THE GIANT MEMBER FUJI VERSUS KING GIDORA, 1993, acetate film, acrylic, eyelets, 310 × 410 cm. All images in this article unless otherwise noted are courtesy Mizuma Art Gallery, Tokyo.

MAKOTO AIDA at his studio in Chiba, Japan, 2008. Photo by Kei Okano for ArtAsiaPacific. 

DOG (SNOW), 1998, Japanese mineral pigment, acrylic and torn-paper collage on panel and Japanese paper, 73 × 100 cm.

No More War; Save Water; Don’t Pollute The Sea

Makoto Aida

Features from Jul/Aug 2008

The two-hour train from Tokyo station to Makoto Aida’s home in Chiba prefecture requires a succession of carefully timed transfers to increasingly smaller alternate lines, moving from urban density to suburban commuter settlements and through rice fields pockmarked with brutally utilitarian structures made of concrete or sheet metal. Miss the last connection and you will end up stranded on an empty platform for an hour or more.

Aida and his wife, the artist Hiroko Okada, who met in New York in 2000 while he was on a yearlong residency and married in a shotgun wedding upon their return to Japan, moved here two years ago seeking more space and stability after leading what the pair describe as an itinerant life of switching apartments in Tokyo. Their humble property consists of two boxy pre-fab structures, a driveway cluttered with bicycles and lawn chairs and an unkempt back yard, featuring a rusting port-a-potty inherited from a previous tenant, tipped sideways by a storm.

The setting is unusually quaint but appropriate for an artist known for his perverse drawings, paintings, installations and performances skewering both the underside of Japanese society and his own insecurities about a breadth of topics from sexuality to international relations. On this overcast day, the clouds took away the bright shine of the country in spring, revealing the grittiness of the surrounding human interventions into nature and obliquely recalling Aida’s large-scale mixed-media painting (hi-to: human being) PROJECT (2002), depicting, with picturesque green and blue shades, a proposal to level an expanse of rain forest, fill it in, cover it with asphalt and then use reflective, white traffic-marker paint to create a monumental Chinese character for the word “person” in Japanese, hito.

As an absurdist emblem of unchecked chauvinism, the hi-to proposal is characteristic of Aida’s wide-ranging and at times contentious oeuvre. Now 42, Aida is an iconoclast. When he feels like it, he can make paintings of incredible refinement and graphic punch by manipulating technique and scale. Yet Aida is equally capable of producing sloppy drawings mimicking the style of young children and amateur artists—parodies of Japan’s education system and government-supported community art programs—and videos such as Lonely Planet (1998), for which he sat in a corner of a room in front of a world map and dialed random numbers to see what languages people use in different countries in an attempt to counter the assumption that English is the world’s reigning lingua franca. An ephemeral outdoor ceramic piece made with art students and volunteers, Shit by Jomon-type Monster (2003), consisted of mounds of coiled, brown clay that simultaneously resembled gigantic feces and the pots left by Japan’s pre-historic Jomon civilization. Intentionally crude, the work was an embrace of failure, as was the “Assisted Suicide Machine” series (1986-2002) of nooses made from hiking gear and other safety equipment, designed to collapse under the weight of a potential victim. One ASM device fits the specifications of Aida’s young son, and is displayed with a plastic stool for a child to reach the noose.

Born and raised in northern Niigata prefecture, Aida is the son of a leftist-leaning sociology professor at Niigata University. However, during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s student movement, his father was persecuted for not being radical enough. In reaction, Aida wavered between admiration for both liberal and conservative intellectuals. He idolized the free-spirited writer and peace activist Makoto Oda, as well as the novelist Yukio Mishima, who committed ritual suicide in 1970 in a tragic-comic attempt to restore wartime authority to the emperor, and Hideo Kobayashi, a pioneer of literary criticism who outspokenly supported Japanese expansion in Asia.

In high school, Aida was swept up by experimental new wave manga comics and enrolled at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music with the intent of becoming a manga artist. Studying in the oil painting department, Aida dabbled in conceptual art, but his aesthetic breakthrough came in graduate school at the same university when he painted Dog (1989), his first serious use of academic Nihonga Japanese ink painting, a genre he originally dismissed as “being for grandpas,” but came to respect as a potent tool for communicating his ideas about contemporary Japanese society.

