Text from the exhibition catalogue of the "Chiho Aoshima" exhibition at the Musée d'Art Contemporain, Lyon, FRANCE in 2006.
Walking around New York City for the past year or so, it has been impossible to escape the specter of the skull. It appears on T-shirts, of course - the billboard for rock groups and antiauthoritarian leanings - but also silk scarves and wingtip shoes, the uniforms of ladies and gentlemen not usually associted with heavy metal music or gothic longings. This deadly pall cast over recent fashion is to a certain extend just that, fashion. But fashion is never "just" that - just an aside - and there is something to the appeal of the skull, which belongs to a constellation of dark moody beliefs, symbols, and vague feelings that permeate cultural moment.
I was thinking about these skulls the other day while looking at Chiho Aoshima's beautiful print, A Contented Skull, 2003. In this picture, an enormous skull sits in a graveyard, and an ornemental, blossoming tree grows through, up and around the form, its branches spreading and twisting accross a brilliant blue sky. At one edge of the image, a large mysterious female figure slumps against the skull, her hair entwined with and indistinguishable from the branches, as if she were growing out of the tree. On the other side of the skull, a small figure, a human girl (perhaps a stand-in for the artist) contemplates the scene. As a hip, gilded image of death, A Contented Skull intersects with international fashion. It also is specifically Japanese : the decorative flowered branches mirror the meandering composition of Japanese scrolls, the skull imagery recalls a famous print by ukiyo-e master Kuniyoshi, in which a demon takes the form of a giant skeleton, as well as a 1970's children's cartoon which ended every week in a skeleton mushroom cloud. The content of the picture - like so much of Aoshima's work - similarly reflects the intertwining of global realities and Japanese history and sensibility.
Despite the fact that we have barely dipped our toes into the new millenium, there is a fin-de-siecle air to the beginning of this century, one that matches the daily newspaper reports of national and religious conflagrations, global warming and related disasters. The skull may express a superficial wish to be edgy and nonconformist, but it also injects a note of foreboding. Artists too are consulting psychics, conjuring ghosts, invoking the supernatural, living in fantasy worlds, fearing and imagining the worst. These subjects fill the work of artists such as Paul Chan, Banks Violette, Jutta Koether, Philippe Parreno, and other artists popular both in the US and Europe. Although these artists often implicitly critize the current political situation, characterized by fundamentalist religion (with all of its ecstatic embrace of end times imagery and blind belief as opposed to rational analysis), they are also in harmony with it.
Here, as in other spheres, the Japanese perspective has its own specific history. Since the 1980s, many of the most important Japanese anime and manga productions have been set largely in post-apocalyptic worlds, ruined by devastating military conflicts and / or ecological disasters; the books and films Akira, Evangelion, and Nausicaa are only the most popular examples of stories that play out against these bleak backdrops. As many critics, fans and scholars have pointed out, the preference for this setting is related to the fact that contemporary Japan is already quite literally a post-apocalyptic nation : after Hiroshima, after Nagasaki, after the ruinous fire-bombing of Tokyo. Takashi Murakami, the grand figure of Tokyo Pop, endorsed this connection in his 2005 exhibition, Little Boy, and, in a series of catalogue essays, pointed to its importance for contemporary Japanese art along with culture.
Chiho Aoshima did not go to art school, but learned to use a computer for design by watching others, and while working for Takashi Murakami's studio developed her own art practice. Her early works, such as Fish Market, 1999, tend to use local color and simple, heavily outlined forms, heavily indebted in style and content to popular manga images of young girls that combine innocence with sexuality and violence. Slightly later works such as Ero Pop, 2001 and Piercing Heart, 2002 begin to be more sophisticated and playful in thier formal realization, with layered imagery and atmospheric color effects, altough both are still centered on a single main figure. While the stylistic reference to manga threads throughout her work, more or less prominent in individual prints, in general, Aoshima's later work is increasingly intricate in composition, with a linear quality that is both delicate and dramatic, employing long, swooping curves that link together a myriad of figures or vignettes into a single, sometimes mural-size work.
