THE PRESENCE OF ABSENCE
Yoshitomo Nara considers how art could question the uncertainty of one’s perception of reality. Reality is the unity of subjectivity and objectivity, and thus the self-identity of what is absolutely contradictory. In Milky Sea (Lot 34), the facial expression of the child powerfully captures the tone of melancholy that appears at odds with the implied age; the figure’s ambiguity on many levels allows for an empathic viewer to slip into the role of the child, to recall the intensity of the feelings of childhood, while the eyes hint at the inherent wisdom of that more innocent age. Nara has often based his pictures on his own remembered experiences, he once expressed: “Memories of my childhood landscapes-like walking to the station with my mother in the snow, through a big white emptiness instead of through a town-never leave me.” (Y. Nara quoted in Yoshitomo Nara: Nothing Ever Happens , Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, Cleveland, 2004, p. 62). To return to his art’s empty backgrounds is to see them whited out, covered by snow, blanketed by the impossible effort of total recollection.
Painted in 2004, a profound sense of sublime elegance and delicacy is conveyed in Milky Sea. The work employs a softer approach where pastel colours take precedence, showing the disembodied head of a child over the surface of a milky sea, painted on bandage-like patches on the surface of a giant disc. An inward-looking tranquillity saturates the work, the figure seemingly both cherubic, and lost in meditation. Towering at almost two meters with concave shape and magnified onto a monumental scale of feeling, Milky Sea induces a theme of exchange between Nara and the viewers. It evokes the most elemental sensations and deepest contemplation on inner childlike innocence, and indeed, seems to harbour life's ineffable truths within its expansive and enthralling purview. Its power derives from its undeniable evocation of emotive reaction from forgotten childhood. The mirror-like interactivity invites viewers into the work, it charms and hypnotises, demanding to be contended with.
The early wood block printing technique of Ukiyo-e can be sensed in Milky Sea’s otherworldly hues. The forms, dramatic perspectives, and truncated compositional structures call to mind the 19th century drawing of Kitagawa Utamaro (Fig. 1). The simplicity in appearance of the work declare an affinity with the ink paintings of late- Edo Period, Zen artist-priests Sengai Gibon. This mastery is apparent in Sengai’s painting of his self-portrait, where two outlines to capture the human form. And yet it conveys some profound Zen principle or aphorism in an easily understandable form. The deft simplification feature is reminiscent of Alexej von Jawlensky’s Heilandsgesicht (Saviour’s face) (Fig. 2), where in the human face he saw a template in which all the beauty and harmony of the world was captured, a legacy in part of his Russian upbringing and of the role played by religious icons in the Orthodox church. The innate spirituality of Milky Sea and transcendent quality of colour alludes to Jawlensky’s belief in an affiliation between Art and God. This, then, has become a spiritual subject.
FORM OF THE FORMLESS
In Milky Sea, Nara has shown a deliberate restraint, the background rendered with a minimal vocabulary and the slightest hint of an environment with the ripple surrounding the head. The figure looks out with such a set jaw, or from piercing, meticulously-painted eyes with their hypnotic swirls. Much of the canvas has been left in luminous cream that recalls a sheet of washi (mulberry paper), echoing the yohaku (empty space) of Chinese and Japanese literati painting. The characters in yohaku signify “remainder” and “white”, implying a void. It symbolises "nothingness" or the Chinese glyph mu inherent in Zen philosophy.
Qi is a metaphysical concept of a cosmic power. Empty space in a painting is the interplay of natural processes grounded in the temporally shifting distributions of qi, that yields path-like guidance structures for living things. Here, like in screen paintings and handscrolls from the Heian to the Kamakura periods, empty space represents the pictorial depth and movement through time. As Nara has said, “Life was not a game, it was a serious flow of time, and the question was, What can you make?” (Y. Nara quoted in Modern Landscape: For the Pleasure of People and Scenery, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo).