Yoshitomo Nara: neo-pop artist who defies categorisation

Ahead of two important solo exhibitions in Hong Kong, the Japanese artist with a global cult following is dismissive of the way others interpret his work, saying: 'This is just what comes out.'

David McNeill

Like the trademark childlike characters in his work, neo-pop artist Yoshitomo Nara seems both vulnerable and prickly. Although famously reserved, he was once arrested for drawing graffiti in New York's Union Square underground. He generally shuns face-to-face interviews and dislikes questions probing his art. "People who see my works are free to understand them in any way they want," he says via email. "But I think that one of art's good points is that you can ambiguously perceive and feel based on the viewer's personal experiences and living environment."
Fusing anime, pop art and punk rock, Nara has been sculpting, painting and drawing his nightmarish children and animals for more than two decades. His gallery of alluringly sinister characters, racing from the mad dreams of a childish imagination, has a worldwide cult following, making him one of Japan's few globally known art celebrities. Hong Kong gets its first close-up look at what all the fuss is about this month, with the opening of two exhibitions running almost simultaneously at Pace Hong Kong and the Asia Society.
For Nara, the Hong Kong exhibitions bring his relationship with China full circle. He first visited the Chinese countryside in 1983, when Japanese tourists were as rare as sparrows in winter.
"I communicated by writing kanji [Chinese characters] on a piece of paper," he recalls. "With people in the countryside who couldn't read kanji, I drew pictures on paper. Everyone was very kind, and I think we understood each other." Despite the intervening years and China's enormous leap forward, he believes his drawings can still connect on an instinctual level. "If my feelings are conveyed to those who have a heart, then I think that is a good thing."
Nara's work has been seen both as a detached commentary on the pressures of Japanese adolescence and a symptom of it. He once explained he started drawing during his latchkey childhood because "it was an emotional landscape that I could understand". The youngest of three boys, he had workaholic parents during the rapid-growth era of the 1960s and '70s, taking refuge, like many Japanese boys, in the cartoon world of Astro Boy and Speed Racer.
His flat, two-dimensional pictures have the clear lines of manga cartoons and are often populated by sulky, bulbous-headed children sporting knives, saws, clenched fists or cigarettes. The pictures draw on the rebellious motifs of punk rock, a point reinforced by references throughout Nara's work to New York rockers The Ramones and other musical icons.
He plays "deafeningly loud" music while painting and once designed a CD cover for Japanese punk girl band Shonen Knife. Canadian rock veteran Neil Young, however, is his all-time favourite artist. "He [Young] has a spirit of equality and freedom, bravely singing his songs that make us think what's around us," Nara says.
The darker undertone of alienation, anxiety and impotent anger in his art, however, inevitably reminds Japanese viewers of the murderous children who pop up from time to time in the nation. The most infamous of these, a 14-year-old known as "Boy A", killed two pre-teens in 1997. More recently, a Nagasaki teenager bludgeoned her classmate to death last year, then hacked off her head with a hacksaw. Are the girls in Nara's pictures similarly angry, dangerous, helpless or isolated?
"I don't know myself," says Nara. "If I can explain it in words, then I don't think there's any need to make it into a picture."
Nara invariably rejects simple categorisations of his work as a "commentary" on this or that, and bristles at the suggestion that he himself is someone who has not grown up. He says he was raised "to not draw a line on things".
"I don't understand the definition of 'adult' that questioners use," he continues, declaring that he dislikes simple binaries such as "child" and "adult" or even "Japanese" and "Chinese". "Humans might have a common personality based on the town and environment they were raised in, to some extent, but you shouldn't be able to judge people under the same standard. I think the same goes for categorising people as adults or as children."
Critics praise that dismissive approach to cultural, political and even generational boundaries. American art critic Roberta Smith calls Nara "one of the most egalitarian visual artists since Keith Haring".
Nara with his Wall Painting for Nara’s Cabin. Photo: AFP
"He seems never to have met a culture or generation gap, a divide between art mediums or modes of consumption that he couldn't bridge or simply ignore," she said. His art bridges "high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile", and is "so seamless as to render such distinctions almost moot".
It also clearly resonates with his fans. In Japan, Nara has become something of a franchise, lending his images to T-shirts, picture books, key chains and alarm clocks. That popularity speaks volumes, say some, about the emotional dislocation of many Japanese youth. But if so, it is a dislocation that travels well: American TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Dawson's Creek have also borrowed his menacing shtick as shorthand for teenage passive aggression.
The artist is also a favourite among international art collectors; last September auction house Sotheby's Hong Kong held a three-week-long solo selling exhibition titled "The World According to Nara", showcasing more than 15 works covering paintings, drawings and sculptures dated between 1988 and 2010.
Nara's art has been praised for empowering adults by "inducing self-reflection and promoting self-discovery", in the words of one critic. Typically, the artist himself waves away highbrow interpretations of what he does. "I don't think too hard about it," he says. "This is just what comes out."
Some have detected a softening of the adolescent angst in his later work, resulting in less confrontational art. Instead of green-eyed malevolence, his children appear to be dreaming, or to have their eyes closed. One of the newer pieces shows a typically saucer-eyed adolescent holding flowers. Is that a peace offering? Nara reluctantly admits that reflects his own changing relationship with the world: "I think that being able to see things from a broader perspective as I aged and gained more life experience has had an influence."
Several prints in his Pace Hong Kong exhibition, part of Art Basel, shows his figures interacting with golden four-point stars. The motif suggests typically ambiguous Nara concerns: are the gold stars a reward for schoolwork or a cynical nod to "the optimism of childish bromides such as 'shoot for the stars' and 'wish upon a star'" asks the blurb for the Pace show. "The many facial expressions of Nara's figures suggest these meanings, be it the hopefulness of a child gazing up at the stars or a more adolescent cynicism, chary of any sense of hope."
The Hong Kong shows will widen the debate on Nara's work. The artist says he is "not unhappy" at his growing popularity with Western collectors, but says he hopes his work "will be spread not only among Westerners and not only among art collectors but naturally among those who have a good heart". He insists he gives little thought to his place within contemporary art, Western or Japanese.

"What I should be doing is, first of all, producing art that I think is good," he says. "I think what made me the person that I am now is creating works of art that I want to see myself and not being concerned about who will acquire my works or presenting my works."