Last chance to see "Season of Japan" at the Ackland

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CHAPEL HILL—The word “ambivalence” is usually used to express an emotionless, uncaring state or a kind of personal isolationism. But the term really describes the conflicted state of holding two contrary points of view. Not only can ambivalence be highly expressive, but it’s also the impulse behind any thorough critique.

Shigeo Fukuda, Japanese, 1932—2009: UCC Coffee, 1985; color offset lithograph.
  • Merrill C. Berman Collection.
  • Shigeo Fukuda, Japanese, 1932—2009: "UCC Coffee," 1985; color offset lithograph.
Themes of ambivalence and isolationist tension run through two exhibitions of late-20th-century Japanese poster and video art at the Ackland Art Museum at UNC-Chapel Hill. The shows are part of the Ackland’s “Season of Japan,” which displays one national facet of the museum’s formidable collection of Asian art. Prints, ceramics and painted screens and scrolls dating from the 13th century to present-day are also exhibited. But you have to hurry—the shows all close Jan. 6.

“Elegance and Extravagance: Japanese Posters from the Merrill C. Berman Collection” comprises 86 posters by 22 artists and spans the 40 years after World War II. You’ll be stunned by the show’s visual variety, which is balanced by its pristine presentation. Though subjects range from advertising to politics to personal expression, and styles recapitulate the entirety of European and American Modernism while drawing on Japanese traditional forms, the immaculate framing makes it all cohere.

One thing that differentiates posters from paintings, or other media more commonly called fine art, is that posters are usually made for a commercial reason. Therefore they’re made on deadline, which might lessen their legitimacy as art objects to some minds. “Elegance and Extravagance,” however, shows several accomplished poster artists using the work pace and formal conventions of their medium to develop a keen sensibility comparable to any master artist.

To commercial design eyes, Ryuichi Yamashiro’s “Trees” (1955) is perfect. Against a white field, clustered black characters fill the top two-thirds of the poster, imaging a snowy forest. Made for a tree-planting campaign, the simple image pulls you in. Once engaged, a reader of Japanese would see that the characters for “grove” and “forest” comprise the character for “tree” in clusters of two and three to form the woods-like black area. Graphic designers will sigh with delight, as this poster simultaneously evokes ancient woodblock printing and current-day sensibilities.

Kuro’s “Tokyo Motor Show” poster (1956) could be mistaken for a Madison Avenue product but for its Japanese characters. Three stylized wheels roll across the poster in an international style reminiscent of the Bauhaus with its flat, unmodulated color shapes. Other ads for bicycles, soap, televisions and the Japan Color Fashion Association use similarly geometric motifs to express the convenience and ease of postwar life. However this cheery “product for every need” approach seems insidious in retrospect, barely a decade after the West dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. Yusaku Kamekura reminds us of that with “Hiroshima Appeals” (1983), a terrifying image of flaming butterflies of all different colors plummeting against a flat gray sky.

Many poster artists from the 1950s and 1960s apply their design skills to put a brave face on the effort to modernize Japan on the model of the countries and cultures that defeated it. There’s tension between nationalism and globalism, and neither comes across as particularly alluring.

Shigeo Fukuda expresses this tension best in commercial posters that use repetition and negative space on the order of M.C. Escher. For a 1975 show at the Keio Department Store in Tokyo, men’s legs wearing black slacks point up while women’s legs point down in the whitespace between. The elegance of the design is undercut by the inherent uneasiness of figure/ground illusionism. Two kaleidoscopic posters for UCC Coffee (1985) use the same negative space reversal with mandalas of men and women’s arms holding coffee cups. They’re hypnotic but restless as the images shapeshift within your vision.

Tadanori Yokoo, Japanese, born 1936: Word and Image, 1968, color screen print.
  • Merrill C. Berman Collection, © Tadanori Yokoo.
  • Tadanori Yokoo, Japanese, born 1936: "Word and Image," 1968, color screen print.
By placing aesthetics at the service of his politics, Tadanori Yokoo is the star of the poster show. He broke with other commercial graphic artists in the 1960s to join student protests and fell in with avant-garde and experimental artists in dance, literature and theater. Close friend Yukio Mishima’s 1970 suicide is memorialized in one poster.

“Elegance and Extravagance” has 16 of Yokoo’s posters, all showing a dense simultaneity of many graphic styles and traditions. Some are grotesque and cartoonish like vaudeville or Brecht. Others pick up on the Constructivist angles of Alexander Rodchenko or the fin de siècle billets of Pierre Bonnard. Pop Art shows up with its mass-produced photographic repetition. Yokoo often uses the Japanese rising sun as a background, angling it to imbue the photographic scene collaged on top of it with directional force.

Many of Yokoo’s posters were made as art objects outside the commercial realm. In a 1965 self-portrait, he dangles from a noose beneath a banner bearing his name. A caption at the bottom reads in English “Having reached a climax at the age of 29, I was dead” while a miniaturized bullet train and mushroom cloud become decorative motifs in the upper corners. As with Mishima’s tragic lesson, modernity has a way of leaving a body trail.

