titled and signed in Japanese; dated ‘1999’ (on the stretcher)
acrylic on canvas
45.5 x 53 cm. (17 7/8 x 20 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
Private Collection, USA
Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, The Sad Canvases: the World of Tetsuya Ishida, exh.cat., Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan, 2007 (illustrated, p.23).
Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co. Ltd., Tetsuya Ishida Complete, Tokyo, Japan, 2010 (illustrated, plate 74, p. 85).
Shizuoka City, Japan, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, The Sad Canvases: The World of Tetsuya Ishida, 24 July - 19 August 2007.

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Annie Lee
Annie Lee

Lot Essay

Tetsuya Ishida was born in 1973 in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan and died an untimely death when he was struck by a train in Tokyo in 2005. Despite the brevity of his artistic career, he left behind many poignant paintings that made him an iconic figure within the history of Japanese contemporary art. Through his Surrealist works he portrayed the uneasy era of which he was a part, capturing social realities as Japan's Post-War economic miracle collapsed. At the same time, people in every part of the world can relate to the expression of the various kinds of oppression, exploitation, and injustice to the individual depicted in his work.

During the short span of his thirty one years, Ishida lived through the oil crisis of the 1970s and the ‘lost decade’ of economic collapse in Japan in the '90s. A number of societal problems such as long working hours in a high-pressure environment, alienation, and a rigid social class system, arose during this bleak and uneasy atmosphere and typified Japan’s working class. Despite the repressiveness of this environment, young Ishida did not become dull or withdrawn; instead, with a sensitive touch, he produced a series of surreal compositions in a finely detailed, realistic manner. Functional (Lot 33) combines a bathroom scene with scattered remnants of lunch box food, as a dejected young man sits on the toilet, holding a book with a vacant expression.

Functional was painted in 1999, the same year in which the Japanese government approved amendments to its Temporary Labor Law, under which enterprises could more easily use temporary workers to replace workers who had previously been guaranteed lifetime employment. The insecurity workers felt after the removal of such protection further aggravated unemployment problems during this period of economic decline, and Ishida himself was only able to continue creative work with great difficulty by taking up various part-time jobs. The artist thus experienced total empathy for all such real-life problems and detailed them in the fine brushwork of his canvases. The restroom is of course an important part of home life in Japanese culture, and the home itself should be a kind of haven where one can find rest and relaxation. The restroom is also a private space for the individual, but the normal emphasis on cleanliness and comfort in this particular living space has given way in Ishida's painting to extreme disorder. Meanwhile the lunchbox, a fast-food mainstay for Japanese workers needing to fill their stomachs, alludes to the significant sacrifices made in quality of life for the sake of work. The two behaviors of Ishida's subject are both fundamental for survival, while each is the interior or exterior aspect of the other and each mutually exclusive. By compressing the two inside the same interior space, Ishida perhaps provides a metaphor for the inescapable pressures of life which can trap us deeply with no choice or hope of escape.

Despite the feeling of uncontrollable helplessness it suggests, Ishida's Functional conveys the artist's sympathy and concern for contemporary humanity's existential condition. The basic humanitarian impulse of this artist was in fact deeply present even in his earliest work: he once won a fifth-grade human-rights drawing contest with a cartoon protesting bullying. An American artist of the time, Ben Shahn, devoted himself to exposing the injustices surrounding social issues such as labor and immigration (Fig. 2). Shahn traveled to Japan to investigate the Lucky Dragon 5 incident, in which the death of a Japanese sailor resulted from the effects of a US hydrogen bomb test, after which he produced his Lucky Dragon series of paintings. Ishida had grown up in the city of Ise and was aware of this incident; recollecting how he had won that early prize, he couldn't help but mention in his artist's sketchbook having been inspired by Shahn. This basic concern for humanity extended into his later work; Ishida once wrote, 'I am strongly drawn to saint-like artists - the ones who truly believe the world can be saved one brushstroke at a time...' With an intense visual language that cannot be ignored, Functional removes the mask from our sunny assumptions about contemporary life to expose the more repressive aspects of our living environment.

The 2015 Venice Biennale took as its theme “All the World's Futures,” through which curator Okwui Enwezor hoped to explore societal changes in the wake of the industrial revolution and the resulting anxieties that have been felt in different eras. Works by Ishida were entered and shown at the Biennale in its main exhibition hall, thus realizing his hope that artists could push viewers to reflect on the surroundings in which they live: “I believe my self-portrait paintings have the function of making the viewer examine our contemporary world, society, and values.”

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