Nanzuka Gallery is located in the basement floor of an office building in the buzzing area of Shibuya, Tokyo. It is accessible via a thick black door, a kind of shell-proof armoured door often associated with nightclubs entrances.
Quick glance, no security guard in the periphary. No one, except me in front of this big black door with a small Nanzuka Gallery square logo printed on it. I open the door, which leads me to a pitch-black staircase. Think upscale club entrance, in an underground part of Berlin. It didn't help that the staircase was completely empty. A light of hope emerged I saw the brightly lit exhibition title and dates vinyled on the wall. 'I must be in the right place', I kept thinking as I slowly made my way downstairs. The distant sound of 808s was missing. Am I in a club? Why is it so silent? As I made my way downstairs, exhibition flyers and the usual stacks of press releases were laid out on a black counter-top. 'I must be in the right place', I thought again. Turning around, I saw another shell-proof door. I opened it and:
Here it is.
A beautiful white cube. Brightly lit by a wonderfully abstract neons, suspended in right angles on the ceiling. A gallerista, who sat in front of her iMac screen, welcomed me with a greeting. Another visitor was browsing the catalogues at the entrance lobby. 'This already gets 5 stars in my book' I thought to myself in silence. As I walked in the space, a striking ecarlate mural caught my eye. On view is a solo exhibition of renowned illustrator and artist Toshio Saeki, a power figure in the Japanese contemporary art scene since the 70s. He famously did the cover of John Lenon and Yoko Ono's album Sometime in New York City in 1972.
This exhibition marks Saeki's largest solo exhibition to date. It features primarily his illustration prints, which do not exceed A4 size following usual ukiyo-e custom. Also shown are Saeki's drawing sketches for these prints, which reveals his intricate process behind every color and composition choice. Finally, some giants prints are vinyled on the white walls of the gallery, providing a highly saturated (and highly Instagrammable) backdrop to his smaller prints.
Saeki was born in Miyazaki prefecture and raised in Osaka. He moved to Tokyo in his twenties, abandoning his advertising career to work his creative vision for popular erotica magazines. His training was in traditional ukiyo-e prints, a lot of which showed erotic content in 18th century Edo Tokyo. Tokyo indeed became the capital of Japan during the Edo era. With the influx of young samurai and soldiers coming to populate the city, entertainment district and suggestive printed content flourished.
Saeki has invented a new kind of erotic ukiyo-e (also known as Shunga) for the modern Japanese era. In 21st century Tokyo, he touches on the subconscious desires of Japanese overworked society. Erotic magazines is still a big business in the city. Many factors are at play: the disparity of gender equality in the workplace, the fetichization of Japanese school girls (both outside and inside Japan), and the overall conservative shyness that Japanese society holds against taboo topics - which brings some quite extreme opposites to the limelight.
Japan has difficulty embracing crticial and radical thought, as it's primarily a collective society where the good of the community prevails over individuality.
Through showing the most personal subject matter there is - sexuality - he dialogues directly with each viewer's subconscious. He deals with the topic of fetichization for example, with a powerful drawing of a schoolgirl riding a salary-man's back, controlling his eyes with a black and powerful whip. The condescending gaze has returned on itself.
He makes visible the silent violence projected unto women in a poignant physical form. The girl regains control of the gaze, reclaiming it with her own hands. Describing this print, provocative might be the word that comes to mind; but Saeki's composition is filled with suggestions instead of dogmas.
It is up to the viewer to decipher his intended messages. With the right mix of sensationalism, raw provocation, relevance and black humor, Saeki's prints play on both superficial and intellectual fields. His prints (especially the giant-sized murals) demand to be looked at; yet they also welcome critical thinking. Do his prints celebrate women or submit them to twisted desires? These ukiyo-e prints (which translates as 'floating world' in English) are taken from the artist's imagination or are they reflective of a bigger problem, a larger issue?
Sophie Mayuko Arni, 14 February 2018, Tokyo. Unless specified otherwise, all images are taken by Sophie Arni at the exhibition venue. Copyright Global Art Daily, 2018.