Yoshitomo Nara: Life is Not Only One…with Art

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?”.

Fountain of Life

Fountain of Life (Photo: Yoshitomo Nara)



(Photo: alaindebotton.com)

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!

(Photo: Asia Society)

(Photo: Asia Society)

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!

Interview of Yoshitomo Nara: “I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of life” (Video source from South China Morning Post)

Christine Kan


奈良美智「無常人生」- 以藝術改變生命


Photo: The Wall Street Journal




Sounds of Life; Sounds of Today (Photo: South China Morning Post)

Sounds of Life; Sounds of Today (Photo: South China Morning Post)


展覽後半部份展出奈良攝影、彫塑及裝置作品。以「今昔對話」為題的攝影作品主要來自其阿富汗及日本以北庫頁島的旅程。拍攝對象以當地小孩、動物、風景及小村落為主,處處流露溫馨、恬靜、愉快的氣氛,令人感覺舒服溫暖。其中庫頁島之旅更是奈良尋找爺爺生活足跡的旅程,作品標緻着「過去」對奈良現在的藝術創作之路有重要的影響。而最後的「無盡生命」部分則在房間中央放置了一枚以玻璃纖維造成,名為Fountain of Life的巨型茶杯裝置,杯中放置了數個叠高了的可愛小孩頭像,他們全部合上眼睛卻有眼淚不斷緩緩落下,形成噴泉。房內四周放置多個奈良著名的小狗造像迷你版,一邊牆上掛了一幅名為「天使」的畫作。作品整體喻意生命儘管脆弱,但在上蒼眷顧下,生命之泉是生生不息的,令人充滿盼望。觀眾在這裏感受到的和諧、正面氣氛與展覽前半部的控訴、卑觀氣氛有着強烈的對比。由無常人生走到無盡生命,奈良是要提醒我們要抱積極的態度去面對無常的人生嗎?

Fountain of Life (Photo: South China Morning Post)

Puppy (Photo: Hong Kong Jockey Club)


英國哲學家 Alain de Botton 在其著作「Art as Therapy」中分析藝術具有七個功能:回憶、希望、哀傷、重整平衡、了解自我、成長及欣賞。筆者很高興能在奈良此次個展中體驗到以上種種,感受頗深。奈良以其個人經驗及對生命的看法作為藝術創作題材,表達自我之餘,亦引領觀眾思考人生,從而產生共鳴及反思。他的作品並没有給予觀眾既定的答案,好讓觀眾以各自的想像力及個人經歷思考其作品的意義。筆者認為藝術的價值,往往反映在其對社會及個人所發揮的正面影響。奈良的作品在這方面可説是成功的,至少對很多世界各地的奈良美智追隨者而言,他的作品的確能輕易地做到這一點。

(Photo: Facebook of Yoshitomo Nara)


展覽以外,主辦單位亞洲協會還安排了一系列周邊活動包括電影播放、工作坊、座談會、設計比賽、限量紀念品售賣等,讓不同年齡的觀眾能積極參與探索奈良的世界。筆者慶幸欣賞了一套有關奈良的紀錄片「Traveling with Yoshitomo Nara」,影片紀錄了奈良「A to Z 」計劃的發展過程。由奈良與拍檔開始構思,到越來越多人一起參與完成計劃,在奈良的家鄉岩前搭建了一個名為 A to Z 的村莊,村莊內每處皆放置奈良各式各樣的作品,十分別出心裁。影片除紀錄了整個計劃的發展過程外,亦展示了奈良本是一個喜歡單獨創作、不擅交際的藝術家,在推展計劃的過程中,因接觸了一羣熱情投入的工作人員,期間被他們感染、感動而變得開朗活潑。這套影片讓筆者走進奈良的生活,立體地認識展覽作品的創作者是一個怎樣的人,從而加深對其作品的了解。但更重要是它見證了藝術如何積極地影響生命,不僅是藝術家以作品改變觀眾的生命,藝術家同時亦在創作中改變自己的生命。藝術的非凡力量確是令人動容的!

Photo: Asia Society

Photo: asianwiki.com

Interview of Yoshitomo Nara: “I’m still trying to figure out the meaning of life” (Video source from South China Morning Post)

Christine Kan



Japonism, Japonism, Japonism…

It is the word to describe my existing mental status.  If not the tsunami at Tōhoku in Japan, I would have already studied in Japan.  The school registration was all ready and suddenly came the outbreak of the crisis.  If I were not given the chance to go to France for the language course, I would have already taken the offer for a Master’s study in Buddhism in Hong Kong.  Life is amazing.  Everything starts from a point and end on the same, like a circle.  Things intermingled and then after going miles’ way you find yourself doing what you should have done at the very first instant.  Today, I start to do my research in Japanese Zen paintings.  Zen, in fact is originated from the Buddhism in China.

But Japonism does not really mean my passion to the culture of Japan.  The term Japonism refers to the late 19th century European craze for Japanese art, fashion and aesthetics.  In art, it refers notably to fans, screens, lacquers, bronzes, silks, porcelains and ukiyo-e woodblock prints – which arrived in huge quantities from Japan, following the decision taken in 1854 by the Tokugawa Shogunate to open up its seaports to international trade with the West.  The ukiyo-e has the advantage of cheap mass-production, making them universally accessible.

“Japonism” exerted a vigorous influence in France (Japonisme in French), especially among painters of the impressionism, by bringing to the artists the new ideas in terms of composition, color, and design.  The European artists made reference to the distinctive Japanese imagery from ukiyo-e and grafted them into their own works.  Examples are the cherry blossoms, lanterns, kimonos, and temples.

Ukiyo-e helped reshaping the techniques and the aesthetic expression of western art.   It typically features prominent outlines (rooted in the Japanese reverence for calligraphy), and areas of flat and vibrant color.  Shadows are generally omitted.  This influence was obvious in the colors and compositions of Édouard Vuillard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and above all Vincent van Gogh.

Hiroshige and Van Gogh

Utagawa Hiroshige (1797 – 1858) was one of the most famous Japanese ukiyo-e artists, considered the last great master of that tradition.  Best known for his landscapes, Hiroshige has greatly influenced French Impressionists such as Monet and Vincent Van Gogh.  For instance, the Flowering Plum Tree (1887) from Japonaiserie of Van Gogh and his Bridge in the rain (1887) were inspired respectively by the works of The Plum Garden in Kameido (1857) and the Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake (1857) of Hiroshige.

The Exhibition: Fiber Futures in Paris

At the height of this Japonism, I went to La Maison de la Culture du Japon in Paris and discovered a very interesting exhibition: Fiber Futures.

The works of 30 Japanese artists fascinated my eyes with their metamorphosis of textiles in this exhibition.  The exhibition had already taken place in New York, San Francisco, Helsinki, and Madrid.

Fiber art emerged in the 1960s.  In Japan, it is acting as a framework through which artists are able to re-examine their ancestral traditions through a contemporary angle.  Indeed, the country has a rich history of dyeing and weaving, techniques which are re-appropriated by Japanese contemporary artists nowadays.

We can find in the exhibition the intermingling of art, craftsmanship, and design.  These contemporary Japanese artists transformed fabrics into sculptures, pictures, emulations of nature by using materials ranging from silk, cotton, recycled cocoons, antique paper scraps, jute, hemp, stainless-steel wire and synthetic fiber.  They transform, bend, divide and reuse the fiber.  The creation of Machiko Agano is one of the most impressive works for me.  The artist presented an artificial forests cut out from mirror card and suspended from the ceiling.  The work infuses in the space with the reflections resulted from the sunshine at the exterior.  The idea of ecology is transmitted through this work.

La Maison de la Culture du Japon at Paris

At the end of the exhibition, we can ask for the posters of the previous, current or coming exhibitions for free.  There is also a small bookstore selling Japanese decorations and books.  This House of Japanese Culture also organize workshops like making and tasting of Japanese noodles – Sobas, sake tasting, Japanese tea history and tasting, etc.  Conferences on cultural topics and courses in Japanese are also available in the House.

(Exhibition of Fiber Futures is open from 6 May to 11 July 2015)


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