7 Giants of Japanese Contemporary Art Who Aren’t Murakami or Kusama
Japan’s legacy of artistic innovation is long, varied, and deeply influential. Despite being smaller than the state of California, the country has birthed numerous globally influential movements like
Today, Japan’s living artists continue to produce work whose impact is felt far beyond the island’s boundaries. Blockbuster names like
Yoshitomo Nara’s portraits of wide-eyed, badly behaved children are as unsettling as they are enchanting. The Tokyo-based painter was raised in the rural Aomori Prefecture and went on to study at Aichi University of the Arts and Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Nara came of age alongside Murakami, and the two have been referred to as the progenitors of the Superflat movement—a term coined by the latter artist to characterize a group that fuses traditional Japanese aesthetics (motifs pulled from ukiyo-e prints, for instance) with contemporary cultural references (like Japanese comic books known as “manga”).
Unlike Murakami’s paintings of anthropomorphic flowers, psychedelic mushrooms, and sexually aroused cartoon characters, however, Nara’s compositions are chock-full of human emotion and psychological depth. As one critic put it: “To Murakami’s brains, Nara provided the heart.” Indeed, Nara’s close-up depictions of childlike characters sucking on cigarettes or brandishing knives conjure feelings ranging from outrage to helplessness. These figures embody a breadth of cultural forces: Japan’s struggle to forge a national identity after the horrors of World War II; traditional Japanese otafuku and okame theatre masks; and the cathartic riffs of folk and punk music. Two of Nara’s most influential exhibitions share titles and lyrics with emotionally resonant rock songs: “I don’t mind if you forget me…” by Morrissey and “a bit like you and me,” borrowed from the Beatles.
In recent years, the artist’s characters have become less rebellious and more contemplative: Their eyes are peacefully closed, their hair adorned with sparkling bits resembling stars. Nara has credited this shift to his own metaphysical musings. “For a very long time I have created my art from a spiritual point of view,” he’s said of his practice. “It is filled with religious and philosophical considerations.”
As a child growing up in the city of Saitama, Aya Takano immersed herself in sci-fi novels, as well as comic books by the likes of pioneering manga cartoonist Osamu Tezuka. These became early influences for the painter, who cut her teeth working in Murakami’s studio and now belongs to her mentor’s production collective, Kaikai Kiki. “When I was a kid, I daydreamed and stayed in my fantasy land by reading books and mangas all the time,” Takano has said of her early years. “I hated most designs of devices and buildings and I still do. I aspired to freedom of spirit and I was very different from others. I still want to be like that.” In one 2004 work, entitled EARTH, two young women float in space, unfettered by clothes or gravity, and surrounded by constellations and a menagerie of adorable creatures.
Like Murakami, the whimsical, cartoonish figures that populate Takano’s canvases are inspired in part by Japanese comic art. But the Tokyo- and Kyoto-based artist’s inspirations also extend to erotic stamps from the Edo period,
Mariko Mori, Tea Ceremony III, 1994. © Mariko Mori. Courtesy of the artist and Sean Kelly, New York.
Mariko Mori’s glowing sculptures and ritualistic performances simultaneously reference technology, spirituality, and exterrestrial dimensions. Raised by a father who was both an art historian and an inventor, Mori went on to study at the Chelsea College of Art & Design in London in the late 1980s and early ’90s. Landing back in Tokyo soon after, she began her career by placing her own body at the center of staged photographs. In early pieces like Subway (1994), Mori appears as a wig- and armor-clad cyborg-demigoddess traversing a teeming, technology-obsessed Tokyo. Similarly, in performances like Tea Ceremony (1995), she simultaneously referenced Japanese culture and gender dynamics. Wearing an outfit that was part-alien, part-secretary, she robotically served tea to Japanese businessmen.
