Shotgun Review Archive

Bonzai/Godzilla: Then and Now

By July 25, 2007 The show Bonzai/Godzilla at the Artists Gallery of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art showcases the work of some 17 American and Japanese artists. In this ambitious show Curator Bob Hanamura compares pre-war Japan art with its postwar counterpart. Bob Hanamura's interests range from jazz, architecture, design, art, and dance. A ubiquitous figure with his trademark cap and grey ponytail, he belongs to the beat generation and has been following the cultural scene in San Francisco for a long time. Hanamura applies his wide ranging curiosity to Japanese art, which is unique in its ability to absorb old and new, east and west, Shinto, Zen, and Buddhist philosophies, American culture, high and low art, and the media. In addition, he looks to the current wave of Japanese culture hitting American shores in the form of Anime and Manga and traces the affect of this culture on both Japanese and American artists. "Bonzai" can be viewed as a pre World War II greeting to the emperor and Hanamura uses the term to refer to traditional Japanese art's concern with nature, as expressed in the notion of color, volume, and depth. The "Godzilla" section of the show refers to the post World War II Japan that created the comic books called Manga, and the animated films called Anime. Of course, Godzilla was the gigantic irradiated dinosaur, transformed from the fallout of an H-Bomb test and the most widely recognized symbol of Japanese pop art. Contemporary Japanese Artist Murakami Takashi compares the current cultural trends in Japanese art to that of Japan's Edo period (1600's-1800's) where flatness and multiple perspectives share equal value. In the spirit of Bonzai, the show begins with traditional Zen and Shinto motifs depicting the fragility and transitory nature of existence. For example, Kimetha Vanderveen's prints are structures of delicate marks, while Tom Marioni, a conceptual artist uses a sweeping brush stroke for his enzo, or Zen circle, painted directly on the wall (which will be painted over when the show ends next month). In the same vein, Theordora Varnay Jones meditative piece consists of a series of grids on separate wood panels covered with paper, which appear to be delicately burned. In contrast, artists Seiko Tachibaba, Kim Anno, Laura Dufort, and Peggy Gyulai explore the idea of volume and color. Fortunately for his followers, Osamu Tezuka, one of the leading exponents of manga, currently has a show at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Though trained as a doctor, Tezuka became an artist and hoped to reach the younger generation of Japanese through comics. Influenced by Walt Disney after World War II, Tezuka is the creator of the atomic powered. Astro Boy--known as "Tetsuwan Atom," or "Iron-Arm Atom" in Japan. Astro Boy is ultimately not human and like so much in postwar Japan, an import from the West. Tezuka widely influenced the following generation of Japanese artists including Yoshitomo Nara, and Murakami Takashi, which in turn have greatly influenced the next wave of Japanese and American artists. Artist Scott Tsuchitani uses Dorthea Lang's photos of Japanese internment camps and mixes them with pop images of Astro Boy, Hello Kitty, and the Milky boy whose innocent face appears on boxes of Japanese rice candy. Tsuchitani even provides a fluffy Hello Kitty purse filled with the candy for the viewer's delectation. Combining pop and historical images decontextualizes them both, and the viewer's mind bounces back and forth between the historical accuracy of the photos and the call to innocence and pleasure of the pop images. Artist Kathy Aoki, influenced by Manga and Anime, extends this metaphor in her work. She uses cutout wood images of "cute" sheep, deploying the Japanese concept of Kawai or cute to treat serious subjects. John Casey's scary masks refer both to the demons typical of the spirit world of the Shinto religion and Manga. In conclusion, while many of the "Godzilla" artists' work expresses a sense of isolation and dissociation with their own bodies and existence, they have found a visual language, alternately hopeful and pessimistic, that allows them to comment on the post-apocalyptic world that they live in. The "Bonzai" artists find refuge in beauty, tradition, nature, and the sublime. These are very different impulsesto be sure; but in Bonzai/Godzilla:Then and Now Hannamura magically makes it all come together. Bonzai/Godzilla: Japanese Influences in American Culture Then and Now Curated by Bob Hanamura Building A, Fort Mason Center San Francisco, CA June 27-July 27, 2007 Featuring works by Kim Anno, Kathy Aoki, Lucy Arai, John Casey, Ishan Clemenco, Laura Dufort, Yukako Ezoe, Peggy Gyulai, Theodora Varnay Jones, Tom Marioni, Howard Munson, Tomoko Nakazato, Seiko Tachibana, Kazuaki Tanahashi, Ayu Tomikawa, Scott Tsuchitani, and Kimetha Vanderveen.

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