Made with mineral pigments on paper, a subdued color scheme and fine brushstrokes, Dog updated the subtle eroticism characteristic of modern-era bijinga paintings of beautiful women—a sub-genre of Nihonga—and amplified it to shocking effect, depicting a chained, naked young girl with her limbs amputated, sitting on the stumps of her haunches and looking up with her tongue sticking out like a dog. With uncanny timing, the painting’s completion coincided with the 1989 arrest of serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, who murdered four young girls and sexually molested their corpses. Police investigating Miyazaki’s home in Saitama prefecture outside Tokyo found thousands of videotapes of pornographic anime and hard-core films. The media outcry over the incident led to the popularization of the word otaku, referring to socially outcast obsessive geeks. Now, 20 years later, otaku is a major subculture, difficult to define but essentially driven by animations, comics, character goods and even theme cafes oriented toward the virtual consummation of fetishes ranging from Lolita complexes to the idolization of sexy maid outfits and the more innocuous absorption with model kits and train-spotting trivia.  

Aida, although not an otaku, continued exploring untouchable subject matter. A monumental painting on acetate film, The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora (1993), fused the aesthetics and saturated color palette of ukiyo-e woodblock prints with their contemporary descendants, manga and anime drawing. Borrowing from Hokusai’s The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife (c. 1820), which shows a naked woman in the throes of passion with a pair of octopi, Aida’s work depicts a giant woman in a ranger outfit as she is raped by a many-headed dragon, their epic battle crushing the city streets beneath them. Modeling the woman on a character from the long-running kitsch TV show Ultraman and the dragon from the Godzilla movies, Aida conscientiously pushed his work further into the realm of otaku taste while also invoking a rich tradition of popular erotic art, shunga, and contemporaneous whimsical compendiums of ghouls and creatures.

After graduation, Aida underwent what he calls “the poorest time of my life,” performing odd jobs. His work, including Giant Member Fuji, was exhibited in a group exhibition at Rontgenwerke in Tokyo—an early incubator for contemporary artists at a time when there was little gallery infrastructure—but did not sell. Aida bounced around from venue to venue until 1995, when the collector turned dealer Sueo Mitsuma organized a three-person show as part of an art event, “Morphe’95,” at his newly-opened Mizuma Art Gallery, for which Aida contributed a series of photographs entitled “Apt. Kubo-so #6” (1993), racy shots of a girl’s doll in various states of undress.

Mitsuma initially dismissed Aida as an otaku artist but learning that he also painted, asked to see some works. Aida showed him a school-era painting, Azemichi (1991), a riff on Nihonga landscape painter Kaii Higashiyama’s bucolic masterpiece, The Road (1950). Aida’s version added the back of a girl’s pig-tailed head as she walks down a path in a field. The line of the girl’s scalp, visible where her hair is parted down the middle and aligned in the center of the canvas, blends seamlessly with the path, which extends to the vanishing point of the painting’s horizon. Mitsuma bought the work on sight and offered Aida a solo show at the gallery. Mitsuma, a gregarious but generally composed man, recalls, “That night, I was so thrilled, I couldn’t even sleep. I had found a genius artist.”

Early in his career, Aida continued to wrestle with the legacy of native Japanese modernism through appropriations of art historical genres. The “War Picture Returns” series, begun in 1995, tickles the raw nerve of Japan’s imperial past by using the earthy tones and melodramatic composition of war-era propaganda paintings, sensouga. Works in this series include A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City (1996), showing World War II Zero fighters strafing a burning Manhattan skyline, and Mi-Ni-Ma-Ru (Minimal) (1999)—the title is a winking reference to the work of American sculptor Donald Judd—which features a wooden shrine gate against a silver background with the charged war-era slogan, “Long Live the Emperor,” painted in “young man’s blood” in mournful, subdued brush strokes.

These works are poetic, topical and disturbing, imbued with ambivalence toward the former Japanese empire’s nationalist ideology and its post-war reckoning with the drastic social changes brought about by American occupation. The apotheosis of “War Picture Returns” is an offshoot, Aida’s homemade manga comic Mutant Hanako (1997), sketched out in frenetic line drawings that instill a sense of urgency and spontaneity to the story. The manga’s young female protagonist, Hanako, gains superpowers after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She takes on and defeats the US army, extinguishing the continental United States under a stream of excrement, after battling with a penis-headed President Roosevelt monster in outer space.


GATEBALL (WAR PICTURE RETURNS), 1999, imitation Japanese vellum and acrylic on two-panel sliding screens with hinges, 169 × 169 cm.

SHIT BY JOMON-TYPE MONSTER, 2003, video still, video: 10 min 3 sec.

SHIT BY JOMON-TYPE MONSTER, 2003, video still, video: 10 min 3 sec.

He followed this with Gate Ball (1999), done in a colorful cartoon style, depicting a group of larger-than-life elderly Japanese men and women using the heads of different ethnicities for a game of croquet against the backdrop of a map of Asia. One man, in mid-putt, wears a track suit with the words “Greater East Asia” printed on its back in English, a reference to the imperial manifest destiny of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The work maintains an ambiguous relationship between highlighting Japanese war crimes in Asia and trivializing them.

