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July 9, 2022

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The world of Nara in Shanghai

A single, ominous child with a large head and tapered feet floating in an empty atmosphere is Yoshitomo Nara’s signature image.

It is immensely popular in the art world and has won him a legion of young fans all over the world.

“Yoshitomo Nara,” a significant survey exhibition of the world-renowned Japanese artist, is under way at the Yuz Museum through September 4. It is his first retrospective on China’s mainland.

The exhibition, which was organized by the Yuz Museum and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in close collaboration with the artist, includes over 70 major Nara works, ranging from painting, sculpture, ceramics and installation.

The exhibition features a collection of never-seen-before sketches by Nara, providing a full picture of the artist’s career spanning more than 37 years.

Born in 1959, Nara grew up in Hirosaki, Aomori. The former army barracks served as his elementary and junior high schools. A latchkey kid, Nara used to play alone while his parents worked, and one of his first “playgrounds” was an abandoned weapons depot.

Thus, he had the sensation that the “entire area was filled with debris and ghosts.”

Having graduated with an MFA from the Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music in Nagakute in 1987, he completed his studies at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1993.

In the decade he spent in Cologne, Nara started his artistic career. By the mid-1990s, he created his signature art image, sharpening the outline of the body in subdued pastels. He intensified the figure by experimenting with sideways gazes and slightly off-center placement against a monochromatic background.

Such contempt, naughtiness and juvenile attitudes reflect the psychological movements of the viewers in their real surroundings. However, according to the artist, “these works were born not from confronting the other, but from confronting my own self.”

Nara explores his inner self, drawing inspiration from a variety of sources including childhood recollections, music, literature, his time studying and living in Germany (from 1988 to 2000), his roots in Asia and Sakhalin, and modern art from Europe and Japan.

Today, he is among the most-loved artists of his generation, known for his portraits of vaguely ominous-looking figures with penetrating gazes, who occasionally wield knives or cigarettes, as well as heads and figures that float in dreamy landscapes.

Spanning from 1984 to 2021, the exhibition presents the artist’s work through the lens of his longtime passion — music — which is manifested by a wall of album covers that Nara has collected.

“If viewers are able to see beyond the impulsive and surface-level impact of work, and sense a moving quietude and depth, then, no doubt, these effects are influenced by such music,” Nara said.

One of the highlights is “Fountain of Life, 2021,” which was previously displayed at his first major survey exhibition, “I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me,” at the Yokohama Museum of Art in 2001.

The sculpture is made of FRP (fiber-reinforced polymer/plastic) and features a skull with closed eyelids that tower over each other inside a massive teacup.

The melancholy of this work is palpable, and the figure’s clean profiles evoke the richly outlined abstract paintings of the Japanese abstract painter, Moikazu Kumagai, whom Nara has long admired.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the “Yoshitomo Nara Sculpture Park,” which includes a selection of daunting bronze works and FRP prototypes on a site-specific platform designed by Studio Adrien Gardere .

These huge heads, when enlarged into sculptures on the ground, seem quite clumsy and overwhelmingly tense, rendering an utterly different ambiance from Nara’s paintings.

Exhibition info:

Dates: Through September 4 (closed on Mondays), 10am-6pm

Tickets: 200 yuan

Venue: Yuz Museum Shanghai

Address: 35 Fenggu Rd


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