Fri 15 Jul 2022 to Sat 10 Sep 2022
Artist: Aya Takano
Bamboo yoke, shadow play, blue-and-white school uniforms, Nanjing Road, White Rabbit candies, mini steamed buns… Aya Takano’s latest works continue the proliferating signifiers and exuberant landscapes of her previous series. Through the artist’s reinterpretation, the pleasures of the countryside and the charms of the metropolis are revealed, much like the sprouting leaves that survived a long, harsh winter. Yet underneath the layering leaves, there exist ruminations on reincarnation, animism, traditions and spirituality, rooted in a universal concern, serpentine and intertwined. Somewhere far away, mother nature and the ancient deities cast their perpetual gaze upon the world of man.
Simulacrum: A Mirage of Sweetness
At first glance, Takano’s paintings seem to visualize the ideals of Otaku culture, born out of a highly socialized, urbanized, and modernized environment. They aim to “frolic with the imaginary reality” (1), and thereby construct a theatre of simulacra through mirroring and signification.
Drawing from friends and families’ personal accounts, Takano once again depicted the same elementary school sisters in her previous exhibition at Perrotin Hong Kong. Coupling stereotypical characterization and purposefully staged everyday life with snippets of historical accounts and resistance against social constructs, the artist presents to us a series of Seken-banashi (a type of folklore studied by Kunio Yanagita) in the form of manga. beginning of the springtime of life in shanghai, 90s (2022), for example, conceived from a picture shared by Takano’s friends, a close-up of the younger sister taking a big bite of yakitori. Starting from there, a fictitious, modernizing Shanghai of the 1990s is henceforth materialized with advertising displays, traffic signs and city landmarks. These new works inherit Takano’s pictorial paradigm, where objects become vessels of information, and happenings lead the way to an overarching worldview. Layering and grafting, the artist seeks to enable and maximize communication through symbols and signs.
Spanning Chinatown, Shanghai and Guilin, Takano’s visual narrative is rich in detail but never cluttered. In fact, to restore order to disorder is a part of the artist’s repertoire. She stylizes manga’s lexicon so as to concoct a mirage of sweetness and dreaminess frequently attributed to teenage girls. These characteristics, though often deemed as the innate qualities of teenage girls, are in fact authored and devised by the artist. On the one hand, roundness permeates Takano’s iconography. From the joints of human forms and the contours of animals, to the frames of buildings and the corners of spaces, sharp edges are treated with soft arcs, masking boniness with gentle curves. Figures are mostly outlined in even, long arcs. Even if the long and short lines alternate from time to time, they do not occupy the majority of the imagery, and never disrupt the sense of continuation and wholeness. On the other hand, Takano’s palette is distinguished by a breathable translucence. Colors of low saturation and intense brightness are applied in thin layers to the canvas, mimicking the lightness of watercolor with oil paint. Light brown and similar shades are used for outlining, where figures, floating and swimming, assert themselves in ambiguity. Skins are rendered in baby pink, subtly suggesting a childlike quality. The dominating white remains in sharp contrast against the rarely employed black. In memory of chinese new year, chinatown, japan (2022), for example, the artist avoids suffocating coloration by softening the dark night outside with hints of pink and purple, as well as varying white reflections over the window.
It is precisely through her fine grasp of semiotics that Takano orchestrates the complex and chameleon-like signifiers to create a mirage of sweetness. Slides of mirrored reality are loaded into the rotary tray at long last. Together, simulated environments and fictive histories set sail in her ever-expanding creation.
Pedigrees: Reflective Introspection
“If you study the artistic expressions of an old nation, you will find continuities behind the façade of constant change.” (2) Ian Buruma’s observation in his book A Japanese Mirror might offer us an insight into Takano’s paintings. Embedded in the traditions of animism, her artistic creation goes far beyond mere simulation and simulacra, and reach into profound themes such as sexuality and feminine power.
“I want to create a realm that we can’t reach. Eroticism is one of the ways to sense the rest of the world.” (3) For Takano, coition is not simply an extended metaphor, but also a pathway to the unknown. While certain interpretations regard sexual depiction as an end in itself, sex should more importantly be reckoned as a means to an end in Takano’s works. According to Kojiki, an early Japanese chronicle of myths, the eight islands of Japan as well as various Kami (such as the sea god Watatsumi, the river god Kawa-no-Kami, the wind god Shinatsuhiko, and the mountain god 【yamatsumi) are all conceived by primordial deities Izanami and Izanagi through their consummation. Copulation, as a pathway, gives birth to all life on earth. In the Shinto tradition, oracles often come to life through women and Miko (shrine maidens or young priestesses). And sex is one of the most direct and significant ways to receive the divine gifts. Returning to Takano’s aforementioned comment, we can more or less hear the echoes of this historical narrative.
When it comes to the presentation of teenage girls in Takano’s paintings, people can of course debate that it signals a transition from realistic eroticism to symbolic eroticism. Here, a lolicon hentai manga magazine published in the 1980s titled Manga Burikko can serve as an interesting case study. The magazine was close to ceasing publication in 1983. However, it regained the market by employing female manga artists and veering towards Shōjo manga. But then again it is important to note that the teenager girls starring in Takano’s paintings are inclined to be connected with characters such as Toriko Futori from Shōhei Imamura’s Profound Desires of the Gods (1968) rather than a modernized inspiration. Gifted with supernatural powers and perceptions, they represent the “pre-human, collective unconscious or energy” (4) rather than modern erotic fantasy. This lineage of feminine power can be traced back to the time before Emperor Jimmu, such as Izanami, the creator deity of both birth and death, and Amaterasu, the ruler of the heavenly realm and the goddess of the sun. In this new collection of paintings, Takano specifically provided further explanation on the pair of sisters in we made a field.. (2022), “The sisters think deeply about permaculture and ecology, and they are thinking to create a new future. Therefore the painting depicting a field cultivated in school doesn’t have any relation with the memories of those whom I spoke with, but come from my wishes.” (5) Even though the female characters are given childlike, gentle, and harmless appearances, conforming with certain Otaku fantasies, they also manifest another possibility. Detached from reality, the teenage girls enjoy their “childhood” without social strictures. They are free from confinement, and reconnected with their primal power. They point to a latent future.
