08 September 2006

Nihonga 4: Nakamura Kengo

I loved the sense of humour expressed by Nakamura Kengo (中村ケンゴ) in his Nihonga artwork. His work clearly exhibits the influence of graphic design and cartoons, but he uses the traditional Nihonga technique of mineral pigment on Japanese paper. One broad wall was covered in more than 60 colourful rectangles .

I didn’t realize what I was looking at until I read the title, “Composition Tokyo”, and I had to stifle my laughter so as not to disturb the other spectators. Kengo has playfully taken floor-plans of Tokyo apartment buildings and turned them into graphic art. When one hunts for an apartment in Tokyo, one is shown page after page of these floor-plans according to the customer’s desired specifications (we have a 2LDK which means two bedrooms plus a Living-Dining-Kitchen room). Once one has narrowed down a selection, the estate agent then makes a photocopy of a map of the area and plots all the locations and a driving route with a highlighter pen before driving his (usually a man) clients to each of the apartments. We did this on a boiling hot day in early August 2005 with a small baby in tow. None of the apartments was occupied so they were all stifling hot due to lack of air conditioning. Kengo’s installation “Composition Tokyo” vividly brought back that screwball comedy of a day for me. This piece playfully demonstrates the reality of the shoebox lifestyle of the Tokyo area where we are all living in essentially the same kind of rectangle, it only varies by size and location toilet and kitchen.

Kengo’s trademark is filling spaces with cartoon-inspired images. My favourite was “Speech Balloons on the Hinomaru”, shown at the top of this entry. It was playfully placed above the iconic painting “Sacred Mount Fuji” by Yokoyama Taikan (横山大観) as if the Hinomaru had been spewed from the volcano. In a humorous way, Kengo is making a statement about freedom of expression in Japan. On the surface the Hinomaru (literally this means “the rising sun” but the term usually refers to the Japanese flag in the same way that Union Jack refers to the British flag), like the Canadian flag, is just a graphically simple emblem representing a country. Unlike the red maple leaf (as far as I’m aware) which is usually only used at sporting events or for distinguishing oneself abroad as a non-American, the Hinomaru is often appropriated by right-wing nationalists and is seen as a symbol of oppression and aggression in many parts of Asia.
By filling the Hinomaru with speech balloons, Kengo is reminding us that, stereotypes to the contrary, Japan is not unified in thought and action. The people of Japan are not a monolith, but a nation of people of diverse backgrounds and opinions. Although the group ethos is very strong in Japan, most individuals do have their own views, though with the dominance of certain political groups in Japan, it is not always easy for moderates and liberals to have their views heard. The good news is that at least there is enough artistic freedom in Japan for the Hinomaru to be used in such a thought-provoking manner as in this exhibition.

© Catherine Munroe Hotes 2006