New York, Sept. 2010-- Yoshitomo Nara is an art superstar, cult idol, pop icon. His images of big-headed little girls wielding knives and menacing expressions are recognized and adored by a legion of fans around the world. Yet this status as an art celebrity he accepts reluctantly, preferring to be considered a student retaining a constant "beginner's spririt." Long associated with the Neo-Pop movement of Japanese contemporary art spearheaded by Takashi Murakami and his "Superflat" theory, Nara's work has been effectively lumped in with the otaku, manga and anime-loving fans in Japanese subculture.
The exhibition Nobody's Fool at the Asia Society Museum is his first, and some would say long overdue, major museum show in New York and an attempt to rectify this oversimplification and misconstruction, emphasizing Nara's influences stemming from music, not from comic books. In a way they're pointing out that Nara might still be a bit of a nerd, but he's a music nerd, which is eminently different (and much cooler) than a comic book nerd. The show also highlights the diversity in Nara's work--he's not simply a painter of little girls with weapons, but a sculptor, ceramicist, photographer and installation artist. There are three large-scale installations in the show, designed with his long-term collaborator Hideki Toyoshima, one of them site-specific for the Asia Society.
I first met Yoshitomo Nara when he was working with his team at the Park Avenue Armory, which had sectioned off a small portion of the drill hall to house a temporary artist studio. Rather uncharacteristically for the reclusive artist, he had offered to host a week-long Open Studio for the public to come in and see his workspace. The artist's studio informs his work to a great extent, and it was an unprecedented opportunity to see his working process. Nara and I briefly connected over our mutual ability to speak German. I made him a mix CD. With three different installations and a host of programs, lectures and talks it was really difficult to find any time to have a chat, but the day after the exhibition opened I had the opportunity to sit down for a few minutes with Nara and an interpreter, and finally get that shot at an interview with him.
Yoshitomo Nara, White Ghost, 2010, 12 ft high fiberglass and steel sculpture; Photo Courtesy Natalie Hegert
Natalie Hegert: So have you been having a fun time in New York since you’ve been here?
Yoshitomo Nara: I’ve been very busy preparing for the exhibition so I’ve basically spent all my time in New York inside this building. But I’ve had a really fun time working with the staff here preparing this exhibition.
NH: Do you have any time off at all while you’re here?
YN: I might have some time, but then whatever free time I have I end up doing interviews like this or other events, like the one at Hunter College. Yesterday I actually paid a visit to Bellevue Hospital over on 1st Avenue. They’re creating a new children’s wing there, a pediatric wing, and they’ve asked me to design art to go on the walls, so I was actually there to do a site survey. So it’s a lot of things; I’ve been pretty busy.
(So at that point I felt bad, taking up the time of an artist who is trying to paint murals for sick kids with yet another interview, and asking him about stuff he's been asked already several times just this week. So I tried to geek out about music with him a bit. One of the most enjoyable aspects of his work, for me at least, are the hidden messages and song lyrics he hides in some of his drawings, that are only recognized by other fans of that particular band. So only some of us will look at the drawing "Kill kill kill the P" and know what he's referencing.)
A sample of Nara's music collection with some of his most recent work, ceramics made at an artist residency in Shigaraki, Japan.
NH: This exhibit is really focused on your relationship with music—a really interesting point is the selection of your vast LP collection. It was a little bit different than what I expected to see; music like Holy Modal Rounders, Nils Lofgren, Geoff and Maria Muldaur, when I thought it would maybe be more “punk.” So what were the reasons behind why you chose those albums?
YN: As you said, there’s a very strong image of me out there as a “punk music lover” but before I discovered punk, it wasn’t like a blank canvas. I discovered punk music when I was seventeen so before that, in middle school and high school, this is the music that I loved. So it’s a lot of singer-songwriters as you can see. But to be honest, a lot of the content of the lyrics and the music is really beyond the actual grasp of a seventeen-year-old. If I had to narrow it down, I would say that this kind of music is what I really wanted to study and get further into the world of, even if I didn’t really understand the depth and the true meaning of the music. In the last three or four years I’ve actually gone back and was reorganizing my collection of records and listened to this music and was really surprised at how much more I really understood and connected to it now. And so nowadays I do of course still listen to punk music but I’m also listening to this music from the 60’s and 70’s.
