LGBT+: Diversity in Manga @ Japan House

Downstairs at the Japan House in High Street Kensington are the exhibition spaces. The staircase takes you down into a central atrium. On one side is the entrance to the medium-sized lecture theatre-cum cinema, where they hold events, talks and screen movies. Opposite this is the entrance to the fairly large exhibition room, currently devoted to a show about manga artist Urasawi Naoki.

And between them is a glass-fronted room which is the ‘library’. The word library evokes images of size, of big, wood-lined rooms filled from floor to ceiling with ancient tomes, and the idea of encyclopedic knowledge, of lots of books and information.

However, the library at Japan House is the extreme opposite. It amounts to just one wall of exquisitely selected books chosen to highlight the best of Japanese culture, selected by noted book curator Haba Yoshitaka.

Haba Yoshitaka

The curator of the Library at Japan House, Haba Yoshitaka, is a leading expert in the emerging field of ‘book direction’. The aim is to create innovative ways in which we interact with books. He recently gave a talk on his philosophy of book direction:

As conventional bookstores and libraries experience declining numbers, Haba aims instead to bring books to people and make them relevant and accessible to their daily lives. From the Japan House Library to specialized book areas in hospitals, nurseries and even Kyoto City Zoo, Haba has curated a wide range of book direction services for libraries at locations inside and outside Japan.

The Japan House ‘library’ is not, then, your average ‘library’.

Haba’s selection fills just one wall. Opposite it is a wall which plays host to changing exhibitions of books. It is currently showing a display of manga books addressing issues of gender and diversity.

LGBT+: Diversity in Manga

The display was organised to coincide with ‘Pride In London’ last month (June). It brings together about 50 manga from different eras, and from different genres, each of them depicting diverse representations of gender and sexuality expression. It’s designed to explore ‘the impact of Japanese manga culture on the understanding and perceptions of gender and sexual diversity in Japan’.

The LGBT+: Diversity in Manga display at Japan House

Japan is still a very conservative society. Manga, with its enormous appeal and huge range of audiences, has been a potent force in spreading awareness of modern ideas of gender diversity and alternative sexualities, especially among younger people.

The display picks out half a dozen key works and themes.

Women as men; men as women

Cross-dressing has been around as long as manga, with the great pioneer of the form, Tezuku Osamu, writing a story titled Princess Knight about a cross-dressing female knight, said to have been inspired by the theatrical troupe made up entirely of women among whom he spent his boyhood.

Many other cross-dressing characters have appeared in manga, including Oscar, a beautiful lady who dresses as a man to lead the Royal Guard in The Rose of Versailles, a strip set during the French Revolution; and the cross-dressing male university student Koibuchi Kuranosuke who appears in Higashimura Akiko’s Princess Jellyfish, a romantic comedy about a group of women who live in an apartment block.

The Year 24 Flower Group

The name refers to a group of female manga artists who were born around 1949 (Shōwa Year 24 in the Japanese calendar) and are said to have laid the foundations for contemporary shōjo manga (comics for girls). The movement included Moto Hagio, Yumiko Ōshima, and Keiko Takemiya.

Their works used complicated layouts and styles of expression which hadn’t been seen in girls’ comics before, and they also tackled subject matter previously not covered in girls’ comics such as science fiction and fantasy.

They emphasised characterisation and depicted romantic attachments between young men which eventually developed into the specialised manga genre known today as BL or Boys Love (shōnen-ai). (Hagio Moto herself, one of the ‘founding mothers’ of shojo manga (manga aimed at girls) was at Japan House a few months ago, discussing her role in these innovations. Irritating to have missed it.)

Boys Love

BL is a genre which depicts romantic and sexual relationships between men. The wall label discusses the various Japanese terms which have applied to these kinds of stories, implying subtle gradations in and distinctions, both within and beyond the genre.

