Katsuyo Aoki and Shinichiro Kitaura
Trolldom Lucifer, 2016-2017
Glazed porcelain and underglaze cobalt decoration
86.61h x 59.06w x 11.81d in
220h x 150w x 30d cm
In this fanastically lush work, Artist Katsuyo plays with the viewer's expectactions. Within the frame, where one might expect a mirror, we instead find a lush composition of butterflies, leaves, and flowers, finely rendered by Kitaura. It may seem innocent at first, but has a quality of menace too, thanks to the density of hallucinatory detail. It is also rigidly symmetrical, like a psychedelic graphic or, indeed, a Rorschach blot.
1972 wasn’t wildly auspicious, as years go. The Vietnam War had entered its horrible, protracted death spiral. In America, the news of the Watergate scandal was breaking. In Japan, the miracle of postwar economic growth was about to grind to a temporary halt. It was also the year that the Japanese artist Katsuyo Aoki was born.
In the arts, however, something exciting was getting underway. Abandoning the modernist doctrine of progressive functionalism, philosophers, architects, designers and fine artists were opening themselves up to a broad palette of new techniques: appropriation, bricolage, ornament, historicism, and refractory self-reference. Eventually, these tendencies were understood as facets of a single movement: postmodernism.
1972 was a bellwether year for this incipient energy. The architectural critic Charles Jencks, who would go on to popularize the term postmodernism, published the book Adhocism with Nathan Silver, anticipating his later embrace of a willfully disjunctive idiom. The year also saw the publication of Learning From Las Vegas, the result of their investigations into that city’s neon-strewn landscape. It quickly became a sort of playbook for postmodern architects. An exhibition called The New Domestic Landscape was presented at the Museum of Modern Art, which introduced artists to the generation of Italian radicals like Ettore Sottsass - who would help to visually define postmodern design in succeeding years. Over in Japan, Arata Isozaki designed his Marilyn chair – a high-backed seat in the style of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with a shimmying wiggle up its length – arguably the first iconic example of postmodern furniture design. And on 15 July, 1972, at 3:32pm, the Pruitt Igoe housing complex in St. Louis was dynamited. This dramatic failure of a modernist project was often cited as the big bang that generated the postmodern universe.[i]
Now, fast forward to the year 1994, when Aoki began her studies at Tama Art University in Tokyo. Initially a painter, she graduated with an MFA in ceramics in 2000. Postmodernism had run its course. Its architectural ideas had been co-opted by corporate interests, as had postmodern music genres like hip hop and punk. The artistic strategies of the movement, too, felt exhausted. What had seemed fresh and provocative in the 1970s, like the idea of quoting kitsch and historical forms, now felt like standard practice. What was a young artist to do – especially an artist working in Japan, a country sometimes described as having been “always already postmodern,” going back to the seventeenth century?[ii]
Aoki’s answer was simple: go deep. Postmodernism had always been a style of excess. Pattern, color, and ideas had never been in short supply. But it was superficial, and intentionally so. The typical postmodern structure is a façade, often built quickly and cheaply, in which image trumps substance. This emphasis on surface effects was part of what made postmodernism wear thin over time; for many observers, it almost literally rang hollow.[iii] Aoki, however, realized that one could infuse appropriated ornament with new life, given sufficient commitment.
Crucial to this methodology was Aoki’s disciplinary specialism of porcelain. Although her work is sometimes reminiscent of Meissen and other eighteenth-century manufacturers, it rarely refers explicitly to those precedents and draws more directly from period woodcarving and metalwork. What porcelain does provide her is an extreme level of difficulty, and a corresponding level of formal intensity. The extreme delicacy of the works gives them an unearthly, breathless quality; they seem almost to have been dreamt into existence.
