A slowed down version of Love Me Tender (1956) echoes in the dark basement of the Fondation Speerstra: a grotesque rendition that confers to Elvis Presley’s mellifluous tones the allure of a roaring Godzilla. Projected here, Goodbye Elvis and USA (1971) is one of Keiichi Tanaami’s first experimental 16mm film animations, an emblematic piece in Killer Joe (1965–1975), an exhibition dedicated to works from that period and named after the Tokyo disco launched in 1967 for which Tanaami provided the art direction. The rambunctious animations Oh Yoko! (1973), Good-bye Marilyn (1971), Sweet Friday (1975) and Crayon Angel (1975) are also included next to exquisite, and newly discovered, preparatory drawings. Also shown are a series of early paintings as well as collages from the early 1960s juxtaposing found images of Japan’s military involvement in World War II with images of American popular culture and its newly-emerging Japanese counterpart. The result is an ironic, albeit partly celebratory, portrait of postwar American and Japanese culture.
The perpetual sequence of one-second delays in Goodbye Elvis and USA is not far removed from his own gargantuan practice. As a graphic designer, book illustrator, filmmaker, collector of erotica, art director of the first Playboy magazine in Japan, record cover designer for rock bands Jefferson Airplane and the Monkees, fashion designer and artist, Tanaami confounded all categories. In a post-war period in which his country was grappling to find a new identity amongst the cultural debris and emotional trauma of defeat, Tanaami’s early creative cornucopia was not without subversive significance. Having always been an obsessive consumer of American B movies and Hollywood hits – watching as many as 500 a year – he was fascinated by the US. He first flew to New York in 1967 and was bowled over by Robert Crumb’s cartoons, Kenneth Anger’s films, Divine Dodgy’s performances and the Factory visits he made during his stay. He was subsequently credited for bringing Pop art and a psychedelic aesthetic to Japan. Yet, it was the terror of war that gave his practice its psychedelic look. And it was Warhol’s transition from commercial illustrator to artist that especially interested him, particularly his ability to bring together music, art, design and commerce in one incommensurate practice.
Tanaami’s fascination with the plasticity of form was nourished, no doubt, by memories of ‘war’s grotesque beauty’, to quote the artist. But such attraction was perhaps also part of his cultural heritage – derived from Japanese scrolls, Toyohiro and Hokusai etchings, as well as Kamishibai traditional picture-card shows, manga and anime animations.
The power of figurative transformation is particularly apparent in Tanaami’s more recent series, the Dream Diary Drawings, on show at Karma International. They followed his hospitalization in 1981, during which the medication administered induced constant dreams and hallucinations, partly resulting from an obsession with the myth of the Buddhist monk Myoe, said to have been able to control his dreams. The series draws also from the artist’s deep interest in the carnivalesque. 160 of these drawings, dated 2007–12, are displayed in the gallery, arranged as a compact mosaic across two adjoining walls: pulsating and rhythmic unearthly creatures, figures of death and erotica, cartoons, art history and mysticism. Right next door hangs the triptych Elephant and Whale in Cherry Blossoms Falling Day (2013), a veritable bestiary of the extraordinary. Tigers, whales, tropical birds, skulls, eyes, elephants all vie for position in the sandwiched space between a sky of candy petals and the surf of diamond waves. Also in the show is a group of lacquered wooden sculptures, whose traditional Japanese toy-like aesthetic is subverted by their mutated forms. A Tree of an Elephant (1989) morphs a high-heeled shoe with the tusks and trunk of a purple elephant whilst being engulfed by an orange Japanese pine.
While the two shows – culled from two complementary eras of Tanaami’s practice – result in strong introductions into his oeuvre, one still craved a greater sense of Tanaami as a figure: the multifarious experimenter across commercial and non-commercial creative definitions. Nevertheless both shows succeed in highlighting the incredible vigour of Tanaami’s work: its freedom to play with every imaginable and unimaginable element at his disposal – psychic, sexual, infantile, political, historical, traditional and global –cementing the mark of Tanaami’s lasting creative powers and influence.