Crossing boundaries

Many manga artists started out creating self-published dōjinshi works. One such is Yoshinaga Fumi whose manga Ōoku which applies gender-bending to early modern Edo-period Japan, creating a female shogun who is served by a harem of men known as the Ōoku. 

Gay art legend Tagame Gengoroh wrote the runaway best-seller My Brother’s Husband, on display here and at the British Museum’s manga exhibition. He also was in London earlier in the year to discuss his work. The blurring of sexual identities helps to blur boundaries between genres, as well, with plotlines becoming capable of greater latitude and variety.

A more recent addition is the strip What Did You Eat Yesterday? which chronicles a gay couple’s day-to-day life through the meals they share together. Sometimes it reads like a recipe book. Its quiet domesticity is another way of raising awareness and opening doors about same-sex couples.

Kumota Haruko

Another example of an artist who started out creating self-publishing dōjinshi is Kumota Haruko. She has published an award-winning series titled Descending Stories: Showa Genroku Rakugo ShinkuRagoku is a form of storytelling theatre.

The series features two ragoku performers, the attractively mature Yakumo, and the cheerful and talented Sukeroku. Their same-sex relationship is never overtly stated. Instead the reader is left to infer it both from their day to day interactions, and from the subtle hints included in the traditional stories they tell. The display includes original artwork from the series.

Takemiya Keiko

Takemiya Keiko’s ground-breaking manga Kaze to Ki no Uta (The Poem of Wind and Trees) was first published in 1976 and explores relationships between young men at a boarding school in France. It caused a scandal at the time due to its depiction of sex between men, but was quickly championed by enlightened critics. Nowadays it is seen as the seminal work of Boys Love manga.

Why France? I wondered. Was it more associated, in the 1970s, with decadence and sensuality? In this country, Britain, probably, yes, it always has been seen as more licentious and ‘immoral’. Seems a distant and remote location for a manga artist to choose, though.

Summary

Not quite worth making a pilgrimage for on its own account, unless you are particularly interested in LGBT+ manga, this is nonetheless a small, but perfectly formed and exquisite display, and the Japan House is well worth a visit if you’ve never been before.


Related links

Upcoming events at Japan House

Other reviews about Japanese history or art

This is Manga – The Art of Urasawi Naoki @ Japan House

This weekend is your last chance to see a comprehensive and FREE exhibition of work by the leading contemporary Japanese manga artist, Urasawa Naoki.

A montage of Urasawa Naoki’s manga characters which he created specially for this exhibition © URASAWA Naoki / Studio Nuts. Featuring: ‘Pineapple ARMY’ KUDO Kazuya ‘PLUTO’ NAGASAKI Takashi, Tezuka Productions, ‘MASTER KEATON’ KATSUSHIKA Hokusei, NAGASAKI Takashi, ‘MASTER KEATON ReMASTER’ NAGASAKI Takashi, ‘BILLY BAT’ NAGASAKI Takashi

The Japan House

Come out of High Street Kensington tube station, turn right, walk a hundred yards and you are at the entrance to the Japan House. Opened just last year, it is funded by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Inside it feels like a very classy boutique and most of the ground floor is, in fact, a shop, selling exquisite and carefully chosen specimens of Japanese fabrics, jewellery, books and so on, each one an example of the Japanese passion for monozukuri, meaning craftsmanship. Kitchenware, art accessories – brushes and paper and lots more, all chosen with exquisite taste and ranged in clean, precise displays.

Interior of the Japan House. Photo by the author

There is a stand-up coffee and tea bar. At the back of the shop (at the top left of this photo) is an area devoted to tourism, which features all kinds of maps of Japan, its cities and regions. As well as the ground floor boutique, there’s a stylish Japanese restaurant – AKIRA – on the first floor.

Taking the lift down to the basement, the visitor discovers there are three spaces here:

  • a lecture theatre which also doubles as a movie house and can host a range of events
  • a library display (basically a smallish room with carefully chosen books about all aspects of Japanese culture)
  • and the main exhibition space

The Art of Urasawi Naoki

It’s a surprisingly big room and contains a surprisingly large amount of material.