As Aoshima has expanded the physical dimensions of her art, she has expanded its content as well, developing a strong sense of time : not only do narratives unfold in the larger murals, but hints of the past pervade aall of the work, a feeling that the ancient persists amidst even the most modern images and digital techniques. Aoshima expresses a mild form of this in a taste for older - used or "vintage" - objects; when asked what she enjoys about Japanese culture, she told one interviewer that she likes to go to antique markets1. A related, melancholic taste is at work in her love of abandonned or forgotten buildings : " Weeds that grow from the cracks in walls, idle glances through cracked windows revealing dark interiors, intertwining trees, broken laundry poles, forgotten toys.2" Several of her prints feature girls - or ghouls ? - peering out from the interiors of seemingly neglected homes where we imagine them leading secret lives, as in Mado, 2003. The classic, Romantic version of this longing is the interest in the truly past, the architectural ruin, which she also cultivates : "It began when I saw photos of Angkor Vat in the magazine Studio Voice. I posted them in my room and looked at them every day. The year I graduated college, I went to Cambodgia, where the Angkor Vat ruins lie (...) Undisturbed by the flow of time, I drifted slowly. It was a mysterious feeling, like I had entered a different dimension3. "
The Romanticism of the nineteenth century fetishized the ruin as the souvenir of a pre-modern moment, and as a sad and eerie stimulus for individual sensibilities and emotions. There is a variant of romanticism in Japanese literature and art that, despite being related to Western art, also took on a specifically nationalist character in standing against the modernization ushered in by the opening of Japan to the West in the nineteenth century4. Similarly, today a belief in the otherworldly figures of Shinto, like an affection for the (ruins) of older Japanese buildings, represents an allegiance to Japan as a sovereign nation, rather than one beholden to the essentially foreign ideals of modernism (even if, ironically, Japan has outstripped the West in many areas of modernity, from high technology to refined and elevated consumerism).
Aoshima's most pronouced Romantic impluse is her pastime of visiting old cemeteries 5. "I realized that I like graveyards when I saw a view which remided me of an ancient ruin.
There were trees growing all around, few people, and the various shapes of stones all around were worn away by the acid rain... I have found myself in graveyards talking very normally all of a sudden to people I do not know. I'm sure that people come to graveyards and unbind the strings they've tied in their hearts, and words follow out naturally from that. If you cry when you feel like it at a graveyard, you feel so much better all of a sudden. Time flows slowly. I want to go to graves all over the world !6"
The graveyard is a motif in much of Aoshima's work, both as a place of peaceful contemplation, as in A Contented Skull, but also as a kind of otherworldly city teeming with ghosts and zombies, as in Zombie, 2002. This taste for horror and the grotesque or the Gothic (reflected in Japanese popular culture as well, particularly in film), was also to be found in the Romanticism that came at the end of the nineteenth century in Japan (as well as the West). One example can be found in the work of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, an artist that critic Midori Matsui mentions as a precedent for Aoshima's work7. Yoshitoshi was known for print series illustrating ghost stories (100 ghost tales from China and Japan, 1865), as well as famous murders, depicted with a gruesome degree of detail.
Aoshima's eye for nature is also romantic rather than realistic. She describes experience, like encountering a tsunami or a tornado or, more benignly, viewing a mountain or the sky, that are overwhelming in scale and power, creating a sense of awe, and even terror, related to the Western concept of the sublime. These feelings are similar to those evoked by graveyards, in that they inspire ruminations about one's smallness, and in that they are terrifying as well as full of beauty. Her use of flowers, insects, and animals can also be decorative and lovely, particularly in the commissioned work she has done for fashion magazines like Vogue and fashion designer Issey Miyake. But even here, Aoshima's preference is not for the obviously cute - not for fuzzy puppies and bunnies - but for insects, reptiles, and other non-cuddly life forms : "Some creatures are so weirdly shaped it's unbelievable. I can't believe they're from this world8. " She also sees natural forms bearing the imprint of a prehistoric (pre-human) world, carrying with them a frozen bit of the past : " I feel an attraction to creatures whose shapes have survived to the present day, like magnolias, ferns, helmet crabs, and insects preserved in amber. The amber is so beautiful, it is almost like time has stopped just inside of it9."
