The artwork of Yoshitomo Nara precedes the artist's own name; they are effortlessly recognizable and fondly relatable icons-to all generations, across all cultural backgrounds. The emergence of his artwork, whether in context of popular culture or high art, smoothly offers all viewers an opportunity to draw self-comparative associations with his paintings, sketches and sculptures. Nara's lonesome childhood, spent idly playing with pets and his imagination are channeled into creations that reflect that very experience; singular figures of small stature who are full of angst and curiosity. While Nara has frequently stated that his work are not reflections of the contemporary art genres of saturated colors, anime and manga, the average devotee of contemporary arts and those unfamiliar, succumb to the ease and comfort of Nara's works thus, establishing Nara as part of contemporary pop culture. Akin to the solitary children of newly minted working class families in post war economic development, the likewise disconnected or troubled youth of today derive acutely personal connections to Nara and his works, as if Nara's artworks are direct manifestations of their outlook.
Ancient sculptures characteristically represented ideal bodily forms, intellects and exemplary citizens to revere, but the contemporary era has undoubtly witnessed vast changes as a result of new creative thoughts and modes of expression. Rapid and dramatic evolution in contemporary political, social and economic environments in Asia has directly impacted the medium of sculpture, driving contemporary artists such as Yoshitomo Nara to adopt a cultural perspective in order to examine the effect of specific imagery on society. Liberated from traditional norms to serve the purpose of societal commentary, Yoshitomo Nara in his, suggestive and often highly evocative and politically charged with symbolism, sculpture spurs viewers to further reflect and consider his deeper contemplative sentiments. His sculptures represent an ideal fantastical illusion despite its origin of genuine emotions and are, thus, complementary to contemporary audiences. In this featured work Over the Topper (Lot 502) the small child, a preferred motif of Nara, addresses a child's position in present-day society inspired by Nara's personal experiences, the unpredictable dreams and aspirations of all children.
Over the Topper created in 1995 finely bridges installation and sculpture, a rare example of a work built specifically for museum exhibitions at shows such as PROJECT FOR GUNMA'95, Gunma Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Japan (1995); TOKYO POP, The Hiratsuka Museum of Art, Japan (1996) and Innocent Minds, Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, (1998) whereby the young child perched over the museum wall intriguingly surveys beyond her provided four walls (fig 1). This ladder, which stands four meters tall, a statement not only to the girl's fearlessness but even the children's game Snakes & Ladders, reinforcing a sense of youthfulness. Though the viewer yearns to see the full expression of Nara's protagonist, he or she is visually limited to the ladder, the sweet red shoes and the white under garments. Despite her fully rendered figure and face, the positioning of the doll disallows us to see her face, is intentional and rebellious; opening a flood of childhood memories and imagination in the viewer's mind, thus, initiating reconciliation with the greater connotation of the sculpture. As a social critic in addition to his finesse as an artist, Nara with Over the Topper comments on children's neglect to recognize the candor and perceptiveness they hold. Nara utilizes profound childhood memories in thematic works to display bravery, humor and maturity that adults may lack. The small child of Nara is our brave female protagonist, embarking step by step to a height farther than her small statue allows. Unguarded by her parents and standing on the tips of her toes, she seeks to climb higher than allowed on the potentially dangerous bandaged ladder, which is telling of careless damage and past attempts to ascend it. Her stance and composure is most critically representative of her unfazed diligence and determination to face the great unfamiliar; she is conscious that a higher positioning will present her with a wider and more rewarding perspective unrestricted by her tight enclosure.
Dressed in a pale blue dress, ribboned pigtails and red shoes, she references similarly small yet independent characters of literature and theatre. One such example is Dorothy of The Wizard of Oz movie of 1939, a self-governing adolescent who in a moment of flurry embarks on a whimsical journey marked with challenges and fantasy. In 2005, Nara joined his friend and colleague Hiroshi Sugito in an exhibition entitled Over the Rainbow (in Munich and Dusseldorf) that referenced this movie and this very sculpture Over the Topper enables direct candid visual associations of Dorothy. For many, the story of Dorothy is engrained in our minds because our imaginary childhood daydreams are represented by her chronicles, which are equally manifested in Nara's sculpture. Her perseverance is likewise encountered in Mary, the lead character of The Secret Garden (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) who discovers a beautiful but neglected garden across a large hedge (fig 2). Filled with resolve she vigilantly revives this private garden with her two friends by cultivating the plants alongside her friendships to gradual paradise and ultimately surprising even the adults with her sense of ingenuity and creativity. Mary's account of constructing unique adventures and bringing dreams to fruition is analogous to The Wizard of Oz and Nara's little girl.
Nara's figure is a youthful child, dreaming of the greater unknown or, if caged in the unknown already, fearlessly preparing and curious for new encounters and circumstances. Beyond the four meter wall is a mystery that beckons her, luring her with promises of novel experiences; yet there is no telling of whether home as she knows it is better than the new world. She is a reminder of the natural curiosity that we once held in our naive, untainted childhood, summoning us to reexamine our seemingly prohibitory surrounding walls and grasp beyond it. As viewers we simultaneously admire the aesthetic qualities of Nara's sculpture and are prompted to reflect upon his concise expressions and images that tightly embrace our personal sentiments; how deeply engrained our childhood events are and that our memories fail to escape or recede even in adulthood.