Lot 1038
  • 1038

Nara Yoshitomo

6,000,000 - 8,000,000 HKD
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  • Nara Yoshitomo
  • Life is Only One!
  • executed in 2008
  • oil on wood
titled in English, framed


Stephen Friedman Gallery, London
Private Collection
Sotheby's, London, 16 February, 2011, lot 232
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale


UK, Gateshead, Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, Yoshitomo Nara + graf, 2008
USA, New York, Asia Society, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody's Fool, 2010, p. 252


Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works 1984 - 2010, Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Tokyo, Japan, 2011, p. 236


This work is generally in good condition. When examined under ultraviolet light, there appears to be no evidence of restoration.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Life is Only One! 
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 – The Doors1

Rock’n’roll rebellion meets poignant vulnerability in Nara Yoshitomo’s universally celebrated oeuvre, not least in Life is Only one! (Lot 1038) and There is No Place Like Home (Lot 1039)—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 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 immortalized 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’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”.2

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 poker-faced 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”.3

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”;4 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 keitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile” and is “so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot”.5 The artist himself says: “I don’t think too hard about it. This is just what comes out”.6

The Doors: “Riders on the Storm” (L.A. Woman, 1971), quoted in Stephan Trescher, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”, in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Michael Zink Gallery, Munich, 2002, p. 9

2 Refer to 1, p. 11

3 Ariel Conant, "Artist Yoshitomo Nara brings his Life is Only One exhibit to Hong Kong", South China Morning Post, March 23, 2015

4 David McNeill, "Yoshitomo Nara: neo-pop artist who defies categorisation", South China Morning Post Magazine, March 5, 2015

5 Refer to 4

6 Refer to 4