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Yoshitomo Nara

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Post date:2021-04-30



Yoshitomo Nara
Event Time
Event Location
No.1, Syueyuan Rd, Beitou Dist., Taipei City Taiwan, R.O.C
Mind-Eyes of Nara: The Gaze in Facial-Expressionism by Huang Chien-Hung

The aftershock of the Tohoku Earthquake in 2011 shook the nation and people of Japan, and also profoundly impacted the entire world. This event, which altered our understanding of the world in profound ways, also touched the hearts of the people of Taiwan. A collaboration between Taiwanese and Japanese artists - New Directions: Trans-plex at the Kuandu Museum of Arts – opened on the same day as the earthquake on March 11th. The people of Taiwan, along with our friends from Japan, stared with slack-jawed, wide-eyed shock at the apocalyptic scene on the TV.

The world will stir into action when disaster tugs at the heart of men. In fact, our friendship with Japan began with the reconstruction efforts after the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. From then on, the people of Taiwan and Japan have sympathized with the plight of one another, concerned with the disasters and social instability that befell one other. With the novel coronavirus ravaging the world today, and bringing about extreme change across all nations, Taiwan’s success with managing the pandemic and our face-mask production capabilities has afforded us the ability to help others – including Japan. Yoshitomo Nara took the opportunity to send a message to President Tsai, and forged a friendship based on shared human values. Here, we can truly feel the depth and determination of Nara’s concern for all of humanity.

Yoshitomo Nara is one of the most important Japanese artists at the intersect of the twentieth and twenty-first century. When he returned from Germany to Japan in 2001, he had his first solo exhibition I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, where he focused on an exploration of his inner psyche, embarking on a conversation with his childhood self through time and space. What we need now in Taipei, a full ten years after the Tohoku Earthquake, is to cooperate and rebuild. The emphasis is, therefore, on “the desire to connect”. Twenty years after Nara’s return to Japan, the sentiment has perhaps evolved into "I Don’t Forget, If You Mind Me”, which symbolizes the message that Taiwan-Japan relations convey: interconnection

I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me at the Yokohama Museum of Art, is Nara’s seminal solo exhibition after his return to Japan in 2001. I conjecture that the title is a representation of the artist’s imaginations about his childhood – how we perceive our increasingly unfamiliar past-selves as we grow and progress with time? To Nara, however, perhaps the distance isn’t only one of time, but of space as well? And so, we are witness to how this gaze into his past not only begins to take center stage within his work, but also becomes an introspection beyond space and time, independent of any one particular issue.

Within these two decades, Nara’s work maintains an intimate relationship with his past memories. I think the gaze within his work also progresses from embodying memories across space and time, to one that, after the Tohoku Earthquake, starts to venture into the memories of human lives and spirituality.Nara’s 2015 Life is Only One exhibit in Hong Kong is an example of the latter. As such we begin to ponder the redirection of his gaze – from a distance, to an intermittent and tentative introspection. In his artwork, the idea of confronting the past also grows beyond the bounds of the individual, to encompass the relationships within the world we share.

A vital component within Nara’s acrylic work is his use of expressions, which can be considered as a modern extension of portrait paintings. For his current exhibit at the Kuandu Museum of Arts in Taipei, we focus on front-facing portraits: from his early work Girl in Blue (1993), when he used an outlining technique to paint his subjects; to Wisdom Tooth Fever (1999) or Eastern Youth (2000), where he began to use what I refer to as “knife-eyes” (heart-shaped eyes).

Later on, we see less and less of these “knife-eyes”, as the eyes of his portrait subjects began to close, or take on larger, rounded shapes. With Twins I & II in 2005, Nara delves deeper into the details of the eyes, and in Cosmic Eyes (In the Milky Lake) of the same year, he was already experimenting with different techniques on each eye – something that can also be seen in Cosmic, Hothouse Doll and Cosmic Eyes in 2007.
I think Nara’s paintings are often driven by the “expressions”, to the extent that his work can be characterized as “facial expressionism”. Subjects are the fragments or parts of himself from past memories, and the successive overlay of paint directs the observer’s eye towards the heft of the face – one that is substantial enough to wear the expression. The slightly concave center that unfolds horizontally toward the outer edges creates a bas-relief effect, and the hair provides a secondary frame within the painting, anchoring the subject within the space. The expression seems fixed upon the scaffold of the hair, and the crew-neck clothing is executed with more leveled strokes to pull the body further down into the background.

In the majority of Nara’s work, I consider the eyes to be the focal point of convergence for the subject’s vivid expression, which holds the essence of the entire painting. The eyes are always pulled drastically apart and positioned to meet its observer at eye-level - they’ve become the focus of the painting. The eyes are also not shaped like human ones, but rather take on the shape of animal or pet eyes. Occupying almost the entire eye is the iris and pupil, which communicate most of the emotion within the expression. Whether the eyes are open or shut, the artist is always able to fully convey the state of the subject through the eyes or its outline, forcefully redirecting the observer to meet the eye of the subject. The directness of the gaze is actually quite animalian, as it regresses the observational nature of a human gaze, to the more primal one – an animal instinctual gaze.

The instinctual gaze is found in the innocence of a child, the keen senses of an animal, and the spiritual consciousness of an adult. Nara’s detailed yet differential depictions of the irises (for the left and right eye) intensify the role it plays within the eye. The treatment of the irises expresses the desire for a meeting of the gaze, and also renders them as microcosms with uncanny depth of field. These techniques – the microcosmic irises and the differential depiction of the left and right eyes – seem to bring the subject from a physical plane of existence to an internal plexus of relationships. Put simply, the microcosms can be viewed as a sphere of the mind, or a “mind-sphere”, that encompasses relationships.

In the above analysis, we discuss the unique features of Nara’s facial expressionism through how he composes the expressions, the instinctual gaze, and the microcosmic irises. These elements which direct the observer’s gaze and draw them into the painting, has the effect of pulling us into an intimate relationship and into a mind-sphere. Even in this year’s exhibition, we can see the influence of the cosmos spreading to other aspects of the exhibited artworks, such as Miss Moonlight and Hazy Humid Day. Nara’s exhibitions often feature many sketches, and they touch upon day-to-day expressions, ideological stances, or the exposition of opinions. Whether on wood or paper, these images all convey strong emotions, but unlike frontal portraits which utilize layers of paint, bas-relief and sense of depth to forge a gaze with the observer, they are more akin to the active graphics of album covers and graffiti paintings, imbued with a strong intention of sending a message.

“No” is highly explicit within these expressive images, exuding a sort of infectiousness. We can compare it with his sketch House in 1985, where the subject walking within the painting is composed with frontal symmetry, akin to the treatment and allocation of space within frontal portraits, but Nara chooses to direct the gaze of the subject’s sunflower-like eyes as a beam onto the leaves on the ground below. This is perhaps the kind of energy he wishes to depict in many of his sketches: the power of emanation. So whether it is a sketch about rock-n’-roll music or an emotional appeal of “no”, they all clearly express this kind of infectiousness - No Nukes, Stop the Bombs, or No War! are good examples. In the sculpture The Fountain of Life, dreaming ovine faces rise up from the cup like droplets of water. The water conduit within the fountain causes tears to roll down the slumbering faces, again imbuing conflict within quietude and peace.

Conflict, or to say “No”, has always been the hand concealed behind the subjects’ backs, the one that may be holding a toy, or a sharp blade – just waiting to stir up our contemplation – with Yoshitomo Nara’s hand as the mind-eyes that stir up the observer’s contemplation.


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