Aside from the feminine mystique, Takano’s paintings are imbued with polytheism and animism. In this is how it should be, commune with each other (2022), and the world we are aiming for (2022), viewers well-versed in Japanese mythologies would be able to decode episodes including the encounter between the White Hare of Inaba and kuninushi, as well as Yatagarasu, a three-legged crow, guiding Emperor Jimmu to Kashihara. Under Takano’s paintbrush, the spiritual essences of all creatures are solidified in various forms, extending beyond the circumscriptions of urban space. What the artist has been reading lately, Paul Stamets’s Mycelium Running, unveiled her ambitions of depicting more than what she reveals in her current paintings, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationships among animals, plants, fungi, and humans. According to Stamets, we animals are closer to mushrooms than to plants, and we are all descended from mushrooms. Hence, I’m thinking that is perhaps the reason why animals communicate their emotions so well with each other, and how it’s easier to love each other than with other species.” (6)
Takano’s works link back to a pedigree characterized by a bountiful, natural utopia. “At Tenjin Hill, there was a festival, and the Dance of the Deer was being performed. A light cloud of dust rose from the hill, and bits of red could be seen against the green backdrop of the whole village. The dance in progress, which they called a lion dance, was actually the dance of the deer. Men wearing masks with deer horns attached to them danced along with five or six boys who were dressed as warriors waving swords. The pitch of the flutes being played was so high and the tone of the song so low that I could not understand what they were singing even though I was just off to the other side. The sun sank lower and the wind began to blow; the voices of the drunkards calling out to others were lonely to hear. Girls were laughing and children were running about.” (7)
Tono: A World in Symbiosis
In Japanese culture, the historical tradition of dividing villages by farming areas has made it possible to distinguish between foreigners and compatriots, and to identify with the homeland and wonder about distant places. The protagonists of Takano’s latest works also traverse back and forth between oneself and the other. Born in Japan, the girls spent their childhood in Hong Kong, then back to the Shanghai community of the Chinatown, and started their new journey to Shanghai with a retelling of the Chinese cultures. In the depiction of their world, we can easily discern a plethora of typical visual elements of Chinese culture. The presentations and forms, however, are characterized by a Japanese, urbanized gaze. The entire collection of paintings is organized like a symphony. We hear about the memories of Shanghai from their friends’ grandpa, the childhood experience of growing up in Chinatown as recounted by themselves, and the younger sister’s impression about visiting Shanghai when she was little… Drifters gather in front of Takano’s canvases and tell the tales of the once-familiar foreign lands. Their narratives collectively construct a faraway place in a relative sense.
This distinction is also reflected in Takano’s understanding of urban and the natural environments. Metropolises are described as “conscious, things that are still lacking in wisdom, and plunderers,” (8) whereas nature is related to “unconsciousness, wisdom, and love.” (9) In the most familiar forms to the people at our time, the presence and power neglected by contemporary society appear on stage once more. They speak to a deep yearning in people’s hearts. There, the disorienting experiences of our modern condition are appeased by reminiscing the days of yore.
In a sense, the prospect projected onto the other place suggests a longing to escape linear time and space, and ascend to a world pure and simple. Through introspective reflection and outward exploration, Takano is able to construct a Tono of her own by reassembling the earthly and the unearthly, the manmade and the natural, as well as the native and the alien. Here, “I” do not perish due to the presence of “the other.” Rather, “I” become one with the universe through numerous reconciliations. As the artist declares, “I would like to find some kind of cosmic truth as seen through the stories, one that every country, era, and culture produces; I’m still internally learning about which part is the essence of communication with all beings; I believe that ultimately everything is oneness.” (10)
Collecting and retelling folklores and myths in The Legends of Tono, Kunio Yanagita illustrates an otherworldly realm for those who reside in the human world. His opening remark also sheds light on Takano’s work in this exhibition, “I imagine there are hundreds of other legends in Tono similar to the ones written here… In the mountain villages of Japan, in areas yet deeper into the mountains than Tono, there must be countless other legends about people and spirits in the mountains. I wish these legends could also be heard, for they would make those of us who live in the lowlands shudder.” (11)
Text by Lily Wang
(1) Ōtsuka, Eiji. Otaku No Seishinshi: 1980-Nendairon, Kōdansha, Tokyo, 2004.
(2) Buruma, Ian. A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, Atlantic, London, 2012.
(3) Laster, Paul. “Aya Takano’s Erotic Realm.” White Hot Magazine, 2019, p. 4.
(4) Email interview with the artist, March 8, 2022.
(7) Yanagita, Kunio. The Legends of Tono. Translated by Ronald A. Morse, Lexington Books, 2008.
(8) Email interview with the artist, March 8, 2022.
(11) Yanagita, Kunio. The Legends of Tono. Translated by Ronald A. Morse, Lexington Books, 2008.
View of Aya Takano's exhibition "thank you world, you now look a little bit like a wonderland" at Perrotin Shanghai, 2022. ©2022 Aya Takano/Kaikai Kiki Co., Ltd. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin