Cycle: Kawaii! Japan today

Espai 13


This season the Espai 13 at the Joan Miró Foundation is opening its doors to young Japanese artists. Through the five exhibitions in the cycle titled “Kawaii! Japan today”, viewers are invited to discover some of the astonishing works by very young artists that provide a portrait of present-day Japanese society.

Visions of Japan
The 2007-2008 season in the Espai 13 at the Joan Miró Foundation focuses on the land of the rising sun in order to look at the artistic practices of the younger generation of Japanese artists as well as the historical and social contexts to which they belong. Each exhibition will enter the often strange and surprising universe of a single artist, but will also cover one or more broad themes that provide a portrait of Japanese society today. The osmosis between tradition and modernity, social and economic issues, the relationship with childhood and the search for identity are some of the approaches that appear in the works of Aya Takano, Erina Matsui, Chiho Aoshima, Tomoko Sawada and Kowei Nawa. These five artists – four female and one male – aged between 23 and 33, will be filling the Espai 13 with their paintings, drawings, sculptures, animated films, photographs and installations, creating a space for experimentation.

From the teenagers with pleated skirts that appear in mangas in Hello Kitti characters, these heroines of a new mythology are present in popular imagery from animated drawings to the products derived from them, and they are the symbol of a profound nostalgia for childhood. It is a nostalgia that is expressed through an incredible enthusiasm for everything that is kawaii. Kawaii is one of the most frequently repeated words in the language of Japanese youngsters. Very close to “cute”, kawaii denotes everything that is small and childlike. Rather than a fashion, it is a way of thinking, living and being. This popular Japanese culture has invaded the whole of Asia and reached Europe and the United States. From childhood to adulthood, the boys, and especially the girls, are obsessed with fanshi guzzu – a corruption of “fancy goods” – and gadgets of all types. The phenomenon has acquired such importance that it has become a sociological issue studied by writers, journalists, philosophers and sociologists. Experts emphasise the other face of kawaii:a profound nihilism, the negation of the present in favour of a return to childhood, a reflection in fact of the discontent running through Japanese society.

The works of Aya Takano and Chiho Aoshima fall into the category of kawaii, and this is particularly apparent in their sense of subversion and false innocence. The girls in kimonos with their huge eyes and graceful bodies depicted by Aya Takano (Saitama, 1976) evoke the traditional Japanese prints but also themodern emancipated girls seen on the streets of Tokyo. Chiho Aoshima (Tokyo, 1974) conjures up an amazing dream world in her computer drawings in acid colours. Her universe shifts between nightmare and anxiety, and her characters swing between magic and the violence of reality.

The shôjo revolution
In Shibuya, the girls in their school uniforms of short pleated skirts and long socks run laughing round the purikura, photo machines that allow you to select the type of photograph you want, personalise it with different types of frames, and then swap it. Many sociologists have called attention to this new phenomenon:the girls spend more and more time in the street, often moving around in gangs and dressed ostentatiously. The shôjo – meaning literally “half-woman” – or teenagers are the symbol of the mutation of society. They are described as girl-women, in a state of suspension between childhood and adulthood, a combination of the knowing and the innocent. Japanese women, previously responsible for upholding traditions, appear more and more as the instigator of the mutation of society. Somewhere between schoolgirl and femme fatale, the gyaru – a corruption of “girl” – is the new social and cultural force in Japan. The contemporary art scene confirms this trend, through female artists who produce inventive work that astonishes, fascinates and sometimes causes offence. The cycle of exhibitions in the Espai 13 underlines this fact: of the five artists, 4 are girls!

Twentieth-century art was marked in Japan by the considerable number of women at the head of the principal movements, such as Atsuko Tanaka (born 1932), who made an impact on the avant-garde Gutai group in the 1950s, or Yayoi Kusama (born 1929), a leading figure in the art world since the early 1960s. This trend is confirmed by artists of the generation of Mariko Mori (born 1967) and is very evident among those who are now in their thirties, to the extent that it is one of the most notable features of Japanese art today.

Proof of this search for identity among young Japanese women, Tomoko Sawada (born 1977) portrays herself in group photos (photographs of her class in which her own face is endlessly repeated) or in individual photo-machine prints. For her exhibition in the Espai 13 she will be producing a series of photographs on the extravagant fashions worn by the girls in Tokyo and in particular the golitha (a contraction of Gothic and Lolita) trend in the Harajuku district.

A world that is strange and dreamlike

Despite its great economic power that has provided the world with the image of a country with state-of-the-art technology, Japan has for some years been poised on an economic bubble:unemployment and lack of job security have become part of everyday life for the Japanese and the subject has begun to appear in artists’ work. However, instead of being a comment on the state of the world, it has become an opportunity to open the doors to the imaginary and the weird. For instance, Erina Matsui (Okayama, 1984) presents a personal world filled with strange poetic visions.

Many Japanese artists question the borderline between vision and perception by creating a delicate, dreamlike universe. Kowei Nawa (Osaka, 1975), with his drawings, sculptures and installations, plays on our perception of the world and invents objects imbued with a poetic strangeness. Projecting images on water, covering articles in glass beads, invading the space with giant molecular forms, Nawa completely transforms the original state of an image, an object or a place. <0}

With “Kawaii! Japan today”, the Joan Miró Foundation invites the public on a exceptional journey through the world of recent Japanese creative art and in doing so continues the spirit of discovery and experimentation, surprise and invention that characterises the Espai 13.

Hélène Kelmachter
Curator of the cycle