R ock’n’roll rebellion meets poignant vulnerability in Nara Yoshitomo’s universally celebrated oeuvre, not least in Life is only one! and There is no place like home —two classical Nara pieces that bear two of the artists most signature inscriptions. The quintessential Nara phrase “Life is only one!”, an ambiguous yet striking affirmation that appears frequently in the artist’s oeuvre, was the headlining title of Nara’s major solo retrospective at Asia Society Hong Kong Center last year. “There is no place like home” is also an oft-repeated Nara axiom: juxtaposed against the artist’s iconic sulking and disgruntled child figures, the age-old idiom is subverted into an indignant accusation, proclaiming a personal and universal truth of childhood loneliness and alienation.
NARA YOSHIMOTO, LIFE IS ONLY ONE! 2008 OIL ON WOOD 169X254CM ESTIMATE HK$6,000,000 – 8,000,000. © NARA YOSHITOMO
"Into this house we’re born – Into this world we’re thrown – Like a dog without a bone – An actor out on loan – Riders on the storm"
Nara was born in 1959 in Hirosaki in the Aomori Prefecture. His formative years were marked—if not marred—by intense feelings of isolation: born to emotionally distant workaholic parents in post-war Japan and growing up as the youngest of three sons by a drastic age difference, Nara’s childhood was for the most part spent alone. The artist once admitted in an interview: “When you are a kid, you are too young to know you are lonely, sad, and upset… Now I know I was.” Transforming his intense feelings into art, Nara immortalised his loneliness in portrait after portrait of young solitary children set against barren backgrounds, building a distinctive and universally resonant oeuvre that quickly gained an explosive worldwide cult following.
NARA YOSHIMOTO, THERE IS NO PLACE LIKE HOME, 1995, ACRYLIC ON CANVAS. ESTIMATE HK$ 6,500,000 – 8,500,000. © NARA YOSHITOMO
Nara’s endearing creations fuse anime, Pop Art and punk rock, combining mischief and innocence to convey a beguiling sugary sweetness on the surface that melts to reveal darker angsts. While immediately reminiscent of Pop and exuding an undeniable Lichtenstein-esque vibe, the artist’s reductive figurations draw also on Modernism’s sign-like shorthand language of images to leaving endless space for fantasy for the child as well as adult viewer. Formally, his works evoke hints of traditional Japanese forms from the East; as Stephan Trescher writes, “[…] the full-body portrait in front of a neutral background, the relationship between figure and the picture plane, the image-object and the empty surrounding space, the connection between the image sign and the text sign, the blurring of the boundary between printmaking and painting – all can be found in Nara’s art as well as in colored prints from the 18th and 19th centuries by Hiroshige, Hokusai or Utamaro”.
NARA YOSHIMOTO, DOGGY RADIO X RIMOWA, 2011. MEDIUM: POLYMER AND FIBERGLASS STEREO WITH FM RADIO, BLUETOOTH, USB PORT, HEADPHONE JACK AND YAMAHA SPEAKER SYSTEM; RIMOWA SUITCASE. ESTIMATE HK$ 30,000 – 40,000. © NARA YOSHITOMO
Executed on wood and emblazoned with an inscription separate from image, Life is only one! in particular displays stylistic affinities with Japanese ukiyo woodcut. The child’s closed eyes and scurrying feet suggest a mind-numbed sleepwalk; an ironic contrast to the life-affirming message beside her. Both lots are executed in the bright cheerful colors characteristic of the artist, exuding a heroic courage and gallant humor in face of biting, gnawing melancholy and solitude. In There is no place like home, in lieu of a warm and cheerful ‘home’, the three children sit instead in a coffin-like box, brooding and pokerfaced in adorable cat costumes. The cat costumes are a recurrent theme; Nara once recalled in an interview: “When I was a child, I really liked cats. In my neighborhood, I didn’t have a friend my age. When I came home [after school] I was alone… So I always played with cats”.
NARA YOSHITOMO, THE LITTLE AMBASSADOR, 2000 ACRYLIC ON CANVAS. ESTIMATE. HK$16,000,000 – 24,000,000 / US$2,070,000 – 3,100,000.
Much like his characters, Nara’s fragile vulnerability is paralleled with a gallant rebellious streak; the famously soft-spoken artist was once arrested for drawing graffiti in New York’s Union Square underground. Conceptually, the artist’s oeuvre can be seen as “both a detached commentary on the pressures of Japanese adolescence and a symptom of it”; while his revolutionary aesthetic constitutes a seamless unification of Eastern and Western themes and motifs. In American critic Roberta Smith’s words, Nara is “one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring”, with art that bridges “high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile” and is “so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot”. The artist himself says: “I don’t think too hard about it. This is just what comes out”.