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Bye Bye Kitty:

by Charlie Finch
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Sometimes the space between art and life is no space at all. Such was the case at the Japan Society Wednesday night with the opening of "Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Japanese Contemporary Art." Society director Joe Earle announced that $740,000 had already been raised by the Japan Society for Japanese disaster relief, with half of all proceeds from all of the society's events ’til  June 12 earmarked for the same purpose, and all revenues from a daylong concert at the society on Apr. 9, 2011, featuring Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and many others, also going to help recover from the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent events.

Conceived awhile back, of course, "Bye Bye Kitty" promised, in the words of its press release, "to demolish our conceptions about Japanese contemporary art" with "visions of Japan's troubled present and uncertain future." In his remarks at the opening, show organizer David Elliott, founding curator of the Mori Museum in Tokyo, tried to continue the theme of generational and gender divide within Japanese society which he believed that the exhibition's young artists were striving for, but the semiotic ground was shifting under him as he spoke.

For what "Bye Bye Kitty" now means, after the tsunami and anticipating continuing disaster, is not, in Elliott's words, "to kill off the detested Hello Kitty," but a splendid, humbling affirmation of nature as beautiful precipice from which these artists jump into realms of wonder. "Bye Bye Kitty" begins with a chilling painting of mountains of fallen, gray flannel-suited Japanese businessman by Makoto Aida, all too related to the detritus of the tsunami (before the fact, of course).

It continues with three large, deeply intricate drawings by Manabu Ikeda, including Existence, in which every kind of object and social sign rises up in a gnarled and undeniably wave like tree. Ikeda's Arc, similarly, wrestles and rolls an entire city, overgrown with rot, plants and pollution. Clearly, these artists knew something, and what they knew was a traditional precariousness between the islands, its people and natural destruction.

Tomoko Shioyasu (barely 30 years old, like most of the artists here) provides a stunning white whirlpool of paper, Vortex, which reflects through glass and off the wall, reminding one of the tsunami whirlpool that trapped a fishing vessel off Sendai, an image played over and over again around the world. Reflectwo, by Haruka Kojin, a suspended frieze of breathtakingly colorful paper flowers, seems to restore order, in its unsurpassable craft and transparency of light. Here is the hope and healing nature might eventually provide Japan.

Many other pieces also provide an uncanny echo to the roar of disaster, but the most astoundingly complete is the final piece in "Bye Bye Kitty," Within, a heartbreaking video by Hiraki Sawa. We are within a family's house and a child's bedroom, led by a pair of rocking horses. As our eyes wander lovingly over books and clothes and furniture, nature benignly intrudes with the gentleness of the children's classic Goodnight Moon. Small trees sprout up, the moon itself glides through the window and then, shockingly, an ocean wave slowly rolls in from over the fireplace. The last frame is simply a bonsai tree on a rope attached to a light bulb, an ominous sign in its contrasting emptiness.

Within will conjure in your head every image from Japan that you have been watching recently. It is a magic lantern shining on doom, hoping for salvation. 

"Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art," Mar. 18-June 12, 2011, at Japan Society Gallery, 333 East 47th Street, New York, N.Y. 10017.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).