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Gagosian Quarterly

Spring 2022 Issue

Tetsuya Ishida’sTestimony

Edward M. Gómez writes on the Japanese artist’s singular aesthetic, describing him as an astute observer of the culture of his time.

Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2004, acrylic and oil on canvas, 17 ⅞ × 20 ⅞ inches (45.5 × 53 cm)

Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2004, acrylic and oil on canvas, 17 ⅞ × 20 ⅞ inches (45.5 × 53 cm)

Edward M. Gómez

Edward M. Gómez is an arts journalist, critic, author, curator, translator, and graphic designer. Based in New York and Tokyo, he is the founder of the recently launched art-and-culture magazine brutjournal (www.brutjournal.com) and its related print publication, The brutjournal Annual.

Sixteen years after the death of the Japanese painter Tetsuya Ishida, his remarkable body of work is still developing an international audience. Ironically, it seems to be better known outside Japan than within the artist’s homeland; still, whenever and wherever it is shown, it tends to astound critics, curators, and general audiences alike with its virtuosity, the intensity of its social critique, and its all-around strangeness. Within Japan, Ishida’s work has come to enjoy an in-the-know, devoted following, but even today, many Japanese artists and art lovers may not be familiar with it, for it has not yet attracted the kind of broad base of admirers that has made the work of such contemporary superstars as Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami—and those artists themselves—the subjects of pop-culture fandom both at home and abroad.

Ishida’s individualism within Japan’s art world might help explain the way his work has been received. In the past, many Japanese modern artists took part in “dantai” (associations or collectives), of which the Gutai group is perhaps the best known. To be sure, during that outfit’s long run, from 1954 to 1972, several of its members garnered individual attention for their unconventional creations and techniques—Kazuo Shiraga, for example, who hung from a rope to paint canvases with his feet, or Akira Kanayama, who experimented with big, inflated balloons. Recent decades have also seen the international art world’s embrace of such iconoclastic, Japanese-born modernists as Kusama and Yoko Ono, and of the strategically thinking, outward-looking, career-planning artist Murakami, all of whom developed distinctive profiles apart from artists’ groups (although, earlier in her career, Ono was closely associated with Fluxus). These strong solo acts stand out as mavericks within the broader flow of Japanese modern-art history.

In this context, the trajectory of a hard-to-classify individualist such as Ishida, whose professional career lasted only about a decade, may be hard to absorb. In the United States and Europe, rugged individualism and tradition-busting originality have long been regarded as fundamental aspects of the heroic-creator profile of the classic modern artist, but in a society like Japan’s, in which personal identity is defined by ties to family, school, workplace, and hometown, an artist who dares to chart his or her own path as more of an individual, apart from an anchoring group, may be seen as something of an outsider—a category Ishida fell into without even trying. Could it be that, in addition to having died young and despite having produced an oeuvre consisting of hundreds of paintings, he has not received the attention that he and his work deserve in part because Japan’s art establishment simply has not known how to categorize such a distinctive talent?

Little has been published about Ishida’s short life. He was born and brought up in a coastal town in Shizuoka Prefecture, in south-central Japan, where his father was a politician, and his mother a local-government employee. As a child, his older brother Michiaki recalls, he enjoyed reading manga (Japanese comic books) and making drawings, filling his school notebooks and even the backs of test papers with his handiwork.1 At the age of eleven, he won a prize for his entry to a manga-art contest for young people on the theme of human rights, a subject that would become one of his abiding interests. His interest in art grew, but his parents opposed his decision to go to art school. Nevertheless, he enrolled at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, where he first studied design and from which he graduated in 1996. By that time, he had become a painter.

The Tokyo-based filmmaker Isamu Hirabayashi came from the same prefecture and was a student at the school at the same time as Ishida. There, the two young men met and became friends. In a recent interview with me, Hirabayashi recalled, “We shared some classes. . . . His disposition was very calm. Whenever I saw him, he seemed a bit nervous; he had a sensitive spirit. I never once said anything negative about his paintings, because I thought that might hurt his feelings.”2

Ishida’s time at Musashino coincided with a development that has affected many aspects of Japanese life over the past thirty years. At the beginning of the 1990s, the country’s long-running postwar economic boom came to a crashing halt when its late-phase “bubble,” which was fueled by high-flying real-estate speculation, finally burst. Today, Japanese economists, historians, and media pundits refer to the period from that collapse to the present as “the lost decades,” and to young Japanese like Ishida, who came of age during the early period of the downturn, as members of a “lost generation.”

