By C.B. Liddell
TOKYO, 9 OCTOBER 2007
Art, despite all its complexities and convolutions, is and always has been
simply a mirror of humanity. While one
artist expresses hope, another gives voice to fear. While one
explores our love of order, another expresses our fascination with chaos: together
all these fragments make up something resembling the human psyche.
This also explains artistic trends and why they never last. An artistic
trend is, in essence, an exaggeration of one element or aspect of the
human psyche reflected by art, and, because it is a distortion, its
duration is always limited. It is a cast iron rule that what is trendy
today will wither and fade in the future. This is especially true of
Japanese art, which is more trend-driven than anywhere else.
Contemporary Japanese art is, of course, complex
and diverse, but there are no denying its salient features its
cutey-ness and its manga-esque qualities typified by artists such as Takashi
Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, the two most established artists of
today. Their cartoonish creations reflect the playful otaku
sensibility of Japans consumer
culture, itself an expression of childish desire combined with a voluntary
alienation from reality.
But anyone who thinks their humor-inflected creations represent the
totality of what the Japanese are all about is sadly mistaken. The truth,
as always, is that large swathes of the Japanese psyche are not being
represented by mainstream artistic trends, and it is from these dark,
secret lands that future trends will inevitably emerge.
What they will be it is hard to predict, but, by
the very nature of things, they will be markedly different. As people get
bored with the comedic irony and pop-art immediacy of current trends, and
tire of its cheery atmosphere of cuteness and consumerist accessibility,
it is a reasonable assumption that they will head somewhere in the
opposite direction. One rising artist who is an almost polar opposite to
established trends is Fuyuko Matsui, who finds her visual vocabulary in
the painstaking artistic traditions of Nihonga
painting) and her subject matter in the her own dark and troubled mind, as
well as Japans ghostly past.
Fuyuko Matsui: Carved Limbs on an
Photo courtesy of Naruyama Gallery
"I dont like sweet and cute art," she tells
Culturekiosque on a visit
to the Naruyama Gallery in Tokyos Kudanshita, a mere stones throw from
Japans controversial Yasukuni Shrine. "Japanese art nowadays is like
that, but if we think in centuries, in the Kamakura period for example, it
was scarier, more ghostly. I want to return to that taste in my art."
Insane Woman under the Cherry Tree (2006) typifies her
approach. Beautifully and painstakingly painted, using traditional
Japanese pigments on silk, it depicts something quite horrifying, namely a
woman who is in the process of vomiting out her innards, including the
embryonic form of a child.
"Its a madwoman under the cherry blossom," she says. "It should be
Spring, but there are Autumn momiji leaves on her kimono."
As Japanese people often compare the hands of
babies to the five-fingered leaves of the momiji
(Japanese maple), this is a
characteristically subtle and ironic touch that may not be apparent in
such an obviously shocking piece.
With works like this and the equally shocking Keeping Up the
Pureness (2004) a sensation at the Tokyo Museum of Contemporary
Arts From Nihonga to Nihonga group show last year it might
seem that Matsui is out to shock and repel. But, on the contrary, the
artist sees the impact her images have as a device to bridge the gap
between artist and audience.
"I want to create a sympathy, a strong feeling, between the viewer and
myself," she explains. "In a way Im doing something that the viewer cant
do himself. Its like people who occasionally think about jumping under a
train. In my art Im actually jumping under the train. That shock Im
doing it for you."
Matsui in front of Nyctalopia, 2005
While many Japanese artists are influenced by things that are happening
in their contemporary environment, Matsuis artistic influences go back
centuries. For example, Insane Woman under the Cherry Tree is
inspired by Ogress under Willow Tree, a painting by Soga Shohhaku
(1730-1781), the iconoclastic Edo-period painter, who was himself deeply
influenced by the past, in his case, by the Muromachi Era painter Soga
Jasoku (d. 1483). Part of her interest in the past comes from her
background. She grew up in Shizuoka Prefecture in a house that had been in
her family for 14 generations.
