Life Is Only One

Life Is Only One
acrylic on wood
169 x 254 x 9.2 cm. (66 1/2 x 100 x 3 5/8 in.)
Executed in 2008
Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, UK
Anon. Sale, Sotheby's London, 16 February 2011, Lot 232
Anon. Sale, Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2 October 2016, Lot 1038
Acquired by the present owner from the above sale
Private Collection, Asia
Asia Society, Yohsitomo Nara: Nobody’s Fool, New York, USA, 2010 (installation view illustrated, p. 252).
Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1 - Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 (illustrated, plate B-2008-010, p. 236).
United Kingdom, Gateshead, Yoshitomo Nara + graf, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, 12 June – 26 October 2008.

Brought to you by

Kimmy Lau
Kimmy Lau

Lot Essay

“I think that the most important things in life are those we cannot name or label. What obscures our vision and breaks our concentration on what is 'most important' is the labeling or branding. It's a way to call our attention to appearances, or superficial matters, not the contents or the inside where, and only where, what is 'most important' truly is.” – Yoshitomo Nara

The collaboration between Japanese contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara and design group Graf began in the spring of 2003. Together they built massive installations of wooden houses with driftwood and ready-made objects that were locally available. Following the success of the first collaboration in the critical acclaimed exhibition SML, they were inspired to partner again on multiple occasions between 2003 and 2006. Their exhibitions toured in many countries in Asia, New York, London, and participated in the Yokohama Triennial. Their most ambitious project was A-Z - in a series of 26 exhibitions, 26 houseinstallations were realised, each responding to the physical space of the exhibition venue or the local culture. Each house was built on a street that is named according to the alphabet in A - Z. Life is Only One (Lot 62) is a part of this project that was shown at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art in the United Kingdom, located on the south bank of the River Tyne. The building was originally a flour mill. After Nara and Graf had studied the site, they decided to build a network of three interconnected wooden houses (Fig. 1). This structure served as a site of creative viewing experience.

Life is Only One is comprised of reclaimed wood. It was installed on the roof of one of the wooden houses like a giant advertising billboard welcoming viewers to enter into Nara's creative universe. The weightless movement of the sleepwalking girl and the flat pastel colour in the background juxtapose sharply with the weight lumber. Yoshitomo Nara and Graf sourced the material locally and constructed the work from driftwood that were weathered and covered with nails. These salvaged planks were then assembled in a staggered fashion, thus giving Life is Only One a brick wall-like texture that was echoed on the walls of the houses. A subtle sense of architectural aesthetic is achieved on this painting. Yoshitomo Nara’s exploration in reconstructing readymade objects and experimenting with new material is reminiscent of a pop art pioneer from the post-war period- the American artist Robert Rauschenburg (Fig. 2). These two artists broke free from the bonds of the two-dimensional surface of the canvas and incorporated unorthodox materials in the painting. They made textures and traces of damage on these materials part of their own mark-making process. As a result, their semi-three-dimensional works straddle between paintings and sculptures. Yoshitomo Nara and Graf collectively constructed these wooden houses and paintingson- wood as a way to respond to the local architecture and exhibition venue. In addition, the interior of these structures take cues from the artists’ studios in Japan. Doubling as Nara’s nomadic home away from home, this work encourages cultural exchange across geographic regions with its power to open frank dialogues with the viewers.

Yoshitomo Nara frequently uses the perspective and memories from childhood in his works. He expressed in an interview that when he was young, he only vaguely understood the concept of life. It was not until he had experienced natural disasters and losing loved ones when he past 50 years old did he understand the finite nature of life. Life is Only One embodies an important sentiment that Nara repeatedly states in his works - life is a fleeting experience. We should reflect on the fact that the only constant in life is change. We should live in the moment and take action. On a wooden panel measuring over 250 centimetres long, the artist outlines with black paint the little girls figure, hair, facial features, as well as the phrase in red “Life is Only One”. This slogan grabs the attention of the viewer with its vibrant colours, sheer size that occupies over half of the painting, and a forceful exclamation point. It compels every viewer who is captivated by it to reflect on the immutable truth of life. Asserting powerful statements in the format of billboard is similar to the works by American feminist artist Barbara Kruger. She also uses pithy slogans to capture the gaze and attention of the viewers (Fig. 3). Her black and white photographs are emphatically punctured by slogans in red and white. Nara, on the other hand, boldly outlines his red slogan with black paint. Both of the artists seek to jolt the viewers into revelation with their dire warnings.

Beside inspiring viewers to reflect on life, Yoshitomo Nara created works with sleeper walker as subject matter on numerous occasions. The Little Pilgrims (Night Walking) (1999), The Night Walker (2001) and (2002), and Sleepless Night (Sitting) (2007) all feature sleepwalking children as the main characters. The child in Life is Only One extends her arms out forward. She aimlessly drifts through the doldrums of her mundane life with eyes closed - perhaps every urban dweller shares the same experience of loss at some point in their lives. Sleep occupies one-third of our lives, and dreaming is the projection and release of our subconscious. Renowned Austrian symbolism painter Gustav Klimt creates the dreamy Mother and Child (Fig. 4) to metaphor the three stages of female in their lives. Both artists outlined the figures with black lines to emphasise the character modelling. Similarly, they adopt the bold and exaggerated proportions and body language, yet rendering the works with a tranquil aura. Nara’s forthright personality can be seen in the enlarged head and exaggerated body language in his character modelling, as well as his succinct and expression compositions. The artist empowers his artworks with a frankness that resonates with viewers from all walks of life.

Every individual may have a different interpretation of the meaning of life, and they can be manifested in a myriad of ways. It is a proposition that is worthy of a lifetime of investigation to Yoshitomo Nara, and it is quite possibly the most important topic in art and in life. The perplexing phase “Life is Only One” was later used as the title of Nara’s 2015 solo exhibition at the Asia Society in Hong Kong, where he continued to explore the truth of life in a diverse and innovative way.

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