Flipping through the March issue of ARTnews, I happened on something amazing: a reason to write about Hello Kitty and art in the same post. The article in question, by Stephanie Murg, juxtaposes two art shows, one low and one highbrow. This year’s Art Basel Miami included a Sanrio “Small Gift” art show. For the company’s 50th anniversary, 50 well known contemporary artists contributed their own take on the iconic cute characters, mostly Hello Kitty herself. On the other end of the spectrum is “Bye Bye Kitty!!!: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art,” a show at the Japan Society and part of Asia Week in New York.
“Small Gift” has a lot of tongue-in-cheek, subversive (and I use that word as mildly as possible) takes on the global symbol of cute. As chiefly a celebratory event, there’s not anything particularly challenging about the works. They’re loud, modern, and bright – mostly things I wouldn’t mind hanging in my own apartment. The show is edgy in the same way as I am when I wear Hello Kitty earrings with my usual beatnik-ish outfits. An interesting point about the show is that most of the artists are popular Westerners. Shepard Fairey and Anthony Lister are among the big names. “Small Gift” is mainly for fun, and it’s put together by Sanrio, a way around an artistic dilemma. “Cute” is just not a word most people want attached to their artwork, nor is it something often considered worthy of acclaim. By gently sending up Hello Kitty, “Small Gift” gives viewers the chance to smirk while still indulging their younger sides.
However, to the artists in “Bye Bye Kitty,” the narrow focus on kawaii that often goes hand in hand with Western coverage of Japanese culture can be destructive. The show’s organizer, David Elliot, says:
I thought that some of the best contemporary Japanese art is the converse of the Western stereotype of it being either infantilistically cute or socially autistic…I wanted to show how many artists simultaneously work with and challenge esthetic tradition.
“Bye Bye Kitty” goes beyond being lightly subversive of cute. It exposes a beautiful and nuanced dark side to Japanese art that Westerners usually overlook. The artist that most struck me in relation to this dichotomy was Kumi Machida. Her clean lines and round shapes, when viewed at a glance, seems to share some visual cues with the art of “Small Gift” or the cute of Takashi Murakami. Machida’s childlike figures are disturbing in a way that’s hard to pinpoint. There’s an underlying edge of anxiety…the word dystopian hits me. The rest of the show, not at all limited to painting, includes meditations on the role of women in Japanese culture, foreign policy – a rather Liberty Leading the People piece by Makoto Aida depicts the tense relationship between Japan and Korea. Aida also gives the stereotypical image of the smiling schoolgirl a sick twist. Just google it.
Both shows were of course curated and planned (and ran, in the case of “Small Gift”) long before the devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan. In light of recent events, reducing Japanese culture to kawaii is even more dangerous…in fact there’s something sinister about it. It’s eerie, then, the prescient shift in focus and call to change the way we look at Japanese art in “Bye Bye Kitty.” In my last post about Japan I spoke a little about the need to appreciate and understand a rich culture even when it struggles…when art may not be the most of our concerns. The show, which runs until mid-June, is a perfect chance to do this.
P.S. For a much more eloquent look at “Bye Bye Kitty” and it’s relationship to the disaster, read Holland Cotter’s review.