Released in 1983, Sonic Youth’s post-punk declaration of irreverence “Kill Yr Idols” speaks to every younger generation’s need to assert independence from its heroes and artistic forbears. For the exhibition “Three is a magic number 9,” currently on view at Micheko Galerie, Japanese artist collective 3 (Three) takes a scalpel and torch to its own pop cultural icons in order to find new possibilities for national identity and artistic production in Japan.
The collective is comprised of three men in their late twenties, all who grew up steeped in imagery from Japanese manga cartoons and anime films and television series. For its first-ever exhibition in Europe, 3 has strung a curtain across the width of the gallery, composed entirely of wrapped Japanese confections. Visitors are invited to tear off individual packets of candy before entering the exhibition space. The curtain forms a porous membrane that will slowly dissolve over the course of the next month. As visitors progressively consume the foreign sweets, 3’s artworks will become increasingly exposed to the bare, glass storefront and inquiring gazes of its local passersby.
Beyond the threshold, the exhibition is devoted to 3’s continued obsession with the kawaii (literally “cute”) figurines of beloved Japanese manga and anime characters that have come to signify ideals of beauty, as well as of deportment and personal expression, in contemporary Japanese society. The artists slice these figurines, melt them into barely recognizable or unrecognizable fragments, then reconfigure their remains into wall-mounted sculptures mirroring the precise dimensions of iPads and flat-screen televisions. Through the recomposition of these screens, 3 critiques the reception of knowledge engendered by new technologies and the ways in which they have changed our ability to process information. Should there be any doubt about 3’s message, another, free-standing sculpture reassembled from figurine limbs depicts a young girl with the left side of her head blown off.
In mutilating and refashioning prized objects of Japanese material culture, 3 also assassinates its own artistic idols, namely Takashi Murakami and Yoshimoto Nara. These two artists, the patres familias of contemporary Japanese art, both draw heavily from kawaii imagery. In destroying Murakami’s and Nara’s source materials 3 steps definitively out of their shadows to stake their claim as significant Japanese artists in their own right.
3 is based in Fukushima, but its members resist any identification of their melted figurines with the 2011 catastrophe that took place there. The collective is, nevertheless, deeply politically engaged stating their aim, “to create a kind of movement that is a self-critical way to find the deep, core issues in Japan.” What more powerful act of creative destruction than to dismantle one’s idols, and to replace them with question marks.