In conversation, Aida is sincere and considerate. He speaks carefully, but with a logic that twists and turns before reaching a conclusion or simply trailing off. For Aida, Mutant Hanako emerged in part from the literal programming he and other members of his generation underwent as students, when, with the approach of every August 15, public television would run three continuous days of specials commemorating the war while school teachers, many of them veterans of the student movement, stressed both the horrors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japanese atrocities to promote an anti-war ideology as a counterbalance.

Aida asserts that in making Mutant Hanako, he wanted to explore “the most depraved, immoral thing possibly imaginable in the history of manga,” without regard for the consequences. He admits, “I’m sure American or Chinese people would be offended if they read Mutant Hanako, and I heard of one man from Hiroshima who was livid when he saw the work. But I hope it also brings about some kind of communication.” Referring to the fantasy of a Japanese victory in World War II, Aida continues, “If I didn’t make it, someone else would. The ideas already exist in the collective imagination, as do those behind the painting Air Raid on New York City. You could say that in subconsciously channeling that material, it’s like using poison to draw out poison, or producing a kind of shock therapy.”

As such, Aida’s work is a flashpoint for different sensibilities. He can be dismissed as an unbalanced provocateur, an apologist for latent misogyny and nationalism, yet he is admired for his refusal to compromise with conventions—artistic and social. Roger McDonald, deputy director of the non-profit organization Art Initiative Tokyo who worked with Aida as a curator of 2004’s “Mediarena: Contemporary Art from Japan” at Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Zealand and the 2006 Singapore Biennale, comments, “Aida’s an artist who is necessary in Japan. He takes on subjects that others veer around. In the early 1990s Takashi Murakami and others explored the ramifications of the imperial system, World War II and consumer culture, but have since developed signature visual styles and ‘lightened their loads.’ Aida has only gone deeper into that arena and I respect him for staying true to his guns.”

If, in review, Aida unflinchingly—albeit haphazardly—confronts national identity, his work also raises questions about the degree to which an artist should take responsibility for his output. He denies having any particular political stance. Perhaps understandable in a country where contemporary art has little popular resonance, he questions its ability to convey any social message at all, explaining, “Art doesn’t really function that way in Japan. In Europe, perhaps you can find a strong link between art and cultural trends and major events like the French Revolution, the modern bourgeois revolution and so on. So someone like Joseph Beuys, who was part artist, part activist, can be appreciated by society there. Because of the historical differences, if anyone like that were active in Japan, he’d be totally on the fringes. Part of me wants to make art that can have a social impact, but I’m not really cut out for the job.” Instead, Aida describes what he does as “fiddling,” with his choice of words implying both masturbation and a restlessness underscored by I-DE-A (2000), an hour-long video of the artist jacking off, with his back to the camera, facing a giant wall-mounted cut-out of the Japanese word for “beautiful young girl.”

However, the images he creates are capable of provoking visceral reactions, particularly when exhibited in an international context. His “Dog” paintings received complaints from parents of young children when they were exhibited in the Govett-Brewster’s “Mediarena” exhibition, with the institution eventually posting signs warning visitors of the graphic content. Included in the Whitney Museum’s “American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003,” Air Raid on New York City sent shudders of disapproval through New Yorkers still recovering from the 9/11 terrorist attack. Made for Madrid’s ARCO art fair in 2006, the painting An International Discord, which superimposed in fluorescent block letters the initials of the notorious Basque separatist group, ETA, and the government-sponsored brute squad, GAL, over characters representing their Japanese homonyms against the backdrop of a giant Big Mac, earned Aida front page headlines, death threats and police protection in Spain. The Japanese homonyms are an obsolete slur for the former burakumin caste of workers consigned to untouchable jobs such as body and waste disposal and tanning, eta, and a present-day term for young girls enslaved to the consumption of fashion trends and exotic makeup, gyaru.

Although Aida appears regularly in international surveys of Japanese and Asian art, strangely, for an artist of his stature, he did not have a solo show in the US or Europe until 2005-06, when he had a series of one-off exhibitions at galleries in London, San Francisco and New York. The choice of venues was odd. In London, Aida’s show at the emerging gallery Ibid Projects was organized by the British independent curatorial group Man in the Holocene, as opposed to the gallery itself. In New York, established photo dealer Andrew Roth hosted a selection of new works at his uptown space, far away from Chelsea’s hot circuit.

