What an extraordinary experience it is to visit Yoshitomo Nara’s “Life is Only One” exhibition – it feels like walking with this iconic artist a part of his unique journey of life! This first solo exhibition of Nara in Asia outside Japan is a well-crafted personal statement that certainly touches your heart with his absolute sincerity.
An Air of Melancholy
Divided into five sections namely “Memories of Tomorrow”, “Where We are Today”, “Sounds of Life; Sounds of Today”, “Talking to the Past; Talking to Today” and “Life is Not Only One”, the exhibition showcases a rich selection of Nara’s oeuvre in the past two decades through oil paintings, colour-penciled drawings, sculptures, installation and photography. As I entered the gallery, I was immediately overwhelmed by a number of large-scale paintings of Nara’s trademark childlike characters. Manga cartoons as they seem, these works did not make me feel uplifting but an air of discontent, anger, melancholy and despair. Nara is well known for depicting human and animal figures in their most simple and concise forms with pastel colours to express deep and thought-provoking ideas. Big-headed girl and puppy are his signature characters that honestly represent himself to interpret life through his works. Utilizing different materials such as cardboards, envelopes, wood and cotton, Nara reveals intimate moments of an artist freely working through his ideas without setting boundaries for himself and his audience. Honesty and liberalism are probably the precious qualities that make Nara’s works shine on the international stage, and both influential and inspirational to many.
Past vs Today
As I walked further down the gallery, music was getting louder and a series of photo works appeared in front of me either on the wall or in the form of a video slideshow. Titled as “Talking to the Past; Talking to Today”, this section presents Nara’s photo works in the past 10 years taken mainly in Afghanistan and Sakhalin, an island north of Hokkaido in Japan. These photos introduced to me images of children, scenery, towns and animals around the world. Backed by some melodic Japanese songs, these heartwarming images brought about a sense of serendipity, pleasure and comfort. It is worth noting that the journey to Sakhalin is Nara’s personal journey for his grandfather who once lived on this remote land. By capturing the landscape that his grandfather had seen, these photos reflected how the past continues to be important to his current journey as an artist.
Embraced by Harmony
Echoing to the main theme, the exhibition ended with “Life is Not Only One”. It features an installation called “Fountain of Life” in the centre, a gigantic teacup with a never-ending flow of tears streaming down from the innocent child-like heads stacked in it. Together with the miniatures of Nara’s famous giant puppy scattered in the chamber and an “Angel” painting on the wall, a source of endless vitality and hope surrounds the teacup. Contrary to the rather negative complain-ish atmosphere at the beginning of the exhibition, I was embraced with harmony and positive energy here. Traveling through the journey from “Life is Only One” to “Life is Not Only One”, I can’t help to ponder: “Does Nara want to remind us to keep a positive mindset while experiencing the impermanence of life?”.
The Functions of Art
British philosopher Alain de Botton stated in his book “Art as Therapy” that art has seven functions: Remembering, Hope, Sorrow, Rebalancing, Self-Understanding, Growth and Appreciation. I am thrilled to realize that I have experienced all these functions (to different extents) after visiting Nara’s exhibition and they are still resonating in my head. By infusing in his works his transient life experience and interpretation of life, Nara not only expresses his own feelings and ideas, but also inspires his audience to interpret their lives with their own imaginations and experiences. Firmly believing the value of art lies in its positive impact to the society and individuals, I have no doubt Nara’s works have succeeded in delivering their values to his followers around the world!
What does Art Mean to You?
Exhibition aside, the visionary presenter Asia Society has organised a wide range of engagement activities to encourage audience to actively participate in exploring Nara’s world. They include film screenings, workshops, seminars, design competition, sale of limited edition merchandise, etc. I was lucky to have the chance to watch a documentary “Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara” after visiting the exhibition. It recorded Nara’s innovative “A to Z” project – building a fictitious town in his hometown Hirosaki – from conception to fruition. In this project, Nara collaborated with enthusiastic people around the world which gradually transformed him from a “solo” and isolated artist to become a more cheerful and sociable person. This documentary brought me into Nara’s life which made me better understand Nara as a person and his process of art creation. Most importantly, it allowed me to witness how art makes a positive impact to one’s life, should it be the impact from artist to his audience through his works, or from artist towards his own life through the art making process. It bears testimony to the power of art to transform and liberate. Indeed, life is never only one with art! Let us continue to discover ourselves, share sorrow, find hope, growth, appreciation and many more through our own artistic experience!