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Entertainment is America’s second biggest net export (behind aerospace). [...] Today, culture may be the country’s most important product, the real source of both its economic power and its political influence in the world.

—C. Bernstein, “The Leisure Empire,” Time, December 24, 1990

My Reality is an exhibition of Asian and American artists whose work has been influenced by manga and anime.  Manga (the Japanese word for comic books) and anime began to gain popularity after World War II.  Osamu Tezuka, the creator of the anime Astro Boy and one of the most influential artists of the first wave of Japanese animators, was heavily influenced by Disney, so much so that he is called the Walt Disney of Japan.  But unlike the Cold War superheroes of American comics, Japanese comics spawned a whole new culturally accessible art form spanning a wide range of subjects—romance, sports, science fiction, horror, erotica, and historical manga, and others—that are read not only by young people but by men and women of all ages.

Sally Williams, "My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation," (2001). Installation. Photo Courtesy of: C Brooklyn Museum.

My first encounter with the Japanese fascination for the cute and American pop culture came when I was working at a Wall Street investment bank.  One of the investment bankers, a Japanese woman named Mywa, had a stuffed dwarf collection.  Every day another dwarf would arrive.  One day she showed me a photograph of herself and the dwarfs—seven small, seven medium, and seven life-sized dwarfs—seated on a carpeted floor in logarithmic order in an otherwise empty living room; a sort of surrogate family photo.

Appropriately, the first thing visitors see upon entering My Reality are two cast dwarfs’ heads by Paul McCarthy and multiple replicas of the Disney dwarf painted in primary blue and black, minus their crude packing-crate bases.  Unfortunately, the original supports for the dwarf heads (as seen in the show’s catalog) have been replaced with a more pristine, less abject pedestal that conforms with the exhibition’s design.  These dwarf heads seem more like a tribute to Disney (perhaps they should be cast in bronze instead) than an “investigation of psychosexual anxieties.”  Disney’s seven dwarfs, of course, personify the blue-collar worker.  They are the eunuch caretakers of Snow White, a gentle monarch who manages the household, making sure the diamond miners get off to work on time.  In the end, as expected, Snow White leaves her humble cottage and communal lifestyle, and finds her rightful royal place at the palace.

Takashi Murakami is the artist in the show most obviously influenced by Disney.  His ubiquitous mushroom figures, which sprout numerous stylized eyes, are also straight out of Disney’s Snow White, where a diamond-eyed Dopey becomes an 18-eyed monster.  His trademark character, Mr. DOB (the centerpiece of DOB in the Strange Forest), is the progeny of Mickey Mouse and a monkey.  The most prominent association that these phantasmic mushroom creatures bring to mind is the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its aftermath, a trauma that Murakami frequently refers to.  Transforming the deadly mushroom cloud into something cute and recognizably human renders it harmless, something like a character out of Dr. Seuss.  The entrepreneurial Murakami also produces a line of consumer items based on Mr. DOB at his Hiropon Factory (modeled after Warhol’s factory), reflecting his interest in the “merger of entertainment and art.”  Play is equated with entertainment, a form of escapism that functions as a survival mechanism, a way of coping with Japan’s trauma.  But entertainment and play are not one and the same.  Entertainment is pacifying and one-sided; play, on the other hand, is participatory and engages the viewer beyond merely watching or consuming.

Survival is a key theme for artist Kenji Yanobe.  His Survival Gacha-pon, a one-eyed extraterrestrial gumball machine, dispenses plastic containers stuffed with survival aids such as a matchbook, cookies, aspirin, or a teabag and sugar cube.  He also shows two functional, amphibious looking vehicles, “Atom Car,” part flying saucer, part Volkswagen Beetle, and Survival Gacha-pon that protect their drivers from any biological or ecological distastes. Taro Chiezo is less successful with “Angry Girl,” where he attempts to combine expressionist brushwork with an image of a popular anime character.  The play between the two styles is awkward at best, due in part to the self-consciously deliberate brushwork.  Two other attempts at a blending of Abstract Expressionism and pop culture (although this strikes me as somewhat ironic) are the de Kooning-influenced work of James Esber and Richard Patterson.  Esber’s “Mon Mon 2,” a silly putty scream, is also taken from a popular anime character—a distortion of a distortion.  Likewise, Patterson’s “Three Times a Lady” is a toy soldier covered with thick globs of paint, photographed and then painted again from the photograph.

Like the Disney Corporation, the merger of art and family entertainment is what the curators of My Reality had in mind by targeting “an audience of adolescents, families, and young adults.”  The institutionalization of “low” or popular culture by its “transformation” into “high” art with its cult of Kantian beauty is, perhaps, the ultimate hybrid; turning something accessible like comics into something less so, by editing out substance in favor of style and the sublime.


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