Aida, whose drawings include a Venn diagram of “The World” encompassed within the circle of his hometown, Niigata, does not seem particularly concerned with this situation. He was non-plussed by his year in New York on an Asian Cultural Council grant, claiming to have spent most of the time homesick and uncertain about what kind of art to make. He is also reluctant about accommodating the art market: “I’ve never felt any pressure to make art for sale, even after working with Mizuma Art Gallery. Maybe I’m too lazy,” adding, “To be honest, I don’t like to sell my work abroad.”

Even as exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale and documenta, as well as a proliferation of similar events around the world, continue to attract scores of visitors, Aida’s reception overseas suggests the limitations of translating art into different contexts and undermines assumptions that contemporary art is, in itself, a truly international idiom. What happens when the medium is familiar but the works’ references do not conform to expectations? Aida notes, “I’m not exactly afraid of having my works misunderstood, although I do have a desire for them to be explained.” Longtime dealer Mitsuma elaborates, “The themes that Aida is interested in are rooted in Japan. And because he digs into particularly deep social problems, it’s difficult for American and European people to understand what he is doing. Just as Japanese people have a hard time understanding Christian morality, so too might Americans and Europeans misunderstand the values of Japanese culture.”

Tellingly, one work of Aida’s that has turned up at a number of recent high-profile exhibitions is The Video of a Man Calling Himself Bin Laden Staying in Japan (2005), made essentially as a gag for his solo exhibition at London’s Ibid Projects. The guerilla-style, Japanese-language home video presents Aida disguised by a beard and impromptu turban—bearing a striking resemblance to the titular subject—seated at a low table surrounded by empty bottles and cartons as he muses drunkenly in a foreign accent on his life in hiding. Succumbing to the hedonist pleasures of drinking sake in the bath, the bin Laden figure renounces terrorism and embraces peace.

Even if they don’t catch Aida’s dig at a culture enervated by its ritual comforts, everyone gets the joke in the Bin Laden video because he takes a figure widely identified with fear, hatred and extremism, and inserts him into an incongruously banal scenario. Officials in Singapore, where the work showed in the 2006 Singapore Biennale, thought Aida took the joke too far and asked him to edit it for display. They did not ask him to alter anything about bin Laden or terrorism. Instead, they had him remove an aside critiquing then Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi. Aida reflects that, given Singapore’s de facto dictatorial succession, the government probably sought to dampen criticism of a head of state.

From a commercial standpoint, Mitsuma seems resigned to Aida’s eccentricities, but he reserves fierce judgment for the Japanese art establishment for not supporting his artist: “Because of the prejudices of the conservative authorities who dislike Aida’s provocation, the highest levels of recognition continue to elude him. It’s shameful, for example, that he has never been selected to represent Japan at the Venice Biennale, and until that happens, broad international audiences won’t learn about him. Furthermore, until an institution like the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, gives Aida a solo exhibition, I fear that his status as an artist in Japan will remain low. The irony of history is always that truly important artists are never appreciated while the insipid mainstream continues flowing.” Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, did not reply to an email inquiry about whether the museum would shy away from a large-scale Aida exhibition due to the content of his works.

Inadvertently, Mitsuma’s statement echoes Aida’s own declaration that any artist with an outspoken social agenda would be relegated to fringe status in Japan. Aida is not quite fringe. In early 2008 when Bijutsu Techo, the country’s most venerable art journal, launched its redesign, he was featured on the cover surrounded by several young artists who have emerged under his influence. The magazine’s extensive coverage on Aida and his pupils included an essay, written by Aida, devoted to the art of head-scratching, one of his personal joys.

However, in an age when the parallel boom of the instantaneous information and consumption industries have fueled aspirations toward a universal, multicultural utopia, Aida sits at the dark intersection between domesticity and globalization. Whatever its ultimate standing in Japanese art history, and regardless of whether it deserves to be included in an inevitable international canon of contemporary art, Aida’s work serves as a necessary outlet for a kind of individualized dissidence that challenges prescribed values. Referring again to Mutant Hanako, he explains: “I felt the need to make something extreme that was also really new, rather than repeat whatever was already out there. If you can achieve that, it almost doesn’t matter what the content is, because you are expanding the different kinds of expression possible in this world. Pushing that thinking further, the expression of a greater diversity of opinions actually contributes to peace or harmony. So even my tasteless manga can be part of that process.”

As he relaxed in a lawn chair in his driveway, smoking a cigarette, Aida contemplated what kind of work he would make for his upcoming show at Mizuma Art Gallery in September. He asked about different digital cameras, and said he might do a series of paintings and photographs featuring Lolita models “for old time’s sake.” Characteristically, he had no works in his studio, which was overflowing with art supplies and junk, as if waiting for the next inspiration to take hold.