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Issue 240

Tetsuya Ishida’s Fetishes of the Alienated

At Gagosian, New York, paintings that blend surrealism and social realism depict the disaffection of modern workers

BY Will Fenstermaker in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 29 SEP 23

Tetsuya Ishida was only 31 when he was struck and killed by a train in 2005. His youth, and in fact his entire artistic career, spanned Japan’s ‘Lost Decade’, defined by the sararīman, or salarymen, trapped in offices, and the hikikomori, or shut-ins, who avoided the white-collar slog by barricading themselves in their parents’ homes. Ishida was inspired by the left-wing painter Ben Shahn and other social realists to face his generation’s angst head on. The subject of an astonishing exhibition at Gagosian Gallery, New York, curated by Cecilia Alemani, his early paintings depict strange officescapes, Japanese working conditions laid out in dreamy tableaux that give shape to some latent social anxiety: a salaryman is delivered in a cardboard box while children watch his assembly (Recalled, 1998). Workers are fed their dinners via squirt gun (Refuel Meal, 1996) or squat over ATMs, wiping their asses with Yen (Untitled, 2001). In Cargo (1997), the employees slaving in cubicles are compressed into literal cubes, wrapped in intricately painted twine and attached with convenient handles, then packed, tetris-like, into the metro.

A painting of a line of three men at a diner-like space on benches being fed with guns by three blank-faced men behind the counter
Tetsuya Ishida, Refuel Meal, 1996, acrylic on board, in 2 parts, 1.5 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Tetsuya Ishida Estate, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art and Gagosian, New York

Ishida’s blend of surrealist satire and social realism may seem incongruous on paper, but both are animated by an ominous mechanophilia. The celebration of contraptions in the work of early ‘machine-lovers’ such as the futurists and constructivists has here been sublimated into robotic subservience. Men become conveyor belts, forklifts, entire factories. Workers are stripped of their agency, reduced to automatons in a manufacturing process, while assembly lines and treadmills underscore their entrapment. Ishida’s phantasmagorias recall Marshall McLuhan’s ‘The Gadget Lover: Narcissus as Narcosis’ (1964), in which he writes that technology reproduces the functions of limbs and appendages, inducing a sense of numbness and, eventually, the collapse of the central nervous system. In subsequent galleries, the human-machines give way to human-monsters – massive lobsters, cockroaches and spiders suggestive of manga, the massive beasts from kaiju films and other fever dreams from the zeitgeist of Japan’s post-war reconstruction. Shorn of their comic book character, these mutants prowl Ishida’s paintings as yet more masochistic fetishes of the alienated.

A man in a suit on his knees, tears in his eyes, his hands transformed into lobster claws, surrounded by men in light-color suits who stuff bills into his claws; they litter the floor
Tetsuya Ishida, Gripe, 1996, acrylic on board, 60 × 42 cm. Courtesy: © Tetsuya Ishida Estate and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Martin Wong

It’s no wonder that Ishida developed a preoccupation with mother figures and male pregnancy, as in Offspring (1999), a painting of the artist spawned from a crocodile, and Distance (1999), which depicts the painter as a seahorse, his belly swollen. He seemed to find Japan’s predominate pop-culture motifs – along with the cloying kawaii, or cuteness, embraced by near-contemporaries like Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami – symptomatic of the country’s social problems, ill-suited to jump-start the arrested development of an entire generation. Given his grim subject matter, some critics have speculated that Ishida’s death was a suicide, seemingly ignoring the playfulness and mirth rushing through his paintings. Ishida inserts himself – ‘my weak self, my pitiful self, my anxious self’, quotes the catalogue’s epigraph – as the face of interchangeable salarymen, the shut-ins gorging on takeout and the infant cradled in a shopping-cart bassinet. In Ishida’s work, the artist is as fungible as capital – yet so are his dreams and his visions. Practically verboten in premodern Japanese art, self-portraiture here becomes a way of insisting on the humanity of those who suffer from estrangement.

An oversized male figure trapped beneath a desk-bunkbed combo made of boxes, his arm reaching out
Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 1998, acrylic on canvas, in 2 parts, 146 × 206 cm. Courtesy: © Tetsuya Ishida Estate, Kyuryudo Art Publishing and Gagosian, New York

‘My Anxious Self’ is Ishida’s first exhibition in New York, a city that’s achieved its own symbiosis between art and labour, yet it arrives as if primed for its particular milieu. Decades later and thousands of miles away, Ishida’s paintings speak to our own era, in which countless socially withdrawn young people must choose either to ostracize themselves from an oppressive technocratic economy or efface themselves to a burgeoning, antihuman cybernetic industry. They offer validation, humour and even unity; the camaraderie of sharing in some greater, inarticulable absurdity.

Tetsuya Ishida, ‘My Anxious Self’, is on view at Gagosian, New York, until 21 October. 

Main image: Tetsuya Ishida, Recalled, 1998, acrylic on board, in 2 parts, 1.5 × 2 m. Courtesy: © Tetsuya Ishida Estate and Gagosian, New York; photograph: Martin Wong

Will Fenstermaker is a writer and art critic in New York.