Hanayo and Tenko: through a lens blurrily

Has the Tokyo art world found a new celebrity?

by Monty Dipietro

Cocky, irreverant and devil-may-care, invariably to be found surrounded by admirers as he holds forth from behind a big fat cigar, the Neo-Pop painter Takashi Murakami has for the last few years been one of Japan’s leading international art stars.

In no small part, this may be due to him borrowing big-time from the Andy Warhol route-map to celebrity, specifically the part that says an artist’s public image often plays a bigger role in advancing their reputation than the work they produce. And it seems that on the celebrity-starved Tokyo art scene, another bright young thing will be following in similar footsteps.

The positively wacky Hanayo Nakajima — “Hanayo,” as she calls herself — has built quite a cult following in Europe and America over the last decade. The 32-year-old multi- disciplinary artist, who is based in Berlin, is now showing at the Gallery Koyanagi, on the Ginza Strip, where she has some 50 color photographs on display.

These are recent works, taken over the last 18 months, but you wouldn’t know that by looking at them. Hanayo uses an old camera and — I’m guessing because she won’t say — out-of-date or treated film, with the result that her prints have the sort of soft-focus, pale-hued look of 1960s snapshots.

The print sizes and frame types vary, and many of the pictures are of her now 5-year-old daughter, Tenko, which further reinforces the old family- snapshot aesthetic Hanayo has created here.

These are personal and fairly intimate glimpses of the world that a mother sees through the eyes of her young daughter. Although most of the backgrounds and thus the locations are vague at best, it certainly seems that Hanayo and Tenko get around. The manic stream of images communicates a shared love of life, while bringing about a sort of real-time nostalgia — the present is gone, Hanayo is saying, bring on the present.

Hanayo’s pictures have their appeal, but they are not necessarily being shown in as respected a gallery as the Koyanagi simply on their own merit. The reason they are here — and what is more interesting anyway — is Hanayo herself.

“Weird” is the word to describe her background: She was born in America, the daughter of a NASA scientist, and came to Japan in her late teens to train as a “junior geisha,” later publishing an account of the experience in her 1991 book, “O-shaku-chan No. 1. (No. 1 Little Barmaid)”

She got herself a scholarship to the Sorbonne, but then went AWOL from the ne plus ultra of French academia. Instead, Hanayo became an au pair but, out of boredom, made a point of stealing from her Parisian employers. She was caught and deported, and ended up in Tokyo where she hosted the television show “Super Natural-Nenten Story,” got involved with musicians and bands such as Violent Onsen Geisha and released an album, “Queen of Pseudo Psycho,” with Vapid Dolly. Great band-namer, is Hanayo — her latest ensemble is called Pain Cake (with Locust Fudge).

Besides all this, Hanayo has done theater, starred in a Shane O’Sullivan film and modeled for a Jean-Paul Gaultier advertising campaign. She’s also on record saying that the duty of a woman is to be a companion to a man. She admires the writing of Yukio Mishima, whom she has referred to as her “only real teacher.”

(Some people say Hanayo’s two front teeth are removable. Fact or fiction? A little of both, I would guess, but it doesn’t really matter — an image is an image, even when it’s an illusion.)

Hanayo plays a little game when I talk to her at the Koyanagi opening party. She pretends to be devastated when I tell her I want to mention the type of camera she uses to achieve the effects in her pictures. She pouts, her eyes pleading, “Please, that’s a secret,” and now coquettish, “Don’t tell, please.” I find myself thinking that she has taken me into her confidence, and that gives me a little thrill. One wants to believe that Hanayo’s behavior isn’t affected — and that her extraordinary world isn’t make-believe, too.

But putting on a performance works the trick of getting you noticed. Murakami was Japan’s contemporary- art first, and he’s still doing it. Last week I heard from a Canadian art-writer friend that Murakami’s new show, at Toronto’s respected Power Plant Gallery, features a video of Japanese World War II propaganda films spliced with images of the World Trade Center collapse. My friend described the work as “fallacious revisionist history” that leaves the viewer in “biting confusion.”

Some people, I guess, will do anything to get attention, and I suppose Hanayo is like Murakami in that she needs to be famous for her art to work.