Hisashi Tenmyouya: Samurai with a Paintbrush

Para-para (Great Empire of Japan) vs. Break-dancing (America) (2001)

One of the strangest and most interesting characteristics of the Japanese art world is its schizophrenia. To get a sense of this, simply visit the permanent collection of Tokyo's Museum of Modern Art (MOMAT). Here, on each of three floors, you will find 'Yohga' (Western style art) directly confronting 'Nihonga,' (Japanese style art).

While examples of Yohga by Japanese artists often look derivative and unoriginal, the Nihonga works suffer by being too self consciously Japanese. This schism, which has handicapped one of the most artistically talented nations in the World for over a hundred years, may now finally be coming to an end, as a new generation of artists rise up who are neither trying to emulate the West nor straining too hard to be 'Japanese.'

Perhaps one of the best examples of this new type of artist is Hisashi Tenmyouya, a still relatively young painter who has an exhibition of new works, "Made In Japan" at the Mizuma Art Gallery this September. While his art is unmistakably Japanese, Tenmyouya remains relaxed about his identity and open to other influences.

"Since World War Two, Western culture was looked on as more advanced," he comments, trying to explain the mindset of Japanese artists in the 20th century. "But, at the same time, we were always trying to beat the West."

As a vital part of the anti-Communist Cold War coalition from 1950 onwards, Japan was, on one level, a Western state, while, on another, it was unmistakably an East Asian nation. This schizophrenic condition was a continuation and intensification of the cross cultural pressures that Japan had faced since the Meiji Revolution. With the ending of the Cold War, however, Japan's ad hoc status as a Western nation also ended. One consequence of this is that the artistic schism between Nihonga and Yohga is now gradually starting to weaken, with a trend emerging where Japanese art no longer tries to be Western, while at the same time trying to reject or compete with the West. In other words, an altogether more natural attitude, free of complexes of inferiority, imitation, and national re-assertiveness, is starting to emerge.

Kamikaze (2003)
This year there have been two major group shows that reflected this trend: "From Nihonga to Nihonga" at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT) and, more recently, the Yokohama Museum of Art's "Nihonga: Six Provocative Artists" (July 15 – September 20). Although Tenmyouya's art only featured in the first of these, both shows presented young artists with modern attitudes of individual creativity, working with the emotional, visual, and artistic vocabulary of their native Japanese culture. In contrast to the 100-year-plus stand off between Nihonga and Yohga represented by MOMAT's collection, the works of these young artists show clear signs of a true synthesis between Japanese and Western art.

A case in point is Tenmyouya/s stunning Kamikaze (2003), one of the stand out works of the MOT show. In both technical and visual terms, it shows the fruitful interplay of Yohga and Nihonga: acrylic paint mixes with gold leaf, while an image of the heroic past – a Mitsubishi Zero fighter – is incongruously souped up with additional exhausts, horns, and lights, in the same way that modern Japanese truckers customize their vehicles. The message seems to be about male pride, but whether he's celebrating it or gently mocking it remains unclear.

Such free intermingling of Nihonga and Yohga would have been impossible a decade or two ago, when Nihonga techniques were jealousy guarded by the various Nihonga schools and were only passed down through a rigid hierarchy. One of Tenmyouya's strengths is that, although technically a Nihonga painter, socially he is completely outside the world of Nihonga.

Kamakura Nine Samurai (2001) 
"I was working for a record company as a record sleeve designer," he explains his unorthodox entry into the art world. "Working in design you always have to serve the client. While I was working in that field, I started to also paint what I wanted, and entered competitions. I was doing both and couldn't continue doing that, so I picked one – art over design. For me there is no particular school. Because I am self taught, I have escaped the pressures of belonging to a group. The key thing for artistic freedom is not to belong to a group. Even if you graduate from an art school teaching traditional techniques, if you choose not to belong to a particular school, you don’t have any problem."

Tenmyouya's comments also suggest another factor in the weakening divide between the two hemispheres of Japanese art, the loosening hold that the older generation has on the younger generation. This is, no doubt, connected to economic and demographic factors. In an affluent society with a shrinking proportion of youth, the balance of power between the generations shifts as young people are given more options.

In the world of Nihonga, this means that young artists have greater freedom to experiment and break the taboos. While Fuyuko Matsui does this with dark disturbing images of bodies cut open or women vomiting out their innards, Tenmyouya does this by including elements of the underclass – truckers, yakuza, street gangs – or youth culture. In Bunshin (2005) and Made in Japan (2006), the title work of his new exhibition this September, he shows tattooed figures, still a very controversial thing to do in a country where tattoos are often associated with organized crime.

