Japan Society exhibit says goodbye to Hello Kitty

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March 18, 2011, 6:22 a.m. | World — by Associated Press
NEW YORK, New York (AP) — In a catalog essay for a new exhibition at the Japan Society, curator David Elliott talks about a pervasive anxiety in Japanese culture. He links it to Japan's history as the only nation to endure an atomic bombing and to its location in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which makes the archipelago susceptible at any time to a devastating earthquake. Elliott's words could not have been more prescient as Japan struggles to recover from the March 11 earthquake, now measured at 9.0, that triggered a catastrophic tsunami and the worst nuclear crisis since Chernobyl.

Despite the tragedy, the Japan Society, which is leading a fundraising drive for victims of the earthquake, proceeded with plans Thursday to open the exhibition and announced that half the proceeds of ticket sales will go for disaster relief.

"Bye Bye Kitty!!!" showcases the work of a younger generation of Japanese artists who reject the childlike, "cute" aesthetic of contemporary Japanese pop culture, exemplified by comic books (manga), animation (anime) and the ubiquitous white cat of Hello Kitty merchandise.

New Yorkers may be familiar with one of the artists in the show: Makoto Aida, whose work struck a raw nerve in post-9/11 New York. It was with a piece from 1996, included in a 2003 show at the Whitney Museum, showing Japanese fighter planes bombing midtown Manhattan.

This exhibition features three of his works, including a beautiful, 23-foot(7-meter)-wide painting appearing to depict mountains rising out of the mist, in the tradition of Chinese landscape painting. But closer inspection reveals that the mountain is composed of meticulously drawn and painted corpses of salarymen (Japan's "new" middle-class workers) draped over their office furniture.

If the painting, titled "Ash Color Mountains," stands as a critique of Japan's conformist corporate culture, then "Harakiri School Girls," showing seductive schoolgirls in leg warmers ecstatically disemboweling themselves, is a sardonic take on the ritual suicide associated with the samurai code of honor.

Nature, and the destructive effect humans have on the natural world, is another recurring motif in the show. Inspired by the delicate patterns of leaf veins, sculptor Tomoko Shioyasu made a stunning, room-size membrane of cut paper that casts giant shadows on the wall behind it. Akira Yamaguchi's meticulous ink and watercolor drawings of Narita Airport depict the concrete, commercial behemoth outside Tokyo through beautiful golden clouds of toxic smog.

One of the most arresting works is Kohei Nawa's "PixCell Deer," a taxidermy animal covered with a grotesque, yet beautiful skin of different-sized, transparent glass globes. These shimmering beads act like a magnifying lens, reflecting the hide of the animal underneath and the people, lights and movement in the gallery.

Elliott says that with this show, he wanted to say goodbye to Hello Kitty and show "an adult view of life." He deserves credit for bringing difficult, at times unsettling, work by a largely unknown group of artists to these shores.

The show opens March 18 and closes June 12 in New York City. It will not travel.
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