Tetsuya Ishida’s Testimony

Tetsuya Ishida, Mebae (Awakening), 1998, acrylic on board, 57 ⅜ × 81 ⅛ inches (145.6 × 206 cm), Shizuoka Prefectural Museum of Art, Japan

The bubble economy’s bounty had seemed limitless—while it lasted. In the 1980s, economists, business leaders, and policy makers in Europe and the United States actually feared that their countries’ economies would be overtaken by Japan’s. They painstakingly studied the management and production methods of Japanese industries, from real-time manufacturing-and-delivery systems to the morale-boosting singing of company songs. Meanwhile, around Japan, new, privately funded, municipal or prefectural museums and other cultural institutions seemed to be popping up every month. The Yokohama Museum of Art, for example, opened with fanfare in 1989 in a showcase building designed by the superstar architect Kenzo Tange, and, at least for a while, embarked on an ambitious collecting spree. Department stores overflowed with innovatively styled fashions and gadgets that made contemporary Japanese design a covetable commodity around the world. Japanese corporations scooped up prime real estate overseas and spent astronomical sums on investment-quality European modern art that, once purchased, disappeared into top-secret vaults. Then the bubble burst.

Japanese sociologists, politicians, and pundits have spent many years in “Where-did-we-go-wrong?” mode, soul-searching for an explanation of how the postwar “economic miracle” dissolved into a nightmare. Such was the weary, anxiety-filled character of the era in which Ishida spent his young adulthood. As a child, he would have had classmates whose fathers were dutiful factory workers or corporate sarariman (salary men, or office workers trained to push paper and meet sales quotas). He would have understood the effects of the wounded economy on the families of such industrial samurai. Following the crash, Japanese corporations, which had long promised secure lifetime employment, undertook painful restructurings. Masses of young people found themselves adrift, unsure of how to make use of their educations and more wary than ever of the corporate world, with its crushing workloads and oppressive hierarchies. In essays and fiction, writers such as Haruki Murakami captured the spirit of the time, especially among young urban tribes. The atmosphere only became gloomier in the aftermath of such events as the devastating Kobe earthquake of January 1995 and, just a few months later, the deadly sarin-gas attacks carried out in Tokyo’s subway by members of Aum Shinrikyo, a doomsday cult.

Ishida’s work has been described as surreal and as the visual musings of a fantasist. In fact, it can be appreciated as a deeply personal, contemporary form of history painting.

It was against this dispiriting backdrop that Ishida quickly matured as an artist, masterfully conveying through bizarre imagery rendered in a precise, realistic manner his understanding of the values, assumptions, and dynamics of Japanese society and especially of the regimented, individuality-suppressing culture of its corporate-industrial sector. He was interested in the work of such artists as the American social-realist painter Ben Shahn, the Austrian artist/architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and the contemporary German artist Anselm Kiefer. Curiously, he also admired the work of Rokuro Taniuchi, a painter and illustrator who was known for his charming covers for Japanese culture magazines.

Hirabayashi contributed recollections of his friend to the catalogue for Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other, an exhibition shown in 2019 at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid and at Wrightwood 659 in Chicago. “Ishida,” he wrote, “was preoccupied with originality, and for him, outsider art was truly original. Discovering outsider art, however, seemed to make him self-conscious of not being an outsider. From that day forward, he started to say things like, ‘There’s no creating anything original anymore,’ or ‘Ultimately, the only sense of originality [nowadays] is in mixing this and that together in a quirky mélange.’ A somewhat resigned view, yet he also seemed to idolize the aura of genius.”3 Hiyabashi also recalled that Ishida’s apartment “was a mess, so littered with paint tubes and paint-daubed palette papers that there was hardly room to walk.” Among the artist’s books, he noticed novels by such authors as Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ryunosuke Akutagawa (an early-twentieth-century Japanese writer, known for his short stories, who committed suicide at the age of thirty-five), and Osamu Dazai, whose angst-filled, semiautobiographical novels, such as No Longer Human (1948), were influenced by the former two authors. Dazai and his female lover killed themselves by drowning in 1948, just before what would have been the writer’s forty-eighth birthday. In the same remarks, Hirabayashi also notes, revealingly, that Ishida had “a keen fascination” with the “art scene in the West” and wanted to travel to Europe and the United States, where, he believed, “his talent would [have been] appreciated.”

