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Super Flat at Parco

by Monty DiPietro

There is something seductive about the classification of art and artists into "movements." The idea that a bunch of creative individuals are working together, or at least parallel to one another, appeals to us because it promises to establish a context which can make it easier to understand where the art is coming from and where it is going. It has been awhile since we had a real cross-medium art movement here in Japan, but now we do. It’s new, it’s fun, and it’s called "Super Flat."

Japan’s art trend showcase extraordinaire, the Parco Gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward, is hosting the first Super Flat show, a crush of photography, painting, sculpture, video, and installation from than a dozen artists.

Some of the best-known and most internationally-successful Japanese art stars of the last five or ten years are here: Takashi Murakami, the movement’s central artist (art movements need a central artist); Yoshitomo Nara, whose paintings and FRP sculptures of impish children have shown just about everywhere; and Hiromix, who rocketed to fame as a leader of the onnanoko no shashinka (Japanese girl photographers) group, a bunch of point-and-shoot, low-tech everyday-life documentarians who hit big here in the early 1990’s. (This was not an art movement per se, as the style did develop in any other medium besides photography.)

Also noteworthy are Hiro Sugiyama’s huge PhotoShop portraits (like Murakami’s work, these are excellent technical executions), and Chiho Aoshima’s pictures of girls which, like much of the work here, are in turn both disturbing and cute.

Takashi Murakami, 38, came up with the Super Flat label, curated this show, edited the movement’s manifesto (all good art movements have manifestos), and put together its debut document, a 162 page fully bilingual catalogue published by Madra to coincide with the Parco exhibition. All the essays and bios in the book have been translated into English—testimony to the international ambitions of Murakami and his cadre, but also a good reason for the kanji-challenged to lay down a few thousand yen to buy the publication: This is the definitive map of the now in Japanese contemporary art, and of its trajectory to the future.

So, what exactly is Super Flat?

Well, it’s a little bit lite, a little bit pop, a little bit anime. Alas, movements are not always easy to define in a few words. Super Flat philosopher (having an attendant philosopher never hurt an art movement) Hiroki Azumi rests his seven-page treatise on things Super Flat upon the writings of some of France’s best sophists. Murakami, meanwhile, says the thematic thread is woven from "a number of concepts I had previously been unable to comprehend, including ‘What is free expression?’, ‘What is Japan?’, and "What is the nature of this period I live in?’"

More than a simple survey of what is going on in Japanese contemporary art, Super Flat advances a new vocabulary in suggesting a shared identity that brings together seemingly disparate Japanese artists. Thankfully, Murakami is not without a healthy measure of cynicism in his approach—he once described "DOB," the Mickey Mouse-like creation that is one of his motifs, as "a self-portrait of the Japanese people. He is cute but has no meaning and understands nothing of life, sex, or reality."

And while Murakami writes in his manifesto that Super Flat is the work of "Japanese who have been completely Westernized," in fact it originates from distinctly Japanese sensibilities. One need only look at the contribution from commercial art team Groovisions—a "Canadian Family" made up of over a thousand members, all of them white-skinned. If the Super Flat kids really were Westernized, they would have evolved out of their nation’s persisting ethnicity-based identity paradigms.

If everything here seems to be on the surface, that may be because things flat are not usually deep. But while the new form and anti-perspective of the work is not going to slap Super Flat into a catalogue of the world’s great modern art movements, it is the best this country has to offer right now, and there is enough new and fun here to make Super Flat catch on internationally. Which is good for Japanese contemporary art.

Notes: Until May 29, 2000. Pictured is "Chappie 33" (detail) (1998), by Groovisions
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