Yokoo’s animated films, along with those of fellow poster artist Keiichi Tanaami, are wholly noncommercial. “Pop Goes Japan: Short Films by Tadanori Yokoo and Keiichi Tanaami” screens seven films from the 1960s and 1970s in a curtained alcove at the end of the poster show. The same collage tactics that make Yokoo’s and Tanaami’s later posters so dynamic inform their approach to collaged imagery and editing in the films, making the posters a kind of one-frame film in retrospect.

The films turn the volume up on Japanese ambivalence to Western cultural exports. Tanaami, who at the age of 9 survived the Allied forces’ 1945 firebombing of Tokyo only to become a huge Beatles fan 20 years later, very directly crashes pop iconography into war imagery. He formally expresses these mixed feelings by combining the hallucinogenic magic-marker animation of Yellow Submarine with Terry Gilliam’s jerky, historical Monty Python stop motion.

“Oh Yoko!” (4:22, 1973) is a music video to John Lennon’s love song for Yoko Ono. It’s also Tanaami’s love letter to what the couple represents—a literally harmonic joining of East and West. Lennon and Ono dance naked onscreen as fields of strawberries and other Beatles references cruise through the background. Her face frequently superimposes on his as Lennon sings about her popping into his head during the routine of his day. Although Tanaami gives a sense of the cynical media circus around the couple, the film ultimately celebrates the sincerity of their domestic union.

Tanaami is more critical in “Good-by Marilyn” (4:21, 1971), using the same methods to produce a grotesque compression of American cultural icons. Marilyn Monroe appears as the Statue of Liberty in hot pants, as airplanes and hot dogs soar behind her. There’s a pornographic uptick as she mechanically eats men, hotdogs and bananas. For the film’s climax, there’s a masturbatory sequence in which the humanity of her body is replaced by representations of media exaggeration and sexual functionality. It shifts the tone of the film from a critique of Western sexual iconography to an expression of personal sympathy for Monroe. She appears tortured and vampiric as a big-breasted bat in the final image.

The most interesting film in the exhibition is Tanaami’s “Why” (10:01, 1975). He puts the imitative animation of his other works aside to make a structural film using close-ups of black-and-white halftone images, often so magnified that the screen is an abstract field of dancing black dots that convey no discernable image. Tanaami alternates the magnification and the speed of the flicker of his halftone stills in analog to a piano soundtrack.

But the imagery isn’t really abstract; you’re just way too close to the image to see it. Quickly, you get the sense that you’re viewing some kind of action. Tanaami moves you into and out of the image tantalizingly, building up your optical craving for recognizing what you’re looking at.

I won’t spoil the imagery source, but it builds a social premise on top of that craving, delivering satisfaction along with a realization about sanctioned, aestheticized violence. You don’t walk away feeling guilty—“Why” is not an accusation—but rather with a degree of complicity. Tanaami’s formal directness nonetheless builds subtlety on par with structural filmmakers like Hollis Frampton and Michael Snow.

Yokoo’s films are brasher than Tanaami’s. His surreal and unsettling meditations upon Western cultural encroachment originate from the nuclear legacy of WWII.

Cultural hypocrisy is flayed open in “KISS KISS KISS” (2:15, 1964). A war-era ballad provides the soundtrack for kissing cartoon couples rendered in Roy Lichtenstein’s Ben-Day noir. Melodramatic scenes of embraces produce voice bubbles saying “KISS” but then the soundtrack abruptly gives way to weird electronic chortles and skittering beeps. The film is too brief to build allegorical connections, giving instead a sense that something is horribly, and unstoppably, wrong.

Yokoo more fully develops his dark humor in “Kachi Kachi Yama” (7:48, 1965), which lists Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor and the Beatles as its stars in the opening credits. The film takes its title from a Japanese folktale, which is a revenge narrative as intense as the grimmest of the Brothers Grimm. A shapeshifting forest creature tricks a hunter into eating a soup made from his wife. Then a rabbit unleashes a vendetta on the creature on behalf of his human friends.

Overt political symbols are linked to characters in the film, although the narrative is discontinuous. Copping the Yellow Submarine animation, Yokoo opens with a red couple. She holds a cordial glass or hourglass and he holds a huge Soviet sickle. A Japanese flag rises, bringing montages of combat, money and sex. Gradually a black-haired, blue-eyed man emerges as a smirking protagonist, though he seems both initiator and victim of the violence depicted.

The listed stars appear after that prologue. The Beatles sing and chant an elegy for Taylor who, as Cleopatra, is viewed in a casket emblazoned with the American flag. The intertitle “Le vide est la forme” (“Emptiness is the form”) follows this ritual.

The setting shifts to the American west. A posse chases Bardot, as a cowgirl, and the shifty man across mesas. Then he and Bardot are in a jet fleeing five fighters in military formation. They parachute to the safety of an ocean raft but the Beatles blow the raft out of the water.

The ambiguous narrative with its dreamlike changeovers communicates no moral message other than a sense of dread. Good and bad are situational labels taken up and discarded in the opportunity of a moment. Made during the time of student protests in Japan, “Kachi Kachi Yama” captures the tenuous, bitter activism that Yokoo adopted.

These films, obviously low budget and almost handmade, push hard to show the traumatic collision of traditional and modern society. They’re a hard punctuation mark to the pleasures of the posters exhibition, but they clarify the themes therein.

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