“Everything originates from a little reservoir in my heart. The rain keeps pouring, and in this microcosm of my mind, I swim freely like a tadpole. The rain never stops. As the reservoir grows bigger, it connects with other adjacent reservoirs — the water between them forms a powerful bond.” - Yoshitomo Nara
Tender yet majestic, Yoshitomo Nara’s massive work Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake) towers well over two meters in height. Thoroughly demonstrating Nara’s unique aesthetics coming to fruition, it is the first time that this momentous painting is available in the auction market. Using extremely nuanced and tender brushwork as well as palette, the artist painted a girl with orange hair standing serenely in the middle of a milky lake as she playfully sticks out her tongue with her eyes closed. Sweetly and soothingly, the viewers are brought back into the loving embrace of their innocent childhoods. The little girl who is half-submerged in the lake is an important subject in Nara's oeuvre and a thread that runs through his artistic career for 30 years. Academically, it is a key work that unlocks the overarching ideology of the artist’s practice. Amongst works of the same subject, Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake) is the one of the biggest three in terms of size. Its theme speaks to Nara’s effort to promote peace. Works from the same series are already acquired by Yokohama Museum of Art and Museum Of Contemporary Art in San Diego. The significance of this work cannot be overstated.
Since the 1980s, the archetype of figures standing in water had started to make appearances in a limited number of Nara’s works. Untitled, another work of Nara from 1988 offered in this auction is the earliest specimen of this imagery. Water embodies a sense of holiness in a great number of cultures. The rite of baptism in Western culture is a ceremony that bestows the blessing of God. The ritual of pudu in Buddhism also offers redemption to the dead through the medium of water. The milky water in Nara’s work has a universality in ideology across different cultures. It is also an analogy for healing, deliverance, and rebirth. Moreover, to Nara, water describes the intricate relationship between the inner world of an individual and the outside world. The little pond inside the heart can expand to a massive lake through the power of imagination. The artist once said, “ Everything originates from a little reservoir in my heart. The rain keeps pouring, and in this microcosm of my mind, I swim freely like a tadpole. The rain never stops. As the reservoir grows bigger, it connects with other adjacent reservoirs — the water between them forms a powerful bond”. In this painting, the lake in which the little girl stands is immense. The way it stretches infinitely outside of the frame of the painting allegorises a world of boundless compassion and acceptance.
Along with the eloquent use of the water imagery in Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake) is the artist’s anti-war sentiment — it is a subject matter that greatly concerns him. Such ideal empowers the work with a timeless aura of humanism. On multiple occasions, Yoshitomo Nara denounces war publicly, and he tirelessly promotes the message of peace in his works. Through his art, he wishes to offer solaces to the restless souls in the anxiety-ridden world of grown-ups and wakes up the child-like innocence within the hearts of the viewers. Agent Orange refers to the terrible tactical exfoliant used as a part of the chemical warfare during the Vietnam War. The artist took its name as the title and reimagined it as an adorable little girl with orange hair. Half submerged in tranquil water as if she is emerging from a raging torrent ebbing away, she is reborn through the spiritual attainment of Nirvana. The subtle facial expression of the little girl conveys a sense of quietude and contentment that can sooth every wound and warm every heart.
The tender and therapeutic treatment of this painting is the culmination of Nara’s artistic endeavour in the last few decades. The way in which the artist harmonises, caresses, and layers every brushstroke demonstrates his dedication in crafting a visual experience to the finest detail. By examining the sides of the canvas, it is evident that Nara had prepared a few dozens layers of washes in different hues. These colourful washes are gently covered by a final layer of pigment which is as pure as milk in order to complete a lake in white that shimmers with a myriad of translucent tones. It was during this period when this work was completed that Nara mastered the iconic treatment used in the rendering of the little girl’s face: the contour of her face and hair are feathered to a degree that is akin to airbrushing. This softening treatment removes all hard edges and angular expressions. As a result, reading the minute detail of this piece becomes a restorative and therapeutic experience.
With eyes closed, imagine that you are immersed in a lake that is as white as milk. As the water cleanses and heals your soul, feel its power permeating the very fabric of the universe. Perhaps everyone possesses such a tranquil pond within them. And the power of Agent Orange (In the Milky Lake) lies in its capacity to help viewers to discover this body of water. Through the strength of this monumental work, individual puddles converge to form a great lake that speaks to the power of peace.