“I was drawing a lot back then. I had no money to buy canvas because I spent it all buying records.”
To talk about Yoshitomo Nara, one cannot dismiss his passion for rock music. Since his youth in the late 1970s, Nara has been tremendously influenced by the essence of punk culture and underground rock music; they have not only contributed to his particular frame of mind growing up, but also seeped deeply into the backbones of his distinctive artistic practice. Beneath the adorable presence of children and animals is, in reality, a rebellious attitude that sets him apart from the group of Neo Pop artists from the 1990s in Japan, making him one of the most popular Japanese contemporary artists of all time. The large scale Rock’n Roll the Roll (Lot 54) is an exceptional billboard painting produced by the artist in 2009. The work is not only the perfect testament to Nara’s love for rock music, but more importantly, it also represents a key stage within the artist’s creative career after the millennium, when he began to collaborate with architecture and design collective graf on creating a series of small huts within exhibition spaces, exploring beyond both the surface of canvas and small scale drawings. Exhibited at the 2010 exhibition “Garden of Painting: Japanese Art of the 00s” at the National Museum of Art in Osaka, the lot on offer proves to be all the more significant as it becomes part of the core emblem to represent figurative works from Japan since the mid-1990s.
Born in Hirosaki, a city in the Aomori Prefecture hours away from Tokyo, the artist has always addressed loneliness in his childhood as a central theme in his work. As he once said, “When I was young, I did not find any stimulus. But after growing up, looking back at my own childhood gives me inspiration [for my work].”1 His later stay in Germany while studying at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1988 was another important period in which this feeling resurfaced, “What is important for me was I could stay alone, like my childhood. Grey sky, cold, and isolated. I couldn’t speak but I think so much. It is the kind of feeling like my childhood.”2 The notion of loneliness, freedom, and independence from Nara’s early life would ultimately all infused into the portraits of isolated children against plain backgrounds, as evident in this work, dominating the visuals of the artist’s works since the early 1990s.
Up until the 2000s, Nara has always been producing works alone in his studio. His collaboration with graf in 2003 on his solo exhibition “S.M.L.”, has greatly influenced his works after the millennium, with the inclusion of small houses within exhibition spaces. For Nara himself, the experience of working with others had a great impact on his emotional view. “It is like working together with your first friend. The feeling is totally different from working alone. The joy you get from achieving the task does not belong to you anymore, but rather you share it with others, and this makes the joy even greater. Maybe other people have already known about this, but I did not.”3 With the introduction of the small houses, aside from drawings and paintings, Nara also began to work on a series of large size billboard paintings, which are essentially acrylic on wooden panels that can be shown outside of a gallery wall setting. According to the artist, this format of stepping away from typical white cube gallery spaces is fundamentally a challenge to the viewer’s experience. “Rather than merely offering the work for the
viewers to see face-on, I want to trigger their imaginations. This way, each individual can see my work with his or her own unique, imaginative mind. People with very imaginative minds perhaps can see something more than I can, and the reverse is true: to those with no imagination, my work will appear just like rubbish.”4
The monumental Rock’n Roll the Roll from 2009 can be considered to be an important highlight from this body of works, fully exemplifying Nara’s skillful attempt in conquering a vast surface of readymade materials, and at the same time remaining faithful to his own signatory aesthetics. The composition of the painting is divided into two parts; on the right is a full-body portrait of a young girl in a pastel green dress playing to her guitar, while on the left is the boldly scrawled slogan “Rock’n Roll the Roll”. The simple contours, oversized bulbous head, and malevolent glare of the girl are precisely unique characteristics of Nara’s children image. It is this distinctive portrayal that has gained Nara an indisputable status at the forefront of Japanese contemporary art, featuring in numerous solo and group exhibitions across the world.
The disproportionate body of the girl and the playful rendition would also resemble aesthetics of the ukiyo-e woodblock prints produced between 17th and 20th centuries. An example can be found in Woman Playing Musical Instruments by Katsushika Ôi in which three women from the Edo period are seen playing their musical instruments together. The emphasis on the pleasurable quarters in life certainly echoes the unrestrained attitude in Nara’s artistic practice. At the same time, this subtle linkage with the ancient art form pays forward to the artist’s intricate position within the course of Japanese art history.
The influence of rock music is also undeniably present in the lot on offer. On many different occasions, the artist is known to work alone in his studio with music blasting in the background. In an interview with curator Melissa Chiu for his 2010 solo exhibition at the Asia Society in New York, entitled “Nobody’s Fool”, the artist has further explained, “Music certainly played a major role in the formation of me as an individual. The influence of music on me is far more significant than that of manga and other things that people talk about.”5 When he was in his teenage years, while many of his friends turned towards mainstream rock bands such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the young Nara would instead search for tunes from independent labels. Songs by the Ramones especially struck a chord with the inner sentiments of the young Nara, igniting a call for unrestricted freedom and independence that would translate into the artist’s life philosophy.
As the artist recalls, “One such night, one song that played from the radio blew my mind… My whole precocious self was blown away! That song lit a fire in my raw teenage emotion. It was the Ramones! And then Sex Pistols, and The Clash, and Bob Marley… They gave me an answer to how I’d live my life from then on.”6 The striking red text with dark outline and the guitar in this lot are crucial visual cues that remarkably pinpoint this youthful revolution embraced not only by Nara’s children, and more importantly, the artist himself. Instead of residing safely within the comfort of drawings and canvas paintings that first gave rise to his fame, Nara’s determination to experiment beyond the limit of standard medium is, without a doubt, an impressive feat that distinguishes him among his peers. It is also arguably a crucial factor that makes him of extreme relevance to the Japanese contemporary culture even today, indeed, serving as a living paradigm to his lifelong motto: “Never forget your beginner’s spirit!”
1 Sakabe Koji, Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara, Viz Pictures, Inc., 2009
2 Refer to 1
3 Refer to 1
4 Melissa Chiu, “A Conversation with the Artist”, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, Asia Society, 2010
5 Refer to 4
6 “Nara Voice: Selections from the Artist’s Blog”, Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, Asia Society, 2010
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