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Bye Bye Kitty!!! Overcoming Kawaii in Japanese Art

April 28, 2011

by Barry Lord

Makoto Aida (1965– ) Harakiri School Girls (detail), 2002

The Japan Society in New York is currently hosting a new exhibition entitled Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art. The exhibition features the works of Makoto Aida, Yamaguchi Akira, Manabu Ikeda and two female artists, Miwa Yanagi and Tomoko Kashiki.  The title of the exhibition refers to a phenomenon which Gail and I noted very strongly during our trip to Japan—kawaii, or “cuteness”—that has become prominent in Japanese pop culture. Bye Bye Kitty!!! is a reference to Hello Kitty, a classic kawaii character created by the Sanrio Company in 1974.

The works featured in Bye Bye Kitty!!! present a challenge to kawaii stereotypes, described by Peter Schjeldahl in the March 28, 2011 issue of The New Yorker as “the treacly export charm of big-eyed representations of kids and animals”.  The exclamation points in the title “track an insecure teen’s clamor for attention” as he says, “emphasis, overkill, hysteria.” Schjeldahl —and perhaps the exhibition catalogue—contrasts Bye Bye Kitty!!! to a 2005 show called Little Boy, which wallowed in kawaii and was curated by Takashi Murakami (who Schjeldahl describes as an exemplar of kawaii, and “the master of plastic-fantastic puerility.”) The title of that show refers to the code name of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. Murakami’s incisive point was that the infantilism of kawaii—and the “unlovely kinks” that go with it—arise from the psychosis of suffering from the atomic bomb, the defeat of Japanese imperialism and the consequent de-militarization of the country. This rings true to me as the cultural roots of kawaii, and explains why such a kitsch phenomenon is so strong in an otherwise extremely sophisticated and un-kitsch society.

Both the exhibition catalogue and the review were obviously written before the earthquake and tsunami with their current nuclear aftermath. Clearly the present experience at Fukashima and its possible effect on Tokyo—currently radiation in the water—will dramatically intensify the “victim” neurosis underlying the fondness for kawaii, making the artists that are surmounting it in this show all the more interesting and important.

There is a wider cultural significance; victimhood is one of the problematic characteristics of global culture as many commentators have observed. I’ve just recently read Alain Badiou’s brilliant little book, The Century (La Siecle), in which he contrasts the victimhood that engulfs us today with the much more proactive role of “the new man” who was the ideal of the 20th century. The Japanese experience of victimhood is unique because it arises from that symbol of 20th century science and technology—the atomic bomb. Now that they are experiencing the downside of their commitment to nuclear energy, they are going to have an even more intense struggle with kawaii—and so the attempt of some artists to overcome kawaii is doubly interesting, not just for Japan but more generally for the agenda of the arts in the 21st century.

The importance of the source of surplus energy in Japan—nuclear energy—and its centrality to culture is closely connected to the theme of cultural change. The source of surplus energy has a unique importance in every society. Everyone at all socio-economic levels in every society and throughout history is and always has been conscious of the sources of surplus energy. Changes in the source of surplus energy are major changes in society that artists respond to in their work, and that patrons and the public welcome or resist, depending on its impacts on them. The history of changes in surplus energy—from the first big source which is simply our ability to work together through more intensive organizations of labour such as slavery and feudalism; and from wood in the days when land ownership was the principle source of wealth (important as a source of energy as well as a food source) through the coal age after so many forests have been cleared, and on to oil as portrayed in the latest collection by Edward Burtynsky. There has been a transition from coal to oil as the dominant new energy source, transferring the source of value from production (its locus in the coal age) to consumption in the oil age. The preoccupation with brands, the credit economy that makes consumerism possible and other phenomena are related to the oil age.

In our latest book, Artists, Patrons, and the Public: Why Culture Changes (AltaMira Press, 2010), Gail and I speculate on current shifts in energy sources, including the significance of the reliance on nuclear energy in France, suggesting an even more intense preoccupation with luxury brands such as Vuitton, Francois Pinault and others as patrons. However, we might have noted the specific situation of Japan: the lack of oil is what drove imperial Japan to fight for it when the U.S. and the U.K. cut the Japanese off from the oil sources around Indonesia. That in turn led to the psychosis of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the cultural explosion of the values associated with emperor worship. Postwar Japan not only accepted demilitarization and the passive role that went along with it, but also recognized the need to convert from oil to nuclear energy as a primary source of surplus energy, even though the dangers of doing so in an earthquake-prone country are well known to them. In our book we do cite Murakami as an exemplar of the even more intense presentation of the artist as a brand that we suggest is also apparent in France with its stand on nuclear energy. But as this exhibition shows, kawaii is a manifestation of the victimhood arising from the psychosis of Hiroshima prolonged by a neurotic reliance on nuclear energy in an earthquake zone and now the intense experience of the results of that reliance. So an exhibition of artists who propose to go beyond kawaii is extremely interesting as an example of artists discovering something new, which is just now presenting its meanings to patrons through this exhibition. And because victimhood is a much more widespread phenomenon, the artists and the exhibition matter to all of us.

Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art is on display at the Japan Society Gallery between March 18 and June 12, 2011. http://www.japansociety.org/gallery

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Barry Lord

About The Author

Barry Lord is the author of Art & Energy: How Culture Changes (The AAM Press, 2014) and Co-President of Lord Cultural Resources.

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