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Monday, April 25, 2005

The Exhibition That Ought to Be an Essay

Japan Society’s current exhibition, Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture, leads the field of spring shows in terms of press exposure. In one respect, that’s the way it should be. The show, curated, by Takashi Murakami, presents an important and compelling thesis on contemporary Japanese culture.

That thesis, though, isn’t thoroughly supported or developed in the small installation at Japan Society. Murakami’s idea would be better illustrated in a catalogue essay than it is by the exhibition.

Given the amount of hype it has received, the show is surprisingly small. Filling the modest second floor gallery space at Japan Society and spilling out across the city with a few pieces of public art, Murakami doesn’t really have the space to thoroughly illustrate his concept of “superflat.” And that’s a shame.

Murakami’s reading of Japanese society’s reaction to the atomic bombing and forced demilitarization is insightful. It’s an example of what every scholar practicing cultural studies should aspire to. The show, though, doesn’t present enough work to fully illustrate the idea or tease out its nuances.

A mixture of commercial products (one installation contains more Hello Kitty product than I’ve ever seen in one place), regional mascot costumes, Godzilla toys, anime, and painting, the show illustrates the interconnectedness between what we in the West consider to be high and low art.

Because of the limited space, though, the installation shortchanges the originating concept for the show. Walking through the installation I wished for more painting. I didn’t want less of the cute product Murakami includes in the show, but I did want to see more examples of how painters, sculptors, and print makers are responding to popular culture’s infatuations.

The most interesting aspect of the show is the dialectic that emerges between the commercial products and the work of what we call fine artists. There just isn’t enough art in the show, though, to produce the level of dialogue that Murakami’s reading of culture warrants.

My advice: save the $12 admission charge and use it to buy the catalogue when it is released on May 1. I’m assuming the argument will be well made there. And that it will be fully illustrated.

Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (through July 24, 2005) at Japan Society.

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