Welcome back to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism by TokyoMango blogger Lisa Katayama. There's a lot of buzz about Japanese contemporary artists these days. Takashi Murakami's super-cute, superflat alien-like characters are on everything from Louis Vuitton bags to the pages of io9. But he isn't the first or only Japanese artist on our radar. This week, I'm going to introduce you to two very cool futurist artists whom I love, Yayoi Kusama and Mariko Mori. One of them has spent her life covering the world with polka dots, and the other traveled the globe in her own alien pod.
Yayoi Kusama, godmother of contemporary Japanese art, is perhaps our best example of a person from the past who has a mind from the future. Her brain literally works like a computer-instead of seeing bits, she sees dots. All her artwork is inspired directly by her hallucinations. "She is probably the most well-known contemporary artist in her country," says William Stover, a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston who exhibited her work earlier this year. "She puts her visions down on canvas in a very physical way, and that has inspired a lot of younger artists." (Murakami's repetition of flowers and cutsey characters is one famous example.)
Kusama lives in a mental hospital near her studio in Tokyo because psychiatrists don't understand how her complex brain functions (she's obviously a genius). She turns 80 next year, but that hasn't stopped her momentum of obsessive, repetitive dot-drawing. Dot dot dot dot dot. That's what she sees, so that's what she draws. Abused as a child, suicidal as a teen, and plagued with OCD for the ensuing half century and beyond, she has often claimed that her objective in life is to obliterate herself and her world through art. The dots, Kusama has said, symbolize disease: she often covers herself in them, and when that's not enough, she covers museum walls, random objects, and public statues in them as well. Of course, her art is so famous and cool that nobody objects. Walking into a Kusama-dotted room really feels like walking into an alternate universe.
Kusama is also a feminist, and played an iconic part in the avant-garde movement in the fifties. She was friends with Georgia O'Keefe, exhibited work with Andy Warhol, inspired Yoko Ono, and had a love affair with Donald Judd. She moved from Tokyo to New York City when she was 28, and stayed there for two decades.
A 1999 interview in Bomb Magazine gives us a glimpse into her world:
As an obsessional artist, I fear everything I see. At one time, I dreaded everything I was making. The armchair thickly covered in phalluses was my psychosomatic work done when I had a fear of sexual vision. I glued male sexual patterns on women's clothes and sprayed them completely with silver paint.
Now you tell me what human mind from the present could give an interview like that. Onto my next futurist fave, Mariko Mori.
Mori is a model-turned-artist who uses various high-tech media to portray how she experiences dichotomies like past and future, alien and human, fact and fiction. Nobody seems to be able to fit her in one category-critics have previously called her things like cyberchick-meets-Barbarella, geisha girl-meets-Gidget, goddess-meets-Princess Leia.
I like to think that Mori is the ultimate personification of the bipolarity of Japan. On one hand, the country is racing ahead of the rest of the world in applying technology to everyday life. But it is also a culture deeply embedded with tradition. Mori isn't afraid to combine aliens with Buddhas or to experiment with materials and concepts normally unheard of in the art world. She spent part of her thirties voyaging to historic sites across the world in a time-traveling alien pod. When she got back, she created the Wave UFO, a giant teardrop-shaped spaceship that shows visitors their brainwaves as projections on the wall while they sit in Technogel lounge chairs. "The past, present, and future exist in harmony in her work," says Stover. "It represents the space-ageyness of Japan."
Here, you see Mori surrounded by aliens reminiscent of Inochi-kun, the half-human, half-alien schoolboy in Murakami's mini-TV series.
Both Kusama and Mori have been internationally recognized and lauded for their amazing work. In 2006, Kusama became the first female to receive a National Lifetime Achievement Award in art from the Japanese government; Mori is still one of the most active and prominent Japanese artists in the world, and works out of her studio in NYC. Images by AP, Mariko Mori, Yayoi Kusama, and Jason Schmidt.