Since the Meiji Restoration took place more than a century ago, Japan has been pursuing social innovation and modernisation. After the massive import of modern art theories and aesthetics philosophy by Enlightenment theorists, a confrontation broke out between extreme conservatives and revolutionaries in Japan. With the ceaseless effort from generations of artist in the past century, a unique system of Japanese aesthetics developed based on the notion of "Conflict, Coexistence and Harmony." A contemporary artist born in the Post- War era, Yoshitomo Nara benefited much from the quick information exchange in a modern society and the opportunities to visit abroad. Therefore, compared to Japanese reformist artists in the past, Nara has a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the motivation as well as the actual practices of the cultural coalition between the East and West. Nara's work is amiable and approachable by infusing the concepts of Western modern art with an open mind. Nara injects endless vigour into traditional Japanese art and creates a brand new artistic style of his own.
A vast majority of the characters in Yoshitomo Nara's paintings are children. He likes to use lines in place of chiaroscuro to handle the modelling of forms. As a result, the contour of the face is fluid. All the children have round heads with gazes that are slightly malevolent. Their little flat noses give them adorable and whimsical appearances. Yet, their wickedness often betrays them. They are reminiscent of the wildly exaggerated faces painted by 18th century Japanese painting Ito Jakuchu (Fig. 1). His economic use of lines was complemented with a monochrome background - these are all classic characteristics of the Japanese traditional ukiyo-e woodblock printing (Fig. 2). The faces and facial features of the children can also be considered as compositions of geometric shapes. On one hand, Nara inherited from the 18th century Japanese painters such as Ito Jakuchu and Hakuin Ekaku the tradition of modelling the characters' outer appearances with their inner spiritual truth. On the other hand, he integrated the theories of Modernists such as Picasso and Br?ncui into his works by completely detaching his depictions from the dogma of objective realism (Fig.3).The objective of Nara's design is to express the subjectivity and the self-evident existence of his subject matter.
Yoshitomo Nara's work cannot be understood by merely looking at the superficial meaning of the image, as the psychological status hidden behind the character's expression is a crucial element for comprehensive interpretation: a child should give an impression of innocence, however the main character in the painting Yr. Childhood is hardly a formulaic "kawaii" product image and lacks the vivacity and sweet smile expected by the adult world; the child is a complex emotional mixture embodying intrinsic nature and various feelings of being human. Swiss Psychologist Jean Piaget observed that children are like 'little scientists' actively trying to make sense of the world, not just incompetent thinkers passively receiving information as was previously believed. The instinctual seeking of pleasure, known as 'the pleasure principle', instills a sense of immediacy in children, compelling them to see and touch everything. When this is denied, they become anxious and frustrated. Piaget also noted that for what children lack in life experience, they compensate with imagination, which explains their penchant for fantasy stories and oftentimes complete disregard of logic. It is no wonder that childhood is viewed as a rather charming, carefree period of sensory play and daydreaming; children are not yet burdened with the complex realities of adulthood. To a child, time moves too slowly and their actions feel inconsequential. They are impatient and restless.
According to Sigmund Freud, we owe the perpetual state of discontent to the suppression of primal sexual and aggressive urges engrained in the psyche's 'id' component in order to conform to society and ensure social harmony. The id strives to satisfy basic urges regardless of the circumstances. For example, a hungry baby can only cry until someone feeds him. A sense of self, the 'ego' component, develops around age three when the child begins to realise he is an individual in his own right and that his id desires cannot be satisfied immediately because they may conflict with the demands of others. The final 'superego' component develops at age five when the child begins to adopt moral values from parents and from society. The child learns that it is socially unacceptable to throw tantrums. The ego and the superego thus help control or delay the impulses of the id but the anxiety remains.
The onset or aftermath of a tantrum is the subject of Nara's painting Yr. Childhood (Lot 35). It is one of the first large-scale paintings with his distinctive lone child. A young boy wearing a swimming cap is submerged mid-waist in water; he appears to be in the middle of a swimming lesson. He stares suspiciously out at the viewer with big vacant eyes, a teardrop lingering on his lower eyelid. Pursed lips, denoted by a thick red line, give him the impression of pouting. With nothing and no one else around, it is difficult to determine the cause of his distress. He is most likely frustrated at his inability to swim well and he might have had a near-drowning experience. Because children are often found playing in groups, the child's state of isolation is further intriguing and unsettling. Interaction with others is fundamental in shaping one's sense of self. Relationships provide a sense of belonging and happiness. Submersion in water - a recurring motif henceforth - elaborates on the overwhelming despair that results from being disconnected and alienated from others. In Deep Deep Puddle, Nara writes:
where is this place
how did I come to be here
looking around the restrictive shallows
the light from the sun glitters on the water's surface
I walk slowly while submerged in the water
walking in scattered patterns like the other children
without passing one another
keeping a certain distance
expressionlessly passing by one another
there seems to have been the sound of a helicopter above my head
regardlessly I continue forward through the shallows
water clings heavily around my legs
while feeling my own existence
in the deep deep puddle
while having a dream of drowning
Like water, both self-perception and memories are fragmented and elusive - an idea visually reinforced by the painting's patchwork-like texture, which Nara created by adhering smaller pieces of canvas to the surface. To ponder the artist's intentions is no different from questioning ourselves, the constant search for answers a reflection of our own need for certainty and reassurance. The frustration of learning, the disappointment in failing and the loneliness of doing it by oneself are familiar to all. We are hence quick to empathise with Nara's vulnerable children who implore love, guidance and protection even if they never ask for it directly.
The pains of growing up seem trivial and largely forgotten now. But to a child in those moments, the emotions were real and poignant. In retrospect, we realise how naive we were. We eventually learn that frustration is an inherent part of growing up. It becomes the driving force in overcoming challenges in an attempt to remove our state of anxiety. Nara's disgruntled children allow us to experience and delight in those childhood frustrations again. They remind us of simpler times when we didn't need permission nor feared the consequences of laughing or crying whenever we felt like it. To Andre Breton, childhood is when 'everything conspires to bring about the effective, risk-free possession of oneself' and that aside from 'a few complimentary tickets', we rarely have the opportunity to visit. Nara opens that window of opportunity again, as if to suggest a shared collective consciousness and that maybe we are not that alone after all.