The fragility of Aoki’s work also connects to one of her principal themes, the tradition of memento mori. Like her ornamental language, this has its roots in early modern Europe when the possibility of imminent death by disease, warfare, or famine, was ever present. Protestants were particularly fervent in their belief that one should constantly hold mortality in view and Puritan theologians recommended envisioning a funeral shroud when folding the daily linens. Those wealthy enough to commission still life paintings or portraits would often have a skull included, as a symbolic attribute. The death’s head also appeared on jewelry and, of course, on the grave monuments that were among the period’s greatest public artworks.[iv]
The skull is a preferred motif of Aoki, but transformed into something simultaneously serious and intentionally cliché. She says that she wants viewers to meditate on the fact that “our life is brittle and unstable, arousing their feeling of fear and reverence towards death.”[v] But, she is also well aware that skulls are so pervasive in fashion and subculture that they have lost their emotional charge. Rather like the designer Alexander McQueen, who also used death imagery extensively in his work, she positions her work at the point where the sacred transforms into the profane, a shift that seems to define so much of contemporary culture.
This apocalyptic point of view motivates many of Aoki’s choices. Once asked whether she accepted criticisms of the rococo style as frivolous and inconsequential, she responded: “in my opinion, to define the rococo as frivolous, vulgar and superficial could itself indicate a superficial understanding of art, typical of the present age.”[vi] She knows that we cannot go back in time, yet she nonetheless wants to rekindle the sense of wonder that extravagant works of art once inspired.
Against the overstimulating backdrop of twenty-first-century life she offers the opposing pleasure of a slow image, exquisitely wrought, which rewards sustained attention. Often, this experience is offered in the guise of a tantalizing fragment – a horse’s legs projecting surreally from the wall (Labyrinth, 2016); or a scepter that appears to have been plucked from the regalia of a fantastical coronation pageant (Tell the Story, 2005). Her skulls, too, appear to be purely abstract heaps of ornament when viewed to the side or rear. Only from the front do they reveal themselves as iconic, as if a latent nightmare image were being called to mind.
Aoki’s most ambitious works transcend this fragmentary approach. They are complete unto themselves, fairytale microcosms that one can imagine falling into, never to return. One such is Trolldom Lucifer (2016-17), realized in collaboration with painter Shinichiro Kitaura. The title conjures the online world of Japanese otaku (roughly, “geeks”), who are captivated by video games and manga. The obsessive compulsion of that subculture is reflected in the work: a porcelain frame heaving with ornamental excrescence. The decorative lexicon is a learned mash-up that combines shapes reminiscent of the auricular silver designs of the Dutch Golden Age, high French or Italian rococo, and perhaps a dash of H.R. Geiger.
Within the frame, where one might expect a mirror, we instead find a lush composition of butterflies, leaves, and flowers, finely rendered by Kitaura. It may seem innocent at first, but has a quality of menace too, thanks to the density of hallucinatory detail. It is also rigidly symmetrical, like a psychedelic graphic or, indeed, a Rorschach blot. Aoki is possessed of a powerful imagination, to say the least. But she always aims to open up a fictional space - the viewer is invited to explore her fantasy worlds. In this respect, her work really does serve the same purpose as the religious and courtly works of centuries past. This is not the witty and knowing historicism of postmodernism, but something much more sincerely felt. Aoki truly believes in the spiritual and redemptive power of art. That faith is not widely shared today, and she knows this. But even so, she wants to offer us some of that forgotten aesthetic experience: what it would mean to look at an artwork as if your life depended on it.
[i] For more on all these examples see Glenn Adamson and Jane Pavitt, eds., Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, 1970 to 1990 (London: V&A Publications, 2011).
[ii] See H. D. Harootunian and Miyoshi Masao, eds., Postmodernism in Japan (Chapel Hill, NC: Duke University Press, 1989).
[iii] For more on this point, see Glenn Adamson, “Substance Abuse: The Postmodern Surface,” in Adamson and Victoria Kelley, eds., Surface Tensions (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013).
[iv] See, for instance, David Stannard, The Puritan Way of Death (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
[v] Quote from the first interview with artist.
[vi] Quote from the fourth interview with the artist.