And here’s the actual important part of the story: if you compare Japan and America, or Japan and a European country, obviously they have different cultures and religions, different music that’s part of people’s daily lives, but one thing that I think that might be a little bit difficult for Americans to grasp is the fact that people like me in Japan were listening to this music, and really love this music even though English is not our native language. We may have no English skills at all, but we really embrace this music. Language is something I’m sure you know that English-speaking people in Western countries really take for granted; that they could actually connect with [the lyrics] without that hurdle.
Of course if you think back to the 70’s, information moved very differently. There was no Internet obviously and even the release date of albums in Japan could be delayed as much as six months. There was so much less information then. So imagine that kind of environment and having so little info and all you have is the music itself and you have the album cover, twleve inches square. I would just sit there, listen to the music, look at the art on the cover and I think I really developed my imagination through that.
The installation Doors, designed with Hideki Toyoshima and the YNG team.
(At this moment he picked up my note pad with all my questions scrawled on it and winced at the length. "Pick a good one" he seemed to say, "cause we don't have much time left." So here was the heavy-hitter:)
NH: This exhibition has an objective to dispel some of the clichés about your work in relation to Japanese contemporary and Neo-Pop art. Are you distancing yourself from Superflat?
YN: Yes. The reason is, the entire 1990’s, the entire decade, I was not even in Japan. I was absent. So it’s a mystery to me why I’m so often associated with a movement that is so specific to that time and to that place. The other thing is, people often say “Oh his work is influenced by manga and by animation” but this is really not true. I’m much more influenced by picture books, children’s books with pictures. So whenever I have an opportunity I talk about that. In a picture book you have a single image that can contain an entire narrative and I think this is a style of visual story telling that I have really learned a lot from and have been influenced by. If you think about manga and animation really it’s actually a series of images, a series of squares put together that tell a story. It doesn’t tell any story through one of its single snapshot images. Of course I can read these things and enjoy the story, but I don’t get as much enjoyment out of a single panel, a single image.
As children, a lot of people start drawing doodles and pictures, usually copying manga or comic books, but I never did that. Even as a little kid I drew very academically, very artistically, and was not influenced by that style. Maybe you drew Sailor Moon as a kid, but I never did that. When I started to look back on my childhood and really focusing on that time, I think that what I got out of picture books I really carried with me through my life and that’s a very strong element. And so I think some people might look at [my work] and project an idea about manga and its influence, but for me I work very hard to make sure that my art does not produce a superficial image, that there is much more depth to it, so that’s something I would like people to see.
NH: That’s something you can definitely see in your paintings, especially in the layers of paint. When I saw the film, Traveling with Yoshitoma Nara, watching the montages of you painting, it becomes very apparent how deep they are and when you approach the paintings you can see those layers. There’s a lot of depth to it.
YN: Thank you very much.
(By the way I too never doodled Sailor Moon as a kid! I was, however, very interested in researching and learning about Japanese contemporary art, especially Murakami's Superflat aesthetic, until I realized how much I would have to learn about manga to 'get it'.)
The smaller room of the Home installation, featuring the maquette of White Ghost.
NH: Many of your works have a lot of depth and the installations you create have a lot of atmosphere. One of my favorite parts of the exhibition is Home, with the photo slideshow and the music, and a place to relax on small pillows—a very total, immersive environment. Is this the ideal environment for experiencing your work?
YN: When I was creating the Home installation I really wanted to show something other than paintings and drawings and the thing that sprung to mind was actually to do a slideshow. It wasn’t actually something I planned on doing really. And as far as your question if it’s the ideal environment, maybe not as such, but for me personally my favorite place to look at my work is within my studio. As I’m finishing one work—whatever is on the wall to the right of me, what kind of drawing is there, and whatever is on the wall to the left of me, what kind of paper is there—these kinds of things do end up influencing the work that I’m doing. Actually the big painting that you see as part of the Home exhibit is actually unfinished. I wanted to finish reworking the body and the color of the clothing, but I had started it at the Armory and then we had to move here [Asia Society]. The environment changed so much that I felt that I couldn’t continue the process, or I would have to redo the entire painting. So I had to show it in its current state.
(I had a ton of other questions I could have asked him--and I especially wanted to find out more about his last visit to New York in 2009 when he was arrested for writing graffiti in the subway. Maybe next time there will be more time for that sort of fun...)
ArtSlant would like to thank Yoshitomo Nara, Tomio Koyama Gallery and the Asia Society Museum, New York for their assistance in making this interview possible.
(Above images: Nobody's Fool, installation views; Photo courtesy Elsa Ruiz)