By the late 1990s, technology itself became Mori’s primary medium. In Wave UFO (1999–2003), she constructed a pearlescent pod resembling an alien spacecraft. Upon entering, viewers were hooked up to headsets that translated their brainwaves into imagery projected onto the vessel’s walls (Mori consulted hundreds of scientists, technologists, and designers to realize the feat). Later projects have explored Mori’s interest in universal spiritual consciousness. In 2005, Mori outfitted the monolithic, orb-like Tom Na H-iu with intelligent LED lights that were networked to an observatory, located within the Institute for Cosmic Ray Research, which tracked the death of stars. The sculpture’s pulsing light patterns corresponded with the life cycle of celestial bodies located across the universe. Mori realized her most ambitious project to date in 2016, when she suspended an incandescent ring atop Brazil’s towering Véu da Noiva waterfall; the permanent installation’s unveiling corresponded with the opening of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Hiroshi Sugimoto characterizes his luminous black-and-white photographs as “efforts to render visible unseen realms.” Indeed, the Tokyo-born photographer captures mysterious, glowing scenes that reference energy fields, the passage of time, and intangible forces like harmony, transcendence, and the sublime. Sugimoto snapped his earliest images in high school, training his lens on classic Audrey Hepburn films that were playing in Tokyo’s movie houses. Since then, the artist has been interested in photographing environments where time is suspended, investigated, or embodied.
In one of his most celebrated series, the artist shoots theater interiors using a long exposure, so that projection screens resemble luminous portals into other realms—and reference the escapist nature of films in the process. Other bodies of work, in which Sugimoto captures natural history museum dioramas and the figures that populate wax museums, also blur lines between reality and fiction, past and present, and mortality and immortality. “The stuffed animals positioned before painted backdrops looked utterly fake,” he’s said of his diorama images. “Yet by taking a quick peek with one eye closed, all perspective vanished, and suddenly they looked very real.”
Sugimoto has also made it something of a mission to visualize intangible forces. In his “Lightning Fields” series, the artist gives form to electricity by using a Van De Graaff volt generator to imprint electrical charges onto film. In the resulting photos, fractured, bright-white lines rip across fields of deep, velvety black like energy incarnate.
In Tabaimo’s 2007 animation dolefullhouse, the tentacles of an octopus creep into every opening of a dollhouse, almost consuming it. For the Karuizawa-based artist, the unsettling intrusion represented an alarming aspect of contemporary Japanese society: “I wanted to create the sense of seeing Western culture gradually invading our body, and us, in turn, destroying it,” she explained of the piece.
Across her body of work, Tabaimo investigates Japanese identity and the forces that threaten it. While the artist’s video animations are colorful and cartoonish, drawing inspiration from ukiyo-e woodcuts and anime, the narratives that play out suggest darker realities. Themes of isolation, fragility, mutation, and contamination abound, pointing to crippling human emotions: fear, or the loneliness born of globalization and the technological boom. In a work from 2018, Shinju Trail, the viewer sees two red butterflies fluttering in and out of a traditional Japanese room, rendered in black and white. The title hints at a darker message behind the whimsical scene: Shinju refers to a double suicide, in which lovers who are barred from being together vow to end their lives.
Daido Moriyama’s images are propelled by “the shock that comes from the outside world,” as he has described them. A pioneering street photographer, he’s captured the wild, hedonistic energy of city life since the 1960s. After assisting photographers Takeji Iwamiya and
Indeed, Moriyama’s snapshots of dimly lit back alleys, or blurry fragments of female figures and throngs of fast-moving bodies, harness the brisk transformation of Japanese culture, which was in the process of shedding traditional mores in favor of modernization. Whether printed in black-and-white or color, his high-contrast images embody the intensity of urban existence. Moriyama’s process is similarly intense; he’s compared his rapid-fire shooting style to a machine gun firing rounds. “When I take snapshots, I am always guided by feeling,” he’s explained of his instinctive approach, “so even in that moment when I’m taking a photograph it is impossible to explain the reason for the exposure.” In that vein, he’s also cited Beat writer Jack Kerouac and early street photographers
For Chiharu Shiota’s 2015 Venice Biennale installation, The Key In The Hand, she filled the sprawling Japan pavilion floor-to-ceiling with a labyrinthine network of red yarn. Countless keys, collected from homeowners around the world, dangled from the twine like fruits ready to plucked. The immersive piece is typical of the Osaka-born, Berlin-based artist’s practice, in which she strings together objects—shoes, beds, suitcases—that embody intimate human experiences and emotions. For Shiota, the nest of keys represented the universal desire to make homes and memories.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.