In Aoshima's worldview, it is humans, rather than bugs, that come to seem helpless, doomed creatures, even if their destuction is their own doing. Some of her more recent work features terrifying disasters - another common feature of Romantic art, but equally a part of present-day reality. For a contemporary Japanese person, the apocalypse is both an already-lived history and one that beckons in the not-so-distant future, one in which New York lies underwater, Paris is sizzled to a crisp, Mumbai is crushed beneath the weight of its slums, Beirut is destroyed by nuclear weapons, and Tokyo is rent asunder by earthquakes. In the enormous wall mural Magma Spirit Explodes. Tsunami is Dreadful, 2004, the combination of a tsunami and a giant firestorm devours the world. The piece emerged at least in part from her awareness of global warming : "I am very much worried about the abnormal weather conditions occuring all over the world (...) I don't think what they've predicted will actually happen. I think we have a much worse future in store for us, and humans will be eradicated (...) The piece that I showed in the Carnegie International (Magma Spirit), for example, out of my more recent pieces, expresses this catastrophic view of the future.10"
In her most recent works, Aoshima looks past the disasters, past the end of the world. Reviving the premodern concept of history as cyclical (rather than linear and progressive), her imagery moves through the phases of urbanism or decadent civilization and the apocalypse to the rebirth of a fresh and innocent planet. In Graveheads, 2005, dark clouds converge on a crowded conglomeration of gravestones that resembles a city skyline and rain down blood; the clouds then disappear, leaving a rainbow behind. Less harsh in tone, the lovely animation City Glow, 2005 describes a city, its skyscrapers imagined as sinuous female figures twinkilng with lights, overtaken by a lush, primordial jungle. In an interview, Aoshima described a similar romantic vision: "To imagine (the city) all rotted away, overgrown with trees and weeds, is also really fun! For example, being in Shibuya at dawn when there are no people reminds me of a world where humans have perished. Like cities that met their downfalls in the past, our city shall too sometime be gone. Thinking of this makes me feel like a part of cosmic history. No matter how selfishly we live this life, we are still in the end part of nature, and no matter how we resist, we are still powerless."
Casting the collapse of present civlization as natural, part of an inevitable cycle that underlines the passive quality of contemporay identity identity that Murakami and others have noted. It seems to remove the political quality of current conditions like global warming, leaving the individual resigned to what must come. The distanced, cool effect of some of Aoshima's works seem to endorse the aestheticization of disaster, the idea that it is there for contemplation and even appreciation; as Aoshima puts it, "I would at least like to see with my own eyes what this society will look like as it crumbles away."
But every peaceful picture, like A Contented Skull is matched by one like Swirling Zombies,2004-06, where ghoulish figures move in a frantic swirl that tosses around houses, an image in which fear and anxiety rush to the intensely colored, frenetic surface. However resigned she may be to the disappearance of the human world, or eager to escape it through fantasy, the scale and energy of Aoshima's work, and even her devotion to the specific visual vocabulary of late-modern forms like anime and manga, are evidence of the intensity of her engagement with life in the present.
1. She told another interviewer that her current favorite Japanese artist was Hitomi Kawakami, whose writing invokes the mysterious and otherworldly in everyday life, and who recently published a book called The Nakano Thrift Store, a series of stories about a woman in her late 20s who works amidst the odds and ends of a junk shop.
2. Unpublished interview with Chiho Aoshima, "What's Good ?" conference, Hong Kong Art Centre, January 2005, np.
4. Romanticism in Japan, as in the West, was a broad stylistic tendency of the late nineteenth century; it is related to but distinct from the Japan Romantic School (Nihon Romanha) of writers and intellectuals, during the periods 1935 to 1945, which had a much more narrowly defined ideological stance.
5. "Chiho Aoshima", Style 10 (supplement), Libération no 6971, 11 October 2003
6. C. Aoshima, in "What's Good", op. cit., note 2
7. Midori Matsui, "Chiho Aoshima" in Laura Hoptman, The 54th Carnegie International, Pittsburg, Carnegie Museum of Art, 2004, p.54.
8. C.Aoshima, in "What's Good?", op.cit., note 2