What comes over immediately is that URASAWA Naoki is a kind of rock start among mangaka. Born in 1960, he is considered a direct heir of Tezuka Osamu, the founder of modern manga. He has been hugely successful with over 100 million books sold in more than 20 countries. He made his debut in 1983 with BETA! and has gone on to create and/or draw a host of hugely successful manga characters.

There are about ten big stands in the exhibition, each of which introduces one of the lead characters which has made Urasawa’s name. Each one gives a longish explanation of the lead character and their main storylines and then display 20 or so pages taken from one of the episodes which shows the character in action.

This is Manga – The Art of Urasawa Naoki @ Japan House. Photo by the author

This display gives you a complete biography of Master Keaton, full name Taichi Hiraga-Keaton, son of a Japanese father and a British mother, an Oxford graduate and former Special Air Services officer. The various plotlines have followed Keaton across Europe as he ‘solves difficult cases, fighting criminal organisations and touching people’s lives’.

The same detailed treatment, with a full biography of the character, and then a sequence of characteristic strips, is given to all his other creations:

  • YAWARA!
  • MONSTER
  • 20th Century Boys
  • MASTER KEATON ReMASTER (Story by Takashi Nagasaki)
  • PLUTO (Story by Osamu Tezuka, co-authored by Takashi Nagasaki, Supervised by Macoto Tezka, with the cooperation of Tezuka Productions)
  • BILLY BAT (Story Co-creator : Takashi Nagasaki)
  • MUJIRUSHI (‘The Sign of Dreams’, with the cooperation of Fujio Productions)

In addition there are some massive full-colour blow-ups of various characters and scenes, dominating the walls. Some of these are deliberately designed for visitors to pose in front of and take selfies against.

Installation view of This is Manga – The Art of Urasawa Naoki @ Japan House. Photo by the author

Behind the art of Urasawi Naoki

In the photo above you can see, over on the right, that there are flat display cases in front of some of the colour blow-ups. These display Urasawa’s early sketches and ideas for characters and scenes, and offer a real insight into the creative process. You can see sketches evolving into almost complete pages, then with words and dialogue bubbles positioned over the drawings – and then the final, finished pages as printed. One of the display cases shows the very earliest sketches and cartoons Urasawa made at school. In fact there are over 400 original drawings and storyboards on display! If you’ve heard of him, and like his style, this really is a fabulous opportunity to immerse yourself in the great man’s work.

Why is Urasawa so famous, why is his manga so distinctive? I must confess, I couldn’t really see why. Having recently visited the big, noisy manga exhibition at the British Museum, I feel overwhelmed with the sheer amount of manga there is in the world. I have no idea where to start, and no idea how to make sense of the tens of thousands of stories produced by the thousands of artists for the scores of publishers, which keep on expanding in number every week.

Rather than make any attempt to explain Urasawa’s appeal I’ll copy out how the curators describe it.

Urasawa Naoki is considered a modern master in dynamic storytelling, with a unique approach to panel layout and cinematic sense of framing and rhythm. But even more so, he is considered a true master of character design. Each of his worlds hosts a wide variety of distinct, fully-rendered personas. His instantly recognisable faces come to life on the page with a wide range of expression. This talent can be witnessed on his storyboards, referred to as nēmu (‘name’) in Japanese, which reveal characters with expressions more precise and detailed than most manga artists. In this way, Urasawa defies convention to depict the diversity and sensitivity of the human race through his two-dimensional drawings.

Maybe I’m stupid, maybe I’m obtuse and imperceptive, maybe I just haven’t properly entered into the world of manga and its conventions, but I just couldn’t see this. Most of the faces, figures and characters I saw, particularly in the large blown-up images, looked very very similar to all the other manga characters I saw at the British Museum.

