The postwar (World War II) state of affairs of Japan dramatically paralleled the social postwar struggle during the Edo period; yet quite opposite of Edo-period concerns with national isolation, postwar Japan reflected upon globalization’s effect on Japanese identity. Due to the interrelations between nations, Japan’s feudal divisions between rural and urban areas weakened by closing the gap between incomes due to the American occupancy during the 1940s. Moreover, by the 1960s the television united most Japan by broadcasting to all persons with a television. The newly-constructed bullet train provided easy access to major cities.[i] While postwar Japan struggled to regain economic and political standing, it attempted to supersede “modern” countries by efficiently recovering from the war and focusing technological advancement with government commissions of “authentic” Japanese art. A new generation, unfamiliar with national culture and tradition, arose from shared information and innovative technology. Japan’s economic bubble in the 1980’s acted as a catalyst yielding the contemporary subculture otaku, “home,” who purportedly had traded national identity for modern expansion.[ii] The collision of “traditional” Japanese art and modern western painting created a nuclear environment for a new subversive movement—Japanese postmodernism, super flat defined by Takashi Murakami in his essay “A Theory of Super Flat Japanese Art” from Painting at the Edge of the World.
Super flat strives to achieve the quintessence of Japanese authenticity, importantly distinguishable from a collective of earlier Japanese movements while incorporating contemporary identity or, more truthfully, identity crisis. Murakami has defined super flat as a term that embraces artists and works exhibiting “that unique Japanese sensibility… . [t]hat original expression, Japan.” He has characterized super flat works as those which possess an “eccentric” or a “superficial” quality that together force the viewer to realize the simple planarity of the piece. Presumably, Murakami has mentioned “superficial” as a universal adjective of art and subject matter implying that the images depicted (usually commodities, manga or distorted Edo-period woodblock-print images) are “phonies.”
Suiko (based out of Hiroshima) uses kanji, “tag” or logo similar to American graffiti artists’ street names, to sign his RackGacki, “graffiti.”[iii] Adhering to Murakami’s manifesto, Suiko uses an ancient and still used Japanese typography that has its origin in Chinese pictographs 5,000-years ago; a majority of RackGacki artists employ foreign words due to their legibility and facility.[iv] As one views Suiko’s shockingly massive piece entitled Eternity, spraypainted on a Hiroshima wall, the viewer is overwhelmed by the mere size. Kanji interweaves with graphic images creating a delightfully-decodable concoction, in which the viewer must invest time. The mix of image and text also mimics woodblock prints, such as Toyokuni’s Cherry Blossom previously discussed in Part II . The writer’s aggressive strokes of austere metallic silver suggest a harsh unpacked message. Symbols confront the viewer by manipulating the standard kanji form—the letters are aligned in a paradoxical pattern rather than canonical vertical form.
Hollow pictorial space stands as a hallmark for super flat emphasizing the hopelessly shallow subject matter. Suiko flattens physically-erect medium by encompassing walls with chaotic patterns. Enternity jumbles typography, graphic mimicry of manga characters, realistic glimpses of landscape, and other obscure forms into one collage. By contorting and combining common iconography, Suiko confronts the viewer with the fallacy of known imagery. The viewer strains to render a palpable explanation for the perplexing placement of the floating pig surrounded by equivocal shapes. The elementary graphics are lightly shaded, but mostly consist of one pure hue.
Suiko’s piece entitled SKLAWL. BELx2 berates commodification with unprecedented force. Similar to erotic-genre Edo-woodprint blocks’ critique of idealized female form, Suiko engulfs the contemporary idealized woman with counterintuitive graphic mess. The woman leans back, eyes close and hand rests upon her forehead, as she wades in a void sea of spray-painted blackness; from what one can see, she lies nude and pouts her slightly-open mouth exuding erotic implications, and she resembles a typical advertisement. She appears to be suspended in a state of rest or enjoyment, but she is consumed by kanji and manga images. Disruption causes the viewer to accept the superficial reality of the advertised fantasy as sharp images cut into her soft contours.
As technology increases, art must reformulate to maintain public interest. Rather than permanent art pieces of the isolated period like Edo-woodblock prints, contemporary RackGaki artist Suiko creates in a constant state of transformation and offers ephemeral glimpses of contemporary ideologies. His production imitates as it assesses globalization and information exchange: he chooses city space as the most pervasive medium; he illegally paints private property, a direct criticism of political coercion; he appropriates style from Edo subversive art and manipulates iconography from contemporary consumerism; chooses large-scale exhibitions in order to attract attention; and as quickly as it is painted, the work is painted over by the city. Suiko seems to be caught in a constant cycle of production and destruction—a circular performatvie art piece in and of itself. In some respect RackGaki has to compete with contemporary culture, and so it must also appropriate it, respectively.[vii] Consequently, we see Suiko’s RackGaki directly projected onto a car or other icons of development.[viii]
[i] Noi Sawaragi, “On the Battlefield of ‘Superflat’: Subculture and Art in Postwar Japan スーパーフラットという戦場で 戦後、日本のサブカルチャーと美術,”in Murakami, Takashi, Toshio Okada, Chiaki Kasahara, Reiko Tomii, and Japan Society Gallery. Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture (New York/New Haven: Japan Society/Yale University Press, 2005), 188.
[ii] Ibid., 189.
[iii] Ryo Sandra, RackGaki: Japanese Graffiti (London: Lawerence King, 2007), 72.
[iv] Natalie Avella, Graphic: from Woodblock and Zen to Manga and Kawaii,” 103.
[vii] Thomas Crow. “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts” from Pollock and After: The Critical Debate edited by Francis Frascina (London, England: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1985), 233-4, 239.