Tetsuya Ishida’s Testimony

Tetsuya Ishida, Kinōsei (Functionality), 1999, acrylic on canvas, 17 ⅞ × 20 ⅞ inches (45.5 × 53 cm)

Working part-time jobs to support his hardscrabble existence and living only to paint, Ishida sought something echt—and found and delivered it in his art. His creative spirit and vision share affinities with those of such postwar Japanese artists as Tetsumi Kudo, the early-career On Kawara and Shusaku Arakawa, and others who, scraping together a sense of the modern human condition or of a fractured national identity from the ashes of wartime destruction, created works that were beautifully grotesque or shot through with a suffocating air of death and alienation. Kudo was known for mixed-media creations evoking the devastation Japan faced in the nuclear age following World War II, while Kawara’s Bathroom drawings of 1953–54 feature peglike, naked humans in disorienting, cell-like, tiled rooms. Before becoming known primarily as a conceptualist painter, in the late 1950s, Arakawa made sculptures featuring corpselike cement blobs placed in elegant, fabric-lined boxes resembling coffins.

If alienation was Ishida’s currency, it flowed easily from his life experience into his art. Echoing the sense of confinement in Kawara’s Bathroom images, Kinōsei (Functionality, 1999) depicts a young man sitting on a toilet in what the Japanese call a “unit bathroom”—a prefabricated fiberglass pod that can be placed like a child’s building block right into a house, apartment, or hotel room while it is being constructed. Here, though, the small chamber’s tub and floor area are littered with the giant-size remnants of a just-eaten meal, for the lower part of this space is, in fact, a room-size plastic bento box—a Japanese take-out meal’s compartment-divided plastic container. In Nenryō hokyū no yōna shokuji (Refuel Meal, 1996) Ishida captured the anomie of the lives of the sarariman, who have been known to labor faithfully (or robotically, under duress) to the point of karoshi, or death from overwork. This painting shows a row of men in suits seated at a lunch counter, where servers use gasoline-pump nozzles to inject food/fuel directly into their mouths.

During his short career, Ishida kept up with developments in technology and their effects on everyday life. In Konbiniensu sutoa no boshi-zō (Convenience Store Mother and Child, 1996), for example, he portrays a young woman using a price-scanner on the contents of a shopping basket that doubles as a cradle, holding not only packets of junk food but also a curled-up sarariman man-child. She holds the head of her tired-looking charge with all the compassion and grace of a mourning Madonna in a Renaissance pietà. One can only imagine how Ishida might have critiqued the excesses of the Internet age, from cyber-bullying to social-media users’ shameless self-promotion. A hint may be found in Seiatsu (Conquered, 2004), a small canvas showing a close-up of a young boy’s head on a pillow with a flip-phone smashed against his bloodied face, its recharging cable still plugged in and passing through the child’s clasped, blood-stained hand.

Tetsuya Ishida’s Testimony

Tetsuya Ishida, Konbiniensu Sutoa no Boshi-zō (Convenience Store Mother and Child), 1996, acrylic on board, 57 ⅜ × 40 ½ inches (145.6 × 103 cm), Hiratsuka Museum of Art, Japan

In his mature art, Ishida went on to roast the sheer mundanity of the classroom and the schoolyard, those breeding grounds of the sarariman’s mindless conformity, where “The nail that sticks out must be hammered down” is not just a familiar adage but also a common assumption of Japanese educators. In Mebae (Awakening, 1998), boys with identical faces sit in neat rows as a teacher reads aloud from a science book; some of their bodies have transformed into the metal frames of big microscopes, leaving only their faces peering out over their desks. With Shūjin (Prisoner, 1999), whose title removes any doubt about Ishida’s view of Japan’s educational system, a youth’s Brobdingnagian body lies helplessly at rest, trapped like a squashed bug and fused into the thick concrete walls of a boxy public school building. His big head juts out of one wall of the structure as though a corpse had busted through the end panel of a coffin; nearby, little children perform calisthenics in a playground. Ishida understood how and where the soul-crushing began in the society that had shaped him.

Many of Ishida’s pictures show repeating male figures with identical, expressionless faces and matching suit-and-tie uniforms, their anonymity and zombielike aura as much the focus of such works as the peculiar actions in which their subjects are passively engaged: lying fallen on a moving escalator as other workers pick at them with hand tools; appearing as rectangular, twine-wrapped bundles to be transported on a train; or sitting with their trousers rolled down on ATM cash machines that they are using, without shame, as public toilets. The appearance of such figures in groups is a key element of the compositions in which they appear. The whiff of obsession in the precision of their repeated forms, their multilayered symbolism, and Ishida’s transgressive humor bring to mind such classic Japanese images as Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s Kiki myomyo (Strange and Marvelous Turtles of Happiness, 1847–52), a three-panel, color woodblock print, in which almost two dozen tortoises with human heads scramble toward a large sake cup. Prevented by nineteenth-century censorship laws from portraying actors or prostitutes, the great ukiyo-e master anthropomorphized his reptilian subjects; sharp-eyed theater fans of his time, looking closely, would have recognized some of the performers he slyly depicted. Similarly, in their eeriness, their appearance in groups, and their sleepwalking air, Ishida’s anonymous man-machines resemble packs of numbed animals or swarms of big, useless, aimlessly shuffling bugs.4

