Damaged Goods

From masturbation to vomit, Makoto Aida plumbs Japan's cultural depths

Makoto Aida is trying to push our buttons. The Japanese artist's first solo exhibition in the United States tackles a range of controversial topics -- from suicide and Osama bin Laden to puke and self-love -- with adolescent glee. I-DE-A, for example, is a video loop of the artist, nude and with his back to the camera, jacking off before the words "beautiful little girl" inscribed on the wall in pink Japanese characters. Aida claims that the video runs for more than 50 minutes -- the amount of time it took to, ahem, finish the job. (I have to take his word for it, as I was only able to watch for about a minute.) It's shameless and gross, and comes across as a (pardon the pun) naked attempt to shock. Even so, there's something gritty about Aida's work that compels us to look beyond its brash exterior.

In recent years, Japan has become a hyperactive exporter of subcultural cool, whether via film sensations like The Ring, manga (comic books), or the ironically cute character-based art of international stars like Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami. Although of the same generation, Aida eschews irony to delve into the underbelly of his country's booming culture industry; he exposes the edges where the fabric unravels to reveal something else -- not quite an alternative, but a glimpse of something unsettling, reminding us that all is not well below the shiny happy surface. If you can look beyond the teenage spew, Aida's subject is Japan's damaged national psyche.

Accompanying I-DE-A is Ai-chan BONSAI (Ground Cherry), a tiny sculpture of a characteristically wide-eyed anime girl's head emerging atop pale, flesh- colored limbs that are twisted and attenuated like those of a bonsai tree. The piece implies that the female body as idealized and sexualized in anime and manga is a product of a particularly Japanese method of pruning and training, similar to bonsai. Together with the desperate, prolonged self-stimulation in I-DE-A, it presents an image of a repressed, stunted sexuality. Beneath the cartoony come-on lies a deeper, unsatisfied urge.

The Smallest Journey of Onigirikamen.
Wilfred J. Jones
The Smallest Journey of Onigirikamen.

The Smallest Journey of Onigirikamen, a spoof on Japanese travel shows, takes on another aspect of the culture of cute. In a parody of the ubiquitous mascots that adorn almost everything in Japan, the video introduces us to Onigirikamen, a green beanstalk character with a giant rice ball for a head. He takes us on a painstakingly boring tour of his house, pausing in wonder before such landmarks as the ceiling light fixture, a snail in the aquarium, and a potted plant. While the humor may seem culture-specific, it paints a picture of a claustrophobic society in which there's nothing bigger to focus on than the curve of a storm drain.

In the same vein, Demonstration Machine for One Person is a kit for staging your own personal protest. Consisting of a small trailer on wheels -- complete with amplifier, speakers, and a little army of rag doll activists -- the machine allows you to strap on the harness, grab the mike, and voilà, instant public dissent. The piece is accompanied by documentation: a poster of a demonstration against salarymen (middlebrow Japanese businessmen) and a video of people using the machine -- a woman pushing a baby stroller, a shirtless man in sweat pants walking through the mall. In the video, these contemporary images are overlaid with grainy black-and-white photos of historical mass protests, suggesting that the impetus toward group engagement has been diluted. While Demonstration Machine could be read as an individually empowering gesture, the overall effect is utterly absurd. Protest is no longer a collective endeavor, but a lifestyle accessory.

Similarly humorous, The Video From a Man Calling Himself bin Laden Staying in Japan features the artist dressed as the terrorist at a table in a traditional room littered with dishes and empty sake bottles. As the character sips sake, he announces that he's hiding out in Japan and that the U.S. can stop looking for him because he's done with terrorism. He attributes this transformation to the pleasures of Japanese living: The food is great, and "Sake is awesome." Apparently, life in the Asian nation is so comfortable that it can make even a die-hard like bin Laden go soft.

While the video is campy -- reminiscent of a Saturday Night Livesketch -- when paired with the painting Imagine its intentions become clearer. Executed in sumi ink (the soft black ink used in traditional Japanese drawing and calligraphy), Imagine depicts the inside of an airplane cockpit with the twin towers of the World Trade Center in its sights. At first glance, the strokes are so broad and the shapes so general that it looks like an abstraction. But it slowly becomes apparent that we are to imagine ourselves in the pilot's seat, an endeavor that's more than idle speculation when we recall that a very different Japan was once also an enemy of America.

Despite their crude execution and subject matter, Aida's works paint a complex picture of modern-day Japan as a country still struggling with the shame of its defeat in World War II and its subsequent rapid and unruly adoption of Western capitalism. As if to provide further evidence of the accompanying disillusionment, Aida has invited Japanese video collective Chim Pom to exhibit a piece in the gallery. Chim Pom makes videos akin to those shown on the MTV show Jackass, in which stupid people do stupid (and usually dangerous or disgusting) things. In this example, a pretty, orange-haired young woman in a black bustier and hot pink miniskirt stands in the corner of an all-white room. She smiles coyly at the camera and then drinks from a metal bowl. Off camera, several men yell "chug calls," the frat-boy cheers that accompany excessive social drinking. The woman pauses, bends over, and vomits streams of bright pink -- the same shade as her skirt -- onto the floor, to rowdy applause. If it weren't for her smiling, eager-to-please demeanor, the video could almost be a feminist performance piece, a critique of the male gaze turning a humiliated woman into a spectacle. But the breeziness of the whole thing, which feels like a dumb art school prank, transforms regurgitation into a freak show. It's like watching vomit porn -- gross, yet fascinating -- and ultimately nihilistic.

Aida may be critical of Japan's complacency, but it's clear that he feels powerless to do anything about it. Even so, while his work bemoans the loss of a vigorous national culture, it unearths something feisty beneath the current culture's polished surface -- something unacknowledged, unclaimed, and thoroughly messy.

 
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