Yoshitomo Nara’s signature gestures are drawings and acrylic paintings of mostly nasty-naughty, mostly female children and occasionally dogs, all with large eyes, simply drawn, and often accompanied by slogans or incantations designed to be shouted or whined (“kinda sucks never having money, but kinda cool to have a dream,” for example). The works cry out to be taken home and cooed over as if they were pets, and they defy normal criticism or opprobrium as if they were children. The catalog, subtitled Nobody’s Fool, accompanies a retrospective of Nara’s work at the Asia Society Museum in New York. It too has visual appeal, with a slipcase featuring five die-cut windows that frame a few images and, in the smallest, the barcode, ISBN and prices—now that’s cute.
The essays and artist interview, by co-curators Melissa Chiu and Miwako Tezuka, Midori Matsui, Michael Wilson and Hideki Toyoshima, tend to talk around the works and the artist. Nara, in kind, is hardly forthcoming about what the children, or his life’s work, are all about. “I still don’t consider myself an artist,” he states, and the writers choose to indulge and dote on him rather than scratch below the surface. Of the essayists, Wilson goes the deepest, linking Nara to American illustrators including Walt Disney and Charles Schultz (“Peanuts”) as well as the self-taught Chicago artist Henry Darger.
The exhibition and catalog make much of Nara’s deep connection to countercultural music of the last 50 years, with lyrics and themes borrowed from groups that have soundtracked the alienated Japanese youth who now, in turn, treat Nara as a cult figure. But while the lyrics are accompanied by depictions of guitars, speakers and CDs, it was difficult for this reviewer, entirely unfamiliar with the music in question, to hear, see or feel anything at all related to that ostensibly complex musical subculture. Perhaps such numbness is an appropriate response to work apparently made by, for and about the disaffected.
While the book is sumptuously packaged and printed, the emaciated Courier typeface used throughout was as difficult to read as squeezing into a pair of chopstick jeans and being asked to dance.
And while typeface and subject matter remain narrow in Nara-land, Michael Lin’s oeuvre tends toward the leniently lavish and expansive. Tokyo-born, Taiwan-bred and Los Angeles-educated, Lin has built his career on floral textile patterns, which he enlarges, repeats, manipulates and redeploys as wallpaper, decorative panels for building exteriors, huge carpets, pillows, skateboard ramps and, most cleverly, the surface of an entire tennis court. While the Bulgarian artist Christo wraps entire buildings and bridges in actual cloth, Lin appropriates the role of interior decorator and applies his patterns, bold to the point of vulgarity, to particular surfaces.
Michael Lin is a catalog published to accompany the first survey of the 46-year-old artist’s work, held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Given the sheer size of the works, a book about him necessarily contains many pictures of a documentary nature, including museum installations, building interiors and elevations, some of them obstructed by passersby and odds and ends of furniture, echoing the way they may be encountered in the world. These photos appear to have been shot in a haphazard manner, giving the impression of incompleteness in works that by their nature are neat and clean, freshly ironed, dispensable and probably also priced by the square meter, like facing or lining for a Taiwanese wedding quilt, the source of inspiration for some of the patterns in his practice.
The five critical contributors to the catalog—Nicolas Bourriaud, Bruce Grenville, Hou Hanru, Vivian Rehberg andAnnette Tietenberg—go to some length to theorize about the ways Lin’s work crosses lines between art and decoration, or art and architecture. The significance of his practice, according to Grenville (if you catch his drift), can be found “in a strategy of repetition that brings difference to the center of the discourse and moves away from questions about representation, identity, symmetry, equality and originality toward ones concerning variability, dissemblance, multiplicity and actuality.” Lin’s more direct response simplifies matters considerably: “I am a house painter, a maker of pedestrian and unremarkable places of respite.”
And if it is respite from hunger you’re looking for, not just a pleasant place to hang out, turn to the Rirkrit Tiravanija Cook Book: Just Smile and Don’t Talk, which accompanied a 2010 exhibition curated by Thomas Kellein at the Kunsthalle Bielefeld, Germany. Tiravanija, a multidisciplinary Thai artist whose work deals with social spaces and often encompasses food and feeding people, has taken a leaf from the 19th-century French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose The Art of Cuisine was a collection of personal recipes, and from the Futurist artist Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Cookbook, which went so far as to damn a diet based on pasta as a physiological obstacle to human progress and speed.
Tiravanija has always been interested in everyday things and in creating temporary situations. Untitled (The Magnificent Seven, Spaghetti Western) (2001) is an installation consisting of an entire kitchen battery sufficient to prepare food for 800 people. Untitled (Shut Up and Eat Pad Thai) (2005) comprises 110 photos that detail the process for making the quintessential Thai fried-noodle dish, which the artist explains was created after World War II to give Thailand a national dish.
That recipe is included here, along with a few dozen others—some ethnic Thai, some German or Swedish, some contradictorily cross-cultural. In addition to main courses, there are instructions for Green Tea, White Rice, Turkish Coffee Made Without an Ibrik and the artist’s favorite tipple, the Negroni. Each recipe is accompanied by two to six pages of photographs by Antoinette Aurell of culinary technique or of Tiravanija working, clowning, drinking and eating with family, associates, friends and pet dogs. Many of the photos are postage-stamp size, and thus not particularly useful in training a potential chef, but they do drag the everyday nature of cooking vaguely into the realm of art—a point that is anchored by Tiravanija’s cameo appearances.
The recipes are prefaced by a freeform, jargon-free interview with the artist, and are followed by an essay by Kellein that reads as a thoughtful appendix to both the interview and the food. As Kellein writes, the book is not “a cheap way of elevating cooking to the status of art,” and Tiravanija himself originally proposed that the subtitle should be “Cooking Without Craft.”
So if it is not trying to be art, and if it lacks craft, what is it? Is it much more than a tossed-out serving, a tasty morsel with the artist’s name on it, padded with some flab that adds a pound to the already groaning shelves of Thai, pie and diet-or-die cookbooks? The same reductionist, peculiarly ambivalent aesthetic applies to both Nara’s innocent children and Lin’s gaudy patterns. So where is the artist, and where does he belong, if there is no art?