Tetsuya Ishida’s Testimony

Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2004, acrylic and oil on canvas, 35 ⅞ × 45 ⅞ inches (91 × 116.7 cm)

In Shingata korona wa āto o dō kaeru ka (How will the novel coronavirus change art?), a book published in Japan late in 2020, Daisuke Miyatsu, the president of the Yokohama University of Art and Design and a member of the board of directors of the Mori Museum, Tokyo, considers the kinds of themes and modes of expression that might—or should—characterize contemporary art once the pandemic period ends.5 As an art educator he is aware that many artists in today’s Japan do not understand exactly how or where they fit into society. Miyatsu notes that in a relatively stable country like Japan, a lot of contemporary art is not politically motivated or charged with a sense of social urgency. Still, he predicts that, with growing recognition of the force of global climate change and in the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear-power-plant tragedy of 2011 in north-central Japan, contemporary Japanese artists may find themselves moving away from easy send-ups of the kawaiimono (cute things) seen everywhere in their media and popular culture and becoming more engaged with timely social issues.

In his recent interview with me, Hirabayashi noted that to the extent that Ishida’s work has become known among artists of his generation and also by younger generations of Japanese artists, it is probably those younger art-makers who have been more influenced by his vision. He also pointed out that Ishida’s mostly solitary way of life, in which he was completely dedicated to his art, offers a model that most wannabe contemporary artists in Japan are unlikely to aspire to emulate. Hirabayashi feels that Ishida’s “genius” was something of a “mutation,” and that as a result, Japanese art historians “still have not established a position” in their narratives for his unique talent.6

For his part, it seems that Ishida knew exactly where he stood as both a product of the culture and society that had shaped him and as one of its most sensitive observers. In a 1996 personal-notebook entry, the twenty-three-year-old artist wrote, “When I think about what to paint, I close my eyes and imagine myself from birth to death. But what then appears is human beings, the pain and anguish of society, its anxiety and loneliness, things that go far beyond me. That is what I draw in my self-portraits.”7

Ishida’s work has been described as surreal and as the visual musings of a fantasist. In fact, it can be appreciated as a deeply personal, contemporary form of history painting. Ishida seems to have instinctively understood that art, however fanciful or strange it may appear, can capture the ineffable in the human spirit’s encounter with a world that is already more peculiar, intriguing, and confounding than anything any artist might conjure up. For Ishida, making art was apparently a way of bearing witness—and his pictures never lie.

1Michiaki Ishida, Zoom interview with the author, June 8, 2021.

2Isamu Hirabayashi, in an email interview with the author, July 2021. In Japanese; translated into English by the author.

3Hirabayashi, “Notes by Isamu,” in Teresa Velázquez, Noi Sawaragi, Tamaki Saito, et al., Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other, exh cat. (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2019), pp. 118–19.

4Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s triptych woodblock print Kiki myomyo (Strange and Marvelous Turtles of Happiness, 1847–52) can be found in the collections of the British Museum, London, and of other museums around the world. It appears in many books about Japanese art history, including, for example, Genshoku ukiyoe dai hyakka jiten, vol. 3 (Tokyo: Taishukan Shoten, 1982), p. 41.

5Daisuke Miyatsu, Shingata korona wa āto o dō kaeru ka (Tokyo: Kobunsha, 2020).

6Cited in Kuniichi Uno, “Self-Portrait of Another,” in Velázquez, Sawaragi, Saito, et al., Tetsuya Ishida: Self-Portrait of Other, p. 97. This passage originally appeared in Tetsuya Ishida Notebook (Tokyo: Kyuryudo, 2013), p. 6.

7Hirabayashi, interview with the author.

Artwork © Estate of Tetsuya Ishida

Tetsuya Ishida, Untitled, 2001, acrylic on canvas, 51 ¼ × 76 ⅜ inches (130.3 × 194 cm)

Tetsuya Ishida’s Nihilist Realism

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Tetsuya Ishida, Waiting for a Chance, 1999, acrylic on board, in 2 parts, overall: 57 ¼ × 81 ⅛ inches (145.6 × 206.1 cm)

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Jim Shaw, The Master Mason (2020) is a large acrylic work painted on a section of found muslin backdrop. Donald Trump is dressed as a founding father—namely George Washington—complete with tricorne hat and Masonic ritual apron, an emblem of innocence, righteousness, and proper conduct.

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The Bigger Picture
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