Here’s a typical display case of sketches with a blown-up figure behind it. I just couldn’t see that this image had a ‘cinematic’ sense of framing or a ‘distinct, fully-rendered persona’. I liked the detail of her hat and jacket and t-shirt, but I had the overwhelming sense that I’ve seen thousands of other images like this one, big-eyed, small-nosed, fresh-faced teens.

Installation view of This is Manga – The Art of Urasawa Naoki @ Japan House. Photo by the author

The most novel feature of the exhibition was a kind of tent Urasawa has made from fabric strips running from the floor up to a central spine to create a ‘tent’ which visitors can walk through, getting very up close to a range of his characters.

Installation view of This is Manga – The Art of Urasawa Naoki @ Japan House. Photo by the author

There was some variety of characterisation. In fact, the variety of faces reminded me of the panels you get inside the hardback editions of Tintin books, where you’re presented with a gallery of all the characters from all the Tintin stories. When I was a boy I used to love trying to identify them all.

But still. There were a lot of faces on the tent which seemed, to me, to be elementary, basic, entry level, manga faces. Wide-eyed children with tiny noses, mouths agape at some wonder.

Installation view of This is Manga – The Art of Urasawa Naoki @ Japan House. Photo by the author

Probably I’m missing the point. Looking at some of the specific storylines, you could see how Urasawi had in fact created distinctive-looking individuals to be Master Keaton or the 20th Century Boys or the hero of PLUTO, and that there is a range of, especially older characters who are drawn with the individuality I associate with Tintin or Lucky Luke.

And when I looked at the display frames explaining the strip MONSTER these brought out the importance of Urasawi’s clever / innovative / imaginative use of screentones, the layering of shades or stippling or dots to create depth and atmosphere in the backgrounds.

Unfortunately, MONSTER – despite its enormous success (the first fully-fledged mystery story in manga, it sold over 21 million copies and became an anime TV series) – is about a serial killer and the pages the curators had chosen to display showed a series of people just shooting each other in the head, and I was so repelled that I turned away, without paying much attention to the backgrounds.

Installation view of This is Manga – The Art of Urasawa Naoki @ Japan House, showing the protagonist of MONSTER, highlighting his modern ‘street’ styling (a bit Keanu Reeves), and the use of screentones to give cinematic depth to the image

As I strolled between recognisable, almost clichéd images of fresh-faced kids, and the altogether grittier style of something like MONSTER, I admit I was confused. Maybe I’m just putting into the words the difficulty I, a non-Japanese, who didn’t grow up on manga, have in really understanding the finer points and distinctions which seem to be extremely obvious to aficionados and fans.

More study required!!

A broader history of manga

Talking of study, alongside all the panels and display cases devoted to Urasawi Naoki, his biography, achievements, style and characters, and the detailed looks at the visual worlds he has created for individual strips – was another series of information panels about the broader history of manga, which I found in many ways easier to process, because they were dealing with straightforward facts, figures, dates and names.

Thus, in addition to what I had already picked up at the British Museum, I learned that:

  • Manga evolved from picture book styles developed in the post Edo period of the late 19th century
  • the modern form of manga was pioneered after World War Two by Tezuka Osamu, who is sometimes referred to as the god of manga
  • Tezuka introduced modern narrative techniques, complex characters and themes, and a visual language derived from cinema
  • His 1947 manga The New Treasure Island sold a huge number of copies and helped to crystallise the style and content of the new genre

But probably the biggest impression these information panels made on me was in conveying the scale and the speed of manga production, and the combination of extreme skill, with inventiveness, and prolific production rates, accompanied by a consistent style and level of quality, which is required for this high-pressure, high-profile and very demanding profession.

  • manga artists (mangaka) need to produce approximately twenty pages of strips every few days for magazines published on a monthly or weekly basis
  • typical mangaka work in a small studio with a few assistants under the supervision of a creative editor
  • if the series is successful it may be republished in a trade paperback named a tankōbon
  • it might also be turned into a TV series, a live action or animated movie

Further information panels gave good explanations of the visual codes which have evolved to convey emotion and meