What to make of Makoto Aida? One day, he’s filling a giant blender with thousands of naked young girls and whirring them into a bloody concoction. The next he’s piling up dead salarymen into a great mountain — nay, several great mountains, which recede majestically into the foggy distance.
Of course, neither activity is carried out in real life; Aida is an artist, and, as such, he restricts his grotesqueries to the realm of painting. But still, it doesn’t take too much hand-on-the-chin contemplation in front of one of his finely wrought vistas to realize that the guy has some serious, err, issues.
Some have called Aida, who despite his 47 years maintains the disheveled appearance of an art student, a genius. In fact, so many have applied the epithet that he has playfully dubbed his new retrospective at Tokyo’s Mori Art Museum “Tensai de Gomennasai,” which roughly translates as “sorry for being a genius.” (The official English title comes from one of his artworks: “Monument for Nothing.”)
The accolades are not misplaced. Paintings such as “Blender” and “Ash Color Mountains” (described above, respectively) are at first glance shockingly crude, but they are by no means superficial. As a viewer, you need to remind yourself that Aida’s selection of such subject matter stems not from an interest in people so much as in typecasts: “young girl,” “salaryman.” And then you need to ask yourself why he might choose to depict the former in a way that suggests they’d make a good milkshake and the latter in a way that suggests they’re spectacularly inept.
Aida manages to give his paintings a facade of ugliness, inanity and frivolity, while at the same time imbuing them with wit, beauty, irony and pathos. Any resemblance to contemporary Japan on those counts is, of course, entirely intentional.
The new Mori Art Museum retrospective, which commences Saturday, provides a good opportunity to explore Aida’s work. It is the largest he’s ever held, with pieces dating back to the 1980s, when he was a student at Tokyo University of the Arts. The timing is significant, too — just 20 months after the Great East Japan Earthquake. It turns out that the prevalence of death and destruction in Aida’s paintings is no coincidence. Disaster, he says, is one of the key components of his thinking.
“When the quake happened in northern Japan my only real thought was, well, when it comes, it comes. I think I’m relatively pessimistic. Ever since I was young I have had this sort of vision that one day Japan, or Tokyo will be hit by some disaster and be destroyed,” he says. “And, of course, one day, that vision will come true.”
The frequency of natural disasters in Japan is often invoked in explaining elements of the nation’s aesthetic, from lightweight wood-and-paper architecture to the ephemeral beauty of ikebana (flower arranging). It goes a long way to explaining Aida’s art, too.
His breakout painting — the one that put him on the map in the local art world — was a not uncommon attempt to explore Japan’s complex relationship with the United States. Aida’s approach, though, was odd. He created a vision of Armageddon, aping the style of classical folding-screen paintings to depict a squadron of World War II-era Zero fighter planes attacking Manhattan.
Crude and insensitive? Of course (even when you consider that it predates the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks). But to focus on the facade would be to miss what lies beneath.
For Aida, “Picture of an Air Raid on New York City (War Picture Returns)” (1996) is an earnest exploration of the Japanese psyche, wherein contemporary frustrations surrounding a perceived inability to compete with the world’s sole superpower in everything from the economy, political influence, sport and culture sits oh-so uncomfortably with memories of Japan’s momentarily “successful” attempt in the mid 20th century to assert itself on the global stage.
For Aida, it seems, pretty much every concern is visualized in the context of disaster. His piling up of dead salarymen in “Ash Color Mountains” is another example. Crude and insensitive? On the surface, yes. But again, that fantastical vision is also a tool to pull together his feelings about something only loosely related: contemporary Japanese company workers, their companies, and, perhaps, their dogged — though apparently futile — dedication to the cause of Japan Inc.
How did Aida end up like this?
At first he says his consciousness of disaster is “normal” for someone from a country with so many earthquakes. But there are other factors, too.
“When I was young my parents often talked about the bombing during the war, which was particularly severe where they were, in Niigata Prefecture. It must have seemed like the end of the world,” he says. “Also, the year before I was born there was a very large earthquake in Niigata, so I was always told about that.”
Aida also recalls a boom in popularity of Nostradamus’ predictions when he was a child, and he was always surrounded by manga that depicted cataclysmic events.
“Ever since I can remember, I’ve sort of just been aware that it could all come to an end, that the human race could be wiped out at any moment,” he says. “Other people talk about the suffering in Tohoku very passionately and expansively, but I don’t really feel I could do that.”
For someone who had spent much of his life thinking about disasters, the events of March 11, 2011, were just not all that shocking. One of the Mori Art Museum exhibition’s highlights is a major new painting that will likely remind viewers of the tsunami-devastated northeast, but in fact he has been developing it for years.
“I have always been interested in animals that thrive in disaster,” Aida says. “I have drawn cockroaches before, but I had always wanted to do something about crows.”
The new painting is massive — a 10-meter-long vista in black and gray depicting a broken-down town. Utility poles are bending over and everywhere there are crows, sitting or swooping, and apparently satisfied with their now exclusive domain.
“There is not much depicted in the painting, really. It just sort of gives a hint of the mood that might come after a disaster,” he says of the work, which is titled “Electric Poles, Crows and Others.”
Another new painting that will debut at the exhibition is “Jumble of 100 Flowers,” in which he returns to the same themes he explored in “Blender.”
Dozens of naked life-size women are seen running toward the viewer. Superimposed on top of this scene are gunsights in a style that Aida describes as being “like a video game where you have to shoot zombies.”
The key difference with most video games is that where theses girls have been shot they do not emit blood, but instead objects representing childlike sweetness: strawberries, chocolates and so on. As with “Blender,” the painting has a facade of crudeness and inanity, but there’s also a message inside, and it has something to do with Japan’s obsession with cuteness — the so-called culture of kawaii.
Perhaps Aida is saying that the pursuit of cute turned Japan’s young girls into zombies, who care for little else? Or perhaps the painting’s focus is more on the unseen boys, who are presumably controlling the gunsights? Is this the only way they know to interact with the opposite sex?
Aida doesn’t dwell on the details of his paintings’ interpretations, but he is happy to discuss some of the sources of his ideas.
“I used to enjoy reading the advertisements for weekly magazines that you see inside trains,” he says. “They have one-line teasers of their stories written in a sensationalist way, and they give me hints.”
Designed primarily for a readership of middle-aged men, such magazines often carry articles about the degeneration of youth — perhaps in terms of its mindless obsession with cuteness or, on the part of boys, an apparent preference for virtual relationships over real ones.
Still, Aida says in this past year he has supplemented magazine ads with another source: Twitter. “It’s similar to the ads in that there are so many short, pithy statements of opinion,” he says.
He was so taken by the social-media tool that he made Twitter the focus of another new work. “Monument for Nothing IV” is a wall-mounted relief about 5.5 meters in height depicting one of the Fukushima nuclear power plant reactor buildings. On it he has pasted printouts of some 700 tweets that people wrote about the disaster — a modern form of graffiti, if you like.
“I initially thought I’d just join Twitter to get information, but I came across this flood of opinion about the nuclear disaster,” he says. “I felt like I’d be swallowed up by it.”
Of course, Aida did not drown in the “flood” of tweets, but from his choice of words it’s possible to see how once again he draws on the language of disaster to frame a new idea. This time, his idea was about the dynamism of the debate surrounding the nuclear crisis, and, perhaps, how that debate might end up being about as ephemeral as graffiti in a country where making your opinion known publicly is frowned upon.
“I thought it would be good to record all of that in some physical form,” he says.
“Aida Makoto: Monument for Nothing” runs at Mori Art Museum from Nov. 17 to March. 31, 2013 (10 a.m. till 10 p.m., till 5 p.m. on Tuesdays; ¥1,500 for adults). For more details, call (03) 5777-8600 or visit www.mori.art.museum.
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