Beloved cult figure and blue-chip art world asset, Nara has achieved mainstream success with seemingly little compromise. Having learned the lessons of his punk rock heroes, he recognizes the pitfalls. It’s hard to retain the values of “Garageland” once money and power come into play, yet thanks to his mischievous and sometimes malevolent alter-egos, he remains the perpetual guttersnipe—distilling the isolation, alienation, and fierce independence of youth. He may be an adult now (with slightly tempered tastes), but his morally and ethically ambiguous imps allow him, as well as the rest of us, to revel vicariously in the uncivilized wildness that is (or was) the privilege of childhood, before socialization delimits protean worlds and “responsibility” proscribes every creative action.
The fear of becoming an imaginatively castrated drone, sleepwalking through life like the drained commuters in David Mitchell’s Number9Dream, is Nara’s driving insight. For more than 20 years, his message, shouted out with raw intensity from every new work, has been nothing less than a rousing call to rediscover and preserve curiosity and freedom in the face of relentless pressures: as he says, “Never forget your beginner’s spirit.” While acknowledging the demands and problems of the real world—for all their swagger, even the most defiant of Nara’s children betrays vulnerability, fear, and a sense of uncertainty—he invites us to reconnect with the rebellious spirit that accompanies youthful optimism and the belief that we can change the world.
If Nara himself performs a delicate balancing act, art historians and critics seeking to do justice to his work face an equally difficult task—analyzing that outsider sensibility without co-opting it through scholarly mechanics. Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, the catalogue of an exhibition by the same name (on view at the Asia Society through January 2), succeeds in celebrating Nara’s subculture origins and inspirations, particularly punk, which he describes as his most important influence, while illuminating the themes behind his work. The essays in this beautifully produced, slip-cased object (production values are a necessity with an artist who first became known for book and album cover designs) take great pains to respect Nara’s hybrid mythos; they may contextualize his work and draw parallels, but they never completely force it into the suit of high art.
Three critical texts trace Nara’s development outside the traditional gallery system, offer a wealth of insights into his diverse appeal, and uncover fascinating influences in fantasy, graffiti, old master works, and sources beyond the ubiquitous anime and manga, including fairy tales, children’s books, and Disney. In fact, the authors make it a point to liberate Nara from a knee-jerk association with Takashi Murakami—an artist with markedly different aims and ambitions. In addition to covering Nara’s musical tastes—from the Ramones, The Clash, the Sex Pistols, and Shonen Knife to Yo La Tengo and his new playlists—the catalogue demonstrates how his sculpture is as steeped in traditional craftsmanship as it is in DIY, balancing slickness with punk improvisation. For Western readers, Midori Matsui’s examination of Japanese youth culture and Nara’s popular/critical reception in his native country provides a much-needed perspective. Miwako Tezuka broadens the scope to look at how rock and punk offered new models of communication (with fans instead of viewers) and new typologies of expression and collaboration. The democratic social engagement behind Nara’s “culture jamming” is perhaps the least familiar, and most significant, aspect of his work. Collaborative endeavors such as the A–Z Project with graf (continued now with Hideki Toyoshima, whose recollections are included in this volume, and the YNG team) not only circumvent the confines of commercial gallery space (as explored in Michael Wilson’s essay), they also function like nomadic studio/performance spaces with Nara and others at work during off-hours. Often built with the help of volunteers, these creative houses/popular events bridge art and life, bringing together “everyday folks.”
For an artist like Nara, conventional art world acceptance represents an ever-present danger. His stalwart resistance comes through clearly here in an interview with Asia Society director Melissa Chiu, the unfolding arrays of color plates (divided into Isolation, Music, Rebellion, and Installation), and in excerpts from his blog, Nara’s Voice. This is the voice of an inspirational idol who still doesn’t consider himself an “artist,” an inveterate fan with ever-expanding tastes, and a teller of visual tales who views exhibitions as places for experimentation rather than temples of achievement. Ever the Pied Piper of imaginative release, he describes his work as something like a mirror. Millions look into it and say, “This is me.”
Yoshitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool
by Melissa Chiu and Miwako Tezuka
New York: Abrams Press, 2010.
Hardcover; 272 pages, 300 full-color illustrations