"There were a lot of sansuiga [Indian ink landscape paintings] in our
tatami mat rooms," she recalls. "But the biggest influence I got was from
a fake Mona Lisa in the public library that I saw when I was in
the 3rd or 4th grade of elementary school. I studied Western oil painting
until I was 20, then I turned to Japanese painting."
Unlike Western painting, Nihonga tends to be more conservative. Despite
her growing success and popularity underpinned by her stunning good
looks Matsui has had to dedicate recent months to successfully
graduating from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music,
where she finished as the top graduate in her class. This has meant
learning to excel at techniques and styles from the centuriesold canon of
Japanse traditional art.
Although the techniques and styles of
Nihonga remain heavily traditional, innovative young artists like
Matsui and her colleagues from last years show at the Tokyo Museum of
Contemporary Art, like Kumi Machida and Hisashi Tenmyohya, are showing
much greater freedom in subject matter. This is giving the genre a
freshness that it has often lacked in the past. While Tenmyohyas richly
decorated images reflect modern working class culture garish trucks,
youth gangs, tattooed samurai and dance crazes with a touch of irony,
Matsuis paintings recast the traditional elements of Nihonga
flowers, animals, women, trees into powerful and
often horrific works that have all the shock value of the most cutting
edge modern art. So, from which deep, dark place do her pictures journey
"There are various things that inspire my paintings: first a strong
concept, second I have a mental picture and a concept, and third I just
randomly paint until something starts to appear, and, then, there are all
of these different ways combined."
According to Matsui, the image for Keeping Up the Pureness was
originally a mental image that occurred to her one night as she was trying
to get to sleep. Initially it looks like a murder scene, with a young
naked woman cut open to reveal her minutely painted organs. But, rather
than an image of female as victim, it is actually something more
empowering, she explains.
Fuyuko Matsui: Keeping Up the Pureness,
Photo courtesy of Naruyama Gallery
"Men and women are different. A mans power is throughout his body, but
a woman has her power in her uterus, so I think a womens body is centred
in the uterus. In a way, she is actually showing off, just like the
flowers in the picture are showing off their sexual parts."
Despite this, she denies that it is a feminist painting.
"I dont have any message," she affirms. "I just want to tell how it
feels to be a woman. Because Im a woman and I dont have a mans body, I
can only paint a womans feeling."
Regarding the ultimate purpose of the uterus that she paints in these
pictures, Matsui, like a growing number of young Japanese women, is
unmarried and childless, and seems inclined to stay that way.
"No. I dont feel a bit of responsibility to have a baby. If 80% of the
people all around the world think they were happy to be born, then I
might. Also if I were more happy, I might have more children. Im not
usually a happy person."
This moroseness is also apparent in Nyctalopia (2005), another
potent image that appeared at the MOT show. In this work a ghostly-looking
woman is apparently engaged in the act of garrotting a chicken. While
nyctalopia is a medical word meaning night
blindness, in Japanese the same meaning is conveyed by the term
or "chickens eyes."
Matsui connects this to emotional numbness caused by pain or overexposure
of the emotions, hence the poker-faced callousness of the womans
With such dark and powerful emotions powering her art, a more directly
expressive medium of art would seem natural. Why, then, has she been
attracted to a style that requires patience, precision, delicacy, and
control, rather than something heavier and more gestural?
"The mainstream of Nihonga today is
iwa enogu [stone powder pigment that does not dissolve in water
and needs to be applied with a thick glue solution]. Instead of iwa
, I felt I should paint very thin. Also,
using strong strokes is not the strongest way. Taking time and care leads
to deeper expression. Its like torture sticking pins in, is more
painful than big punches."
C. B. Liddell is a Tokyo-based journalist
who writes on culture for the International Herald Tribune Asahi Shimbun
newspaper. He last interviewed the American photographer Steve McCurry in
Thailand for Culturekiosque.com.
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