In 2007, critic Midori Matsui organized the exhibition ‘The Door into Summer: The Age of Micropop’ at the Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito. The show offered both a rejoinder to Takashi Murakami’s trilogy of international ‘Superflat’ exhibitions and built upon precedents such as critic Noi Sawaragi’s ‘Ground Zero Japan’, held at the same venue in 1999–2000. While the latter survey attempted to articulate the then-current trends in Japanese art in the wake of the Cold War, ‘Micropop’ aimed to give voice to an emerging generation of artists who came of age after the collapse of the postwar bubble economy and were distinguished by their use of expendable, everyday materials to address the fragmentation of contemporary life. Writing in the exhibition catalogue, Matsui saw the work of such artists as ‘micropolitical’ – a ‘radical assertion of individual agency’ that could extend ‘the possibility of reconstructing human values in the realm of immanence’.
Almost exactly five years on from ‘Micropop’, although many of its artists remain relevant, they never cohered into a definitive scene or movement. In the meantime, new artists emerged, others were rediscovered, and still more retreated into obscurity. However, a spate of recent solo exhibitions in Japan’s commercial galleries suggests that the germ of Micropop, if not necessarily its overarching framework, still offers a productive approach for re-visualizing the scale and timeliness of individual art practices against the tumult of Japan’s current social upheaval. One of these artists, Kaoru Arima, took a bold new turn in his first exhibition at Misako & Rosen, entitled ‘We Are All Monsters Living Together in a Ghost Town’. A playful draftsman with a practiced casual touch, Arima has always been identified with his line drawings made on whited-out patches of newsprint. Somehow ejaculatory and incidental, these works generally depict cartoonish figures caught in quasi-narrative situations – ranging from a urinating, waifish angel to a naked pregnant woman squatting froglike on her haunches – interposed against headlines and images of celebrity marriages, railway mishaps and economic initiatives as found in both Japanese and international newspapers.
While Arima’s show included a number of such newsprint drawings and two larger pieces on fabric that parodied traditions of ink painting, it was a surprise to encounter a completely new body of works in acrylic on canvas, all from 2011, given enigmatic titles like Looking for R and All Begins in Love, But. Lurid, with unconventional colour schemes, these paintings use a frenzy of taut brushstrokes to create latter-day Fauvist portraits of characters who, in the just discernible details of their neckties, comb-overs, buns and ribbons emerging from splotches of mustard, aquamarine and black, seem to have been sourced from images of an indeterminate but rapidly disintegrating past, like the photos one discovers for the first time, only after years of visits, in the home of an aging grandparent.
These portraits were connected to a poetic text printed across several sheets of paper stuck to the wall of an alcove at the back of the gallery, alongside a series of eight loosely worked watercolours, also arranged in a column and filling a portfolio on a low plinth nearby. Collectively entitled Final Fantasy of Never Ending (2011), the works on the wall all depicted the same scene: one half of each paper was smeared pale red and the other half faint blue, the border between marked by three dark poles. The works in the portfolio, entitled Kashiwa (2011), were all of scenes from around the eponymous commuter city outside Tokyo, where Arima lives. The poem expressed the way the unease and anxiety after last year’s earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster – which resulted in Kashiwa being declared a radiation hotspot – now colours the artist’s visual and emotional sensibilities. More than the pathos of the irreversible rupture or divide, what the poem exudes in tandem with the ‘disintegrating’ portraits, which come to resemble the scores of damaged family photos from communities in coastal Japan that were overrun by the waters of the tsunami, is an awareness of inexorability. It is not that we cannot turn back or undo the past, but rather that we must all submit to the demands of the eternally advancing present.
In this exhibition, Matsui’s earlier statement about Micropop’s ‘possibility of reconstructing human values’ now appears prescient, when in 2007 it may have seemed overly theoretical. As individual expressions of anger toward or protest against the repercussions of 11 March 2011, Arima’s works appear almost absurdly oblique when considered against the onslaught of media coverage and national outcry that began with the very day itself, let alone the sheer material scope of the disaster. Yet it is precisely the artist’s ability to give representational form and gravitas to sentiments that seldom escape one’s most intimate confines – ‘I am worried’, or, ‘I am not feeling myself today’ – that also provides a foothold for others to speak.