TETSUYA ISHIDA (1973-2005)
TETSUYA ISHIDA (1973-2005)

Rooftop Refugee

TETSUYA ISHIDA (1973-2005)
Rooftop Refugee
acrylic on board
145.8 x 103.3 cm. (57 3/8 x 40 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1996
Private Collection, Asia
Guardian Garden (ed.), Tetsuya Ishida Posthumous Works, Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co., Tokyo, Japan, 2006 (illustrated, p. 39).
Katsuhiko Yokoyama, Nerima Art Museum (ed.), Tetsuya Ishida -- Our Self Portraits, Nerima Art Museum Publishing, Tokyo, Japan, 2008 (illustrated, plate 15, p. 51).
Tetsuya Ishida – Complete, Kyurudo Art Publishing Co., Tokya, Japan, 2010 (illustrated, plate 36, p. 53).
Chinatsu Kuma, Kenichi Abe, Hikotaro Kanehira, Yuko Katada (ed.), Yokohama Triennale 2011: OUR MAGIC HOUR -- How Much of the World Can We Know?, Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha Co., Tokyo, Japan, 2011 (illustrated, p. 33).
Kiyoshi Ejiri, Shōko Kawatani, Tsumoru Sugimoto, Shigeru Katsuyama, Masato Horikiri, Nao Fukushima (ed.), Tetsuya Ishida Note, Kyuryudo Art Publishing Co., Tokyo, Japan, 2013 (illustrated, plate 31, p. 58).
Tokyo, Japan, Guardian Garden Gallery, 6th Hitotsubo 3.3-Sq.-Meter Exhibition of Graphic Art, Grand Prize Winner Solo Show: Tetsuya Ishida Exhibition: Drifter, 7-18 October 1996.
Tokya, Japan, Nerima Art Museum, Tetsuya Ishida – Our Self Portraits, November – December 2008.
Yokohama, Japan, Yokohama Museum of Art, Yokohama Triennale 2011: OUR MAGIC HOUR: How Much of the World Can We Know?, 6 August – 6 November 2011.
Tochigi, Japan, Ashikaga Museum of Art, Tetsuya Ishida Note, 7 September – 27 October 2013. This exhibition later travelled to Kanagawa, Japan, Hiratsuka Museum of Art, 12 April – 15 June 2014; Toyama, Japan, Tonami Art Museum, 6 September – 5 October 2014; Shizuoka, Japan, Shizuoka Prefectural Art Museum, 24 January – 25 March 2015.

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Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

"I cannot make you understand. I cannot make anyone understand what is happening inside me. I cannot even explain it to myself." – Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

Academics, career, making a living — if life is a staircase and the objective is to climb it, what does it look like when one finally reaches the top? In Rooftop Refugee, Tetsuya Ishida examines this phenomenon with a critical yet sympathetic eye in order to reveal the fragility of humanity behind the facade of societal expectations. Completed early in the artist’s career in 1996, every brushstroke in this painting speaks to Ishida’s experience when he first joined the workforce. This large-scale single portrait was one of the headlining works at the Yokohama Triennale in 2011. To this date, the impact of this work still deeply resonates with the viewers.

Surrealist artist Rene Magritte depicted the deepest and darkest desires and fears within the human psyche with his dream-like imageries. In the same vein, Ishida’s works are also rooted in the anxiety, loneliness, and dreams that every individual experiences in their subconscious minds. Curled up inside the staircase, the main character in the painting who bears a striking resemblance to the artist, stares absentmindedly into space. His body merged with the staircase, it looks as though the staircase has swallowed him. The character’s hand reaches awkwardly from behind to press the red button. This action immediately piques the viewer’s curiosity — why is he hitting the button? Will it save him from the current predicament? Is he trying to escape from the jail that is the staircase? Or does he still wish to climb it? The figure’s body floats in mid-air on top of the railing on the roof. The grey skies and dark clouds above his head seem to forecast his fate. Ishida depicted this scene with great sensitivity and nuances — from the prevailing grey tones on the entire painting, the rusted and moss-covered staircase, to the advertising billboard that symbolises the capitalistic world, they are rendered with astonishing realism to convey the anguish experienced by the character to the viewer.

1996, the year Ishida completed Rooftop Refugee, can be considered as the beginning of his artistic career. During this period after he graduated from university, he painted works that featured amalgamations of humans and machines. In these works, whitecollar salarymen in suits are partially transformed into staircases, aeroplanes, ships, washbasins and other objects. The vacant look in their eyes expresses a sense of helplessness of someone who is trapped in a dilemma. It is evident from these expressions that Ishida’s perceptiveness had made him painfully aware of the societal expectations that were imposed on him. The artist utilised the staircase as a metaphor for a multitude of things — it can be the motivation to move up the food chain in life, the endless labour that one must endure, or the boundless desire that consumes everyone. Yet, the weathered staircase seems to suggest that there is only one fate awaits those who blindly rush to the top. Only on the rooftop can one seek respite from the rat race.

The 1990s are often referred to as the Lost Decade in Japan. During those ten years, technological industries experienced an unprecedented boom, while workers from traditional industries suffered from unemployment. Vast majority of young people had to begrudgingly take up menial positions earning minimum wages. Just making enough to make ends meet, they had to leave their dreams and aspirations behind. Although born into an affluent family, when Ishida was painting Rooftop Refugee, he refused support and took up menial jobs as well. It was during this period that he witnessed the hardship and hopelessness experienced by those at the grassroots level. Subsequently, he aspired to change the world with his artworks. Much like Banksy who painted the West Bank barrier wall in the wartorn region to let people see other possibilities, Ishida’s works also attempt to evoke a sense of empathy in the viewers. The imageries in these works compel everyone who is imprisoned by the staircase of life to reflect on their existential conditions in order to find hope and solace.

The hallmark of a great work is its ability to express the complex conditions of its time and convey it through the language of art to posterity across space and time. In Kafka’s parable The Metamorphosis, the writer expounded on the alienating effect of societal structure with the most vivid metaphor, and its insight and impact have a lasting influence of on its readers. Ishida achieved the same end visually with Rooftop Refugee. The painting speaks about the confusion he experienced in the past; it prepares us for the uncertainty in the future; and it soothes the tired souls who have journeyed for too long. Most importantly, it provides viewers with an opportunity to re-evaluate their lives and find real meaning in their new chapters.

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