhibition by that name for LA MoCA. (Superflat visited the Henry in Seattle; Murakami's own work was not new in the Pacific Northwest even then, having been seen in an exhibition on childhood at Tacoma Art Museum.)
The art in Superflat was angry, repressed, and new to American audiences. It was by the sons and daughters of the punished losers of a world war who were increasingly, mostly for economic and not high-cultural reasons, in the world's eye. Sculptures, paintings, installations, videos, and performances had two sides: bright pop surfaces and malevolent meanings. Porny/creepy anime reflected a distorted, distant heterosexuality. Repeated aggressively on the art circuit in the years to come, the frisson caused by the show easily became exhausted in all but a few particularly strong works. Superflat became a meme.
Mr., the subject of the current exhibition at Seattle Asian Art Museum in Volunteer Park, was not in Superflat. He is second-generation. He has a Lolita complex that dominates his work, though Live On—organized by Xiaojin Wu, SAM associate curator of Japanese and Korean art—attempts to downplay it.
"Mr.'s representations of budding nymphets express a platonic ideal—not erotic in the traditional sense, but an exaggerated fantasy of adolescent innocence," says one of the museum's wall panels.
I have no idea who they think they're kidding.
Given the tired aesthetics and unexamined grossness at the heart of Mr.'s art, Live On has to find something else to emphasize. So: his "Adversity and Defiance." An entire section of the exhibition is devoted to this theme, containing some of Mr.'s responses to the horrible tsunami that hit Japan in March of 2011. A large tapestry of his documentary photographs of the destruction hangs on one wall, near a charred painting he made by burning its surfaces repeatedly in a grassy field. There's video of the burning next to the piece on the wall.
The painting is a pretty ruin. Yes, it participates in a history of paintings destroyed for historical and psychological reasons, yes, yes. And? So?
It never becomes clear why Live On exists at all—why we need a solo exhibition by Mr., and why we need it now—or what his work might really be doing. The show is a basic introduction to a not-particularly-interesting and certainly not new artist.
For me, there was one highlight. Lowlight, really: the live-action horror film Nobody Dies.
Mr. made Nobody Dies in 2008. He designed the costumes for his actresses: a crew of tween girls (playing a crew of tween girls). The camera zooms in on their crotches while they swim, their breasts while they undress. It presents them in porn-familiar poses while doing nonsexual things. Nobody Dies is a horror film in the visceral sense, like a jump scare stretched out over more than half an hour. The villain is the artist, and also the viewer. There is no distancing-through-anime. The movie produces pain, like a Todd Solondz film.
What makes the camerawork even more upsetting is that the girls just think they are going about their self-determined lives. They're a paintball team determined to get revenge on their rivals. According to the wall labels, Mr. has said this movie is about Japan's renunciation of war, and what grows out of a culture that tries to suppress violence as a way to suppress its own past.
Go to SAAM to watch Nobody Dies. Maybe consider it in the context of Meiro Koizumi's work. The comparison only makes me long for a more complex exhibition. If this is what Kimerly Rorschach meant by SAM staking a claim in contemporary Asian art, then nothing distinguishing is going to be happening here anytime soon.