A Vision of the Future
Kenji Yanobe's infamous post-apocalyptical artistic vision is rooted in childlike fantasy and Japan's postwar initiatives. He is one of contemporary Japanese art's most creative artists whose prominent sculptural, performance (at times site specific) and engineering feats are conceptually transparent and admired by adults and children alike. Having studied at the Royal College of Art and resided in Berlin between 1994 and 1997, he is widely reputed in the West and has exhibited at renowned institutions in France, Germany and USA. His playful sculptures evoke familiarity despite the delicate personal sentiments carried in each piece. Many of his sculptures are personalized 'suits' in essence transforming Yanobe into living art. Inspired by years absorbed in optimistic anime and manga Atomu (Astro Boy), Godzilla and Kamen Rider ("masked rider") and the possibility of revival after harsh adversity, Yanobe's works are intellectually inquisitive and amusing. Yanobe's citation of these anime in form, characteristics and narrative in Soul of Bubble King (Lot 1034), Yanobe's 1992 monumental sculpture, emphasizes the artist's own identity and interest in fortification, self defense and haunting reality of scientific evolution. Conceptually tackling and physically transporting the viewer into his post-apocalyptic universe through his artwork, Yanobe delivers a visually wondrous sculpture with child like exuberance.
Yanobe's envisioned future holds the potential of encompassing the blissful days of the Garden of Eden but can likewise progressively deteriorate whereupon our survival is an everyday battle, an idea encompassed in the postwar Japanese anime and manga in Japan. Thriving in the late 1950s and 1960s, they often incorporated cosmic and otherworldly narratives to metaphorically convey Japan's desire to escape the sobering experiences of World War II which Japan barely survived. The heroes of such stories powered by radiation and unimaginable technology endlessly fought for righteousness, a conscious reference to Japan's resolve to prosper in a post war era. Over decades, manga and anime such as Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaa and Laputa propagated fantasy as utopian ideals across Japan and became inextricably linked to the cultural phenomenon of Japan. Yanobe sensed the immense impact of this subculture in contemporary society and the consequential loss of a truthful existence coined in the term "delusion". From such an illusionist existence though joyously appreciated in his childhood required an adjustment to reinstate a healthy measure of reality and fantasy in society. Such an adjustment coincidentally was realized in the vicinity of Yanobe's residence in Osaka, Japan.
In 1970, the World Exposition hosted in Osaka, Japan led over 64 million people deep into the utopian ideology of many Japan's artists and architects. This event further three dimensionally manifested the ideas addressed in post-war manga and anime in its plethora of futuristic designs that bore no ties to traditional Japanese origins. The surreal pavilions spoke of a future of uniformity and oddly remote existence despite the Expo's intentions to show "Progress and Harmony for Mankind". Expo Tower designed by Taro Okamoto (Fig. 1) revealed isolated molecular pods suspended high above ground, a design accentuating current ideas of himself and contemporaries such as Kenzo Tange's pod like houses. These architectural sites imagined a transformed lifestyle and new chapter in life should Tokyo have to rebuild itself and incorporated purposefully stylized houses and overall cytological design telling of resurrection. The iconic Tower of the Sun primal in its totemic design, loomed over the Exposition in an embracing, protective gesture (Fig 2). Ironically, instead of incorporating new-fangled technology into existing architecture, the Osaka World Expo broke down structural elements into a basic, cellular organic form began releasing Japan from its "delusion". Although Yanobe did not first hand experience World War II or the thriving fair, he was exposed to the pictures and pamphlets from a young age and eventually visited the demolishing site itself in later years that served as inspiration. In every sense the fair represented the possibility for renewed existence in the aftermath of warfare and defeat. Rather than hide behind a veil of improbable salvation, Yanobe's Soul of Bubble King explores the ideological roots that led to those structures and ultimately provides a plausible solution to the consequences of mankind's progression.
A Renewed Life
In 1990 Yanobe made his first human encaging sculpture Tanking Machine (housed in the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art in Kanazawa, Japan), whose large white cavity filled with warmed sodium chloride solution comforted and protected Yanobe in its womb like similarities (Fig 3). The protective structure paved the way for Soul of Bubble King, a sculpture and physical suit in which Yanobe can hide and simultaneously provide offense, viscerally transforming into his much admired, fabled hero. At first glance, the red steel frame is merely draped in black rubber and oddly crowned. Its face is a small glass window from which sheltered from others and seated within Soul of Bubble King, Yanobe controls the movements of Bubble King as if it were an extension of him. Armed with the on-off button, Yanobe in his looming sculpture awaits to be approached before suddenly inflating with air to the brink of explosion, enlarging his facade to inflict fear on the provoker. He has both defensive and offensive capabilities; in a stance of self-defense the sculpture takes a naturally offensive persona, paralleling the physical transformation of the steel armadillo beneath him. Riding the steel plate armadillo as Alexander the Great rode his elephant across the Himalayas, the menacing figure commands attention and power. Yet he is not engineered to readily attack, Soul of Bubble King as implied by his name is more of a peaceful icon whose primary concern is survival. His rounded exterior will provide sanctuary in a futuristic nuclear powered warfare, literally padding him from toxic chemicals and invisible radiation. The comfort and security is counter balanced with the tight gripping of Yanobe within, depriving him of sensory impressions and rendering him temporarily immobile while his invader is overcome with the sight of Soul of Bubble King. As viewers, the intricate dance becomes in itself a performance piece. Yanobe and Bubble King are simply extensions of one another; as such Soul of Bubble King becomes a persona that reveals Yanobe's own apolalyptic worldview.
Removing the implausibility of anime and manga narratives Yanobe suggests that ordinary citizens are the true heroes in control of the future. The distinction between art and life is further blurred by the highly technical craftsmanship of his 'machines' yet rather than the miraculous inventions of science; Yanobe honors Nature's survival instincts and ability to regenerate. Soul of Bubble King's prominence can be attributed to its embodiment of Yanobe himself, an organic sculpture. During his three year residency in Berlin, Yanobe watched news of the sarin gas attack in Tokyo in 1994 and remembered the nuclear reactor accident at Chernobyl in 1987 as the ominous beginning of a degenerating era. Thus began his Atomic Suit Project that would protect himself and the rest of the world from the onslaught of biochemical attacks. From this project, he began exhibiting his works at museums highly relevant to the works themselves such as the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art (2000), a direct reference to the Hiroshima bombings in 1945. Soul of Bubble King was exhibited across Europe and Japan but most significantly at a culminate exhibition at the original site of the World Expo, The National Museum of Art Osaka, Japan in 2003 (Fig. 4, 5). The cyclical occurrence of these events perfectly parallels Yanobe's concept of creation and destruction followed by revival, reality and fantasy followed by actuality. His prolific conceptions and beautiful manifestations have elevated Yanobe's artwork to the level of many highly established artists, drawing in themselves as many admirers as the world expositions themselves. Kenji Yanobe's sculptures are not isolated artistic endeavors but a part of Yanobe himself, utilizing his every movement and oeuvre continually colonizes his envisioned futuristic world.