Two of the most impressive works at the MOT show, the acrylic on wood Contemporary Japanese Youth Culture Scroll – Kamakura Nine Samurai (2001) and Contemporary Japanese Youth Culture Scroll – Para-para (Great Empire of Japan) vs. Break-dancing (America) (2001) introduce similar taboo elements into the visual vocabulary of Japanese traditional art. Kamakura Nine Samurai shows a gang of graffiti artists posing in front of the Kamakura Daibutsu, which they have just disfigured with an aerosol spraycan, while “Para-para (Great Empire of Japan) vs. Break-dancing (America)” sets two youth fads against each other in a symbolic dance battle.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a rebellion solely against the stuffy canons and accepted good taste of traditional Nihonga art, but this would be an oversimplification as Tenmyouya clearly has a deep love for traditional Japanese art.

"I'm not against traditional Japanese art," he explains his choice of subject matter. "If I were to refer to contemporary art, I consider that contemporary art is already dead, but its life is constantly extended by bringing in new art, that is then considered high art. I am against this idea of high art and the power it symbolizes. I’m using graffiti and tattoos as a symbol of anti power."

Neo Thousand Armed Kannon (2002)
'Fighting the Power' is a recurring theme in his art. His Neo Thousand Armed Kannon (2002), gives a new spin to the traditional image of Kannon, the Buddhist personification of mercy, by filling her many hands with pistols, knives, and machine guns. For Tenmyouya organized religion, even Buddhism, is a source of power, corruption, and ultimately violence.

"I got this idea after 9/11," he explains. "Because religion creates violence. In order to protect their own religion the Jews and Muslims create violence. Religion and violence may seem separate, but they are far from separate. In Japan the strongest religion is Buddhism, so I painted this."

The stunning Contemporary Japanese Youth Culture Scroll - Para-para (Great Empire of Japan) vs. Break-dancing (America) (2001), now owned by New York’s Bronx Museum, takes as its mark the unequal relationship between America and Japan, symbolizing the clash, using different youth cults popular in Japan.

"This is a fight between Japan and America," Tenmyouya explains. "The break dancers represent America. The way they spin around evokes the idea of American helicopters, like in Vietnam, while the para para girls represent Japan. The gesture they are making with their hands represents the Zero fighter, so it's a battle between America and Japan, between helicopters and Zero fighters."

Tenmyouya also sees no need to deny history and the natural feelings to be expected in a once proud country forced to play a subordinate role to the US for several decades. “In the islands soldiers are still fighting,” he says referring to those Japanese soldiers left behind on tropical islands who never heard of the surrender. “In a similar way I am still fighting with my art.”

Such comments might be misinterpreted as the kind of exaggerated national self consciousness associated with traditional Nihonga and even with the Japanese 'far right,' but his obvious humor and the ease with which he references contemporary Japan suggests that something different is taking place.

This is confirmed by his personal image. With his goatee beard, trademark beanie hat, and disengaged, surly attitude, Tenmyouya sometimes seems more like a rapper than a painter. What we have here is not someone keen to jump on the sound wagons on which the Japanese 'far right' parade through the streets of Tokyo, but rather a rebel whose art expresses ambivalence and occasional disdain for the established power structures, be they religious, geopolitical, or artistic.

As a self-trained artist who once designed record sleeves, Tenmyouya not only transcends the traditional Nihonga-Yohga divide of Japanese art, but also rejects the rigid dichotomy of 'high art' and 'low art,' something which he sees as a foreign imposition, pointing out that earlier generations of Japanese artists, like Tenmyouya’s own hero, the 19th-century painter Kawanabe Kyosai, switched effortlessly between the two categories.

"He was apprenticed to Kuniyoshi, making ukiyo-e prints," he explains. "Then he was in the elite Kano school, so he did high art and low art. He was designing images for the masses, while his Kano was high art. In the Meiji era you couldn’t make a living by high art alone. You had to do both."

Considered on its own merits, Tenmyouya’s art is impressive, but as a symbol of changing trends it is even more important. So, what can visitors to his latest exhibition expect?

"It’s a continuance of what I've been doing,” he says. "In this exhibition I want to express that it’s work created in Japan by someone who is Japanese."

Hisashi Tenmyouya

Tokyo Journal
September, 2006
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