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Details
TETSUYA ISHIDA
(Japanese, 1973-2005)
Untitled
oil on canvas
130 x 194 cm. (51 1/8 x 76 3/8 in.)
Painted in 2001
Provenance
Iseyoshi Art Project Co., Ltd., Wada Fine Arts, Tokyo, Japan.
Christie's Hong Kong, November 26, 2006, Lot 496
Christie's Hong Kong, November 30, 2008, Lot 511
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Literature
Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co., Tetsuya Ishida Posthumous Works, Tokyo, Japan, 2006 (illustrated, p. 48).
B. van der Giessen (a.o.), Nieuw Realisme: 159 werken uit de collectie van het voormalige Scheringa Museum voor Realisme, Zwolle, Netherlands, 2010 (illustrated, pp. 130-131).

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Lot Essay

The pressures of Japan's social and academic structures, and the Japanese people's struggles to adapt to the fast-paced social and technological changes in Japan's contemporary life, are the primary themes of Tetsuya Ishida's visual world. His emblematic scenarios poignantly expresses a sense of solitude and identity crisis in contemporary Japan, and his images are heavily imbued with skepticism of the culture of excess that has reinforced an entrapment of self. For Ishida, the city itself becomes a space of oppression as an outgrowth of the rapid economic and technological growth of Japan in the 1990s. Ishida's paintings, scenes rendered in a surreal landscape, are often tinged with darkness and a deep concern over the purpose and meaning of life in a mundane world. Often expressing a stark critique on the limits of social interaction and connection between human beings in this world, Ishida's works are social commentaries that offer personal solace to the artist as well as to the viewer all at once.
Where most of his other works expresses a concern for social, technological and academic systems, Untitled (Lot 46), painted in 2001, is a rare work distinguished by the artist's directly confrontation of the notion of death and existence. The scene seems at first serene and seemingly ordinary. But this illusion fades upon closer look, by which one discovers that the 'bed' that the protagonist sits on is in fact a tomb with the artist's family name on it, rather than a stereo. The disconcerting way in which a body lies beneath the bed-astomb, with its hands and feet splayed out from under, evokes an eerie scene of crime, drawing the viewer into a mystery over the identity of the sprawled body, his relationship to the viewer and the artist.
Ishida fills the scene with ambiguity, and at the same time, offers clues to solve this visual puzzle. The artist invites his audience into this surreal world with the empty chair in the foreground of the interior, where we quickly immerse ourselves in the hyper-realistic depiction. The most striking visual clue is the tombstone bearing the name "Ishida."From this, we deduce the imagined scene must be an autobiographical projection of the artist, and hence, the body lying underneath must represent his corpse. The character of the seated protagonist is further suggested by other elements in the composition. The video tapes can be symbolic of recorded memories, which the protagonist engrosses in with headphones, and reviews retrospectively with the remote control. The contents are private to us, but the intimate nature of the scene suggests that the protagonist could very well represent the artist himself. As such, we are lead to conclude that if the body beneath the tomb is the physical self, then what remains, the mysterious seated figure, could well represent his soul or spirit. In this, Ishida poetically captures an imagined moment, quiet preparation for a final review and farewell of his own life, making Untitled a fearless revelation of the artist's personal existential concern.
In Untitled, Ishida carefully constructs a parallel unity between the viewer's world and the protagonist's imagined space - both worlds immersing into a deeper layer of fantasy as we delve deeper into the imagery. Our attention is directed from the chair in the foreground, to the interior space, then to the protagonist with his back against the viewer, who is engrossed in reviewing the tapes, and finally, to the exterior beyond the windows - this is devised to add layers of fantasy and viewership into the scene, removing us further away from our own reality.
What remains most captivating in Untitled is the notion of a liminal or in between realm suggested in the scene. Outside the window, a train suspended in a vacuous space suggests an awaiting journey, one that is unbound by tracks. Here, the train is a metaphor for death, a vessel that transcends into a spiritual realm as it departs the world, as well as an allusion to one's final journey and destination. As such, Ishida creates an enchanting vision of a liminal realm between existence and death, one that summons his existential awareness, and also serves as memento mori (a reminder of death), reminding the artist and us of our own mortality. The backpack and tapes are symbolic of worldly possessions, attachments, and the image performs as vanitas, a type of symbolic art prevalent in 16-17th Century Northern Europe, that emphasizes the "emptiness," meaninglessness of earthly life and transient nature of all earthly goods and pursuits (Fig. 1). Whether the backpack and tapes in Untitled are to be left behind or taken along on the journey is deliberately left unexplained by Ishida, leaving ambiguity on the artist's real inclination and preparedness when confronting his own death.
The scene is a sobering and captivating one that poignantly explores existential anxiety. Taken as a contemporary interpretation of memento mori or vanitas, Ishida's Untitled underscores the transience of life, futility of worldly pleasures, and inescapable certainty of death - themes that are universal across time. Yet at the same time, Ishida injects the scene with somber optimism, with the way he depicts nature steadfastly reclaiming the man-made interior, plants and grass slowly creeping through the wooden flooring, breathing life to the scene. It alludes to a sense of hope prevailing after his worldly departure, and the ultimate veracity of life and existence.
The figures in Ishida's paintings largely resemble his own features. Despite the artist having refuted the suggestion that they are self-portraits, they are nonetheless generally seen as unconscious representations of the artist. In his brief career, one that produced approximately 180 recorded works, Untitled is one of the few that directly confronts the notion of existence and death, and the relationship between human beings and nature.
As such, the surreal environment, imagination of death in Ishida's Untitled has many parallels with the deep weight of personal reflection on life and existence in the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo's work. With a similar use of symbols in beds, encroaching plants and the motif of bodily self and spiritual self, Kahlo's painting The Dream (Bed) (Fig. 2) approaches similar concerns over mortality. For Ishida, however, his is more of a philosophical contemplation on the meaning of worldly existence itself, developing an imagery that relates to contemporary Japan and a reminder of the contradicting nature of its social systems, rather than using art primarily as a form of psychological purge of personal trauma and suffering that is characteristic in Kahlo's works. Nonetheless, for both Ishida and Kahlo, the images speak of the introspection of one's life and ultimate death in visual form, making their images truly intimate revelations into the artist's existential concerns. In Kahlos' words, "I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best." For Ishida, being known to have been a quiet man, painting was a means to communicate his personal experiences and inner thoughts to the world, where he would otherwise have difficulty in non-visual languages, making each of his paintings personal visions of the world. Tetsuya Ishida passed away in 2005 after being hit by a train. The accident, which had been initially suggested as suicide, resulted in his death at the age of 31. Perhaps an eerie premonition of his own untimely death, or otherwise, the work is an extraordinary masterpiece in Ishida's oeuvre, distinguished by its highly personal expression of a perpetual universal theme and its poignant reflection on the contemporary life.
Ishida's artistic creations can also be seen as a social commentary of the contemporary urban landscape of Japan, and the dissociation, isolation, melancholy and anxiety in the experiences of challenging the notion of self-identity, function and role of human beings in the changing society. Often depicting human beings transformed into part machines, animals, or buildings in his paintings, Ishida is critical of the banality of modern life and the lack of creativity, freedom, interaction with nature and the meaning of life. Such themes also run through the works produced during eras and societies characterized by rapid social and technological growth, such as the works by American artists Edward Hopper (Fig. 3, 4) and George Tooker (Fig. 3) in the 1950s. Hopper and Tooker's works describe a sense of modern anxiety, urban alienation and isolation, which suggests the pulse of the city as desolate and dangerous rather than elegant or seductive. In a similar way, Ishida' works where the subtle interaction of human beings with their environment primarily revolve around emotional themes of solitude, loneliness, regret, boredom, and resignation.
Another good comparison to Ishida's work is Andrew Wyeth's, Christina's World (Fig. 4). Painted in 1948, Wyeth depicts the stillness - a form of "emotional rationalism" at its height - that evokes loneliness, solitude and desperation of the spirit. Like Wyeth, Ishida creates a skillfully rendered realist image in Untitled , which captivates the eye with its hyper-detailed, layered fine brushstrokes, and draws the viewer into his created space. Also like Wyeth, who depicts Christina's strength of spirit that is unbound by her physical limitation in Christina's World, Ishida also succeeds in imbuing hope and possibilities of life beyond death in Untitled.
As described in Buddhism, we are bound by Samsara, the constant cycle of rebirth and death. The core of Buddhism describes death as inevitable, and life is inextricably linked to constant suffering, manifested in the form of illness, old age and death. The anxiety of trying to hold onto things that are constantly changing and impermanent leads to suffering. Such views on existence percolate Japanese culture, as it is deeply influenced by Buddhism. The theme of Ukiyo-e ("floating world pictures") that was prevalent in 17-20th Century is deeply related to the Buddhist concept of the "Sorrowful World", and the earthly cycle of life and death which Buddhists seek release from. Ukiyo ("floating world") of the Edo Japan took on the pleasure-seeking aspect as a way to engage in the impermanence of the fleeting beauty in the world, when confronting the new metropolitan lifestyle. Untitled can be seen as Ishida's metaphysical meditation on the cycle of life, heavily imbued with the core of Buddhist philosophy, as Buddhism was conceived when Gautama became aware of death, the ultimate futility of worldly concerns and pressures.
"Those who know him say that Ishida was always painting hastily, as if he was forced to deliver his work too quickly. He was never a chatty man and was frugal with words; instead of words, he used his paintbrush and stroked it with dramatic force." (Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co., Tetsuya Ishida Posthumous Works, Tokyo, Japan, 2006, p. 109). In modern day where the porous line between reality and fantasy is more undefined than ever, Ishida's superb painterly techniques not only establish him as one of the key painters of his generation in Japanese contemporary art, but looking into any one of his finely rendered images also represents the experience of immersing into his world of surreal fantasy and dream (Fig. 5). In the short decade that Ishida was actively producing paintings, his undeniable success has proved the appeal of his unique imagery, superlative scope of imagination and the poignant themes reflecting on Japan's social systems that can be easily related to the struggles to adapt social and technological changes in contemporary urban life worldwide. As such, Tetsuya Ishida's body of works also establishes the unique strength and character of Japanese art and culture, with his distinctive visual language that emphasizes on skill and mastery of the brush, Eastern philosophy and spirit.
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