Garden of Unearthly Delights

Foretoken (2008) by Manabu Ikeda (b. 1973), pen and acrylic in, 72 x 132 inches. Private Collection, Tokyo. Courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo

A MONSTER tsunami uproots a city. Modern tough guys lock samurai-style in battle. Candy-coloured streams of animals and flowers hyper-pixilate. These dramatic visual moments are among those to be encountered in Garden of Unearthly Delights: Works by Ikeda, Tenmyouya & teamLab, showing contemporary Japanese art at the Japan Society Gallery, in New York, in October.

Manabu Ikeda, Hisashi Tenmyouya, and teamLab

The intricate allegorical paintings, installation, and digital works on view were created by three artistic visionaries who are shaping Japanese art and culture today: Manabu Ikeda, Hisashi Tenmyouya, and the art and technology collective teamLab. Each tackles urgent cultural and social issues in a manner informed by today’s spectacle and information overload. But each also harkens back to the Japanese tradition of the master craftsmen, takumi, in the level of technical precision and detail they bring to the creation of complex, bravura fantasies.

The exhibition comprises 20 works of Japanese contemporary art. Manabu Ikeda alone is represented by 11 paintings, which is an unprecedented gathering for this artist, who produces at a very measured rate. To help viewers navigate the array of allusions in these densely layered works of art, the exhibition also features contextual works, ranging from ephemera, including an 1980s paperback edition of Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind, the Japanese post-apocalyptic fantasy illustrated by Hayao Miyazaki, to master ukiyo-e prints and a hanging scroll painting by the Edo-period artist Ito Jakuchu.

Inviting You to Go into a Realm of Immersion

‘Going against the grain of the attention-deficit present, each of these artists fully exploits their medium, whether it be pen, paint, or software, to take the viewer into a realm of immersion and invite a methodical exploration of pictorial delicacies,’ says Miwako Tezuka, Director of Japan Society Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition.

Foretoken (2008) by Manabu Ikeda is a monumental painting of a towering tsunami uprooting and devouring skyscrapers, trees, trains, cars and people, is a highlight of Garden of Unearthly Delights.  Created by the 41-year-old Manabu Ikeda, the work will be displayed for the first time since the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which it seemed to foreshadow.

While the work shadows Hokusai’s iconic image of a great wave, the cautionary message evident in Foretoken brings to mind the early Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch and the power and magnitude of his The Garden of Earthly Delights.

This modern-day Boschian artist of Japanese contemporary art, however, draws with a Tachikawa Comic Nib Fountain Pen, a finely tipped pen favoured by animé artists, and considers the legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, a co-founder of the famed Studio Ghibli, his inspiration. Ikeda’s affinity for Miyazaki’s oeuvre is apparent in another painting view, Meltdown  (2013), where a gentle palette of warm greens and blues belies the artist’s message: in this dystopian missive, humankind seems to be hurtling downhill with the momentum of a giant boulder.

Another exhibition centrepiece is Rhyme (2012) by Hisashi Tenmyouya, a room installation created by the 48-year-old Hisashi Tenmyouya. Dominating the space is the artist’s large-scale painting of close combat by adversaries mounted on horse and foot, wielding swords and spears and assuming an incredible number of fighting poses.

Rhyme echoes battle scenes painted by Renaissance artists Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Paolo Uccello, except that the action is set very graphically and boldly on a gilded background, as in classical Japanese screen paintings, and more than 30 different versions of the same pale, retro-yakuza tough guy, dressed only in a loincloth, replace Italian noblemen, mercenaries, and centaurs.

Tenmyouya’s luscious gold panorama hangs side by side with its exact mirror opposite (in the form of a large-scale digital print). One ‘real’, the other a `copy,’ the pair dominates a surreal Zen, dry garden where, rather than traditional stones, pebbles and white sand, black volcanic rocks and skulls lie planted in a sea of red sand.

Tenmyouya is a practitioner of Neo Nihonga (neo Japanese-style painting), notes Dr Tezuka, who adds that the artist ‘is aiming to extract the essence of classical Japanese art, while feeling free to experiment with materials, form, and subject matter’. The value of this approach can be seen in three other featured paintings by Tenmyouya, which surprisingly transform Buddhist iconography.

Creating Dynamic Contemporary Art

‘A striking commonality in the work of Ikeda, Tenmyouya and teamLab is that rather than shun the seemingly restrictive artistic traditions of Japanese art, they embrace and revitalise them, creating a dynamic, contemporary Japanese identity for the global now,’ says Laura Mueller, the co-curator of the exhibition. ‘In a contemporary world of continual news feeds and instantaneous messaging that bombard us with images, these three artists create works of art that require us to stop and contemplate the shared experience and greatly reward us for our effort.’

The exhibition is also showing works by teamLab, an influential collaborative established 13 years ago in Tokyo, now comprising some 300 individuals from the areas of art, design, computer engineering, mathematics and beyond. Two works by teamLab: United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World (2013) and Life Survives by the Power of Life (2011), are on show for the first time in the US; in addition, teamLab is creating a new interactive, digital media projection piece that will make its world debut in Garden of Unearthly Delights.

United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World, a colourful garden scene abundantly filled with real and fantastical animals depicted across a span of eight high-definition monitors, is based on Birds, Animals, and Flowering Plants in Imaginary Scene, an 18th-century pair of six-panel folding screens created by the so-called ‘Edo eccentric’

Masume-gaki or Grid Painting

Ito Jakuchu. This artist is often credited with inventing masume-gaki (grid painting), an unusual method whereby paintings were created by filling in hundreds and thousands of grids with different colours, like mosaics. In United, Fragmented, Repeated, and Impermanent World, a viewer’s movement changes the work, which mirrors her shape as she moves, so that she literally becomes part of a digitally rendered, otherworldly vision and also part of a change in the real world.

From 10 October to 11 January 2015, Japan Society Gallery, 333 East 47th Street, New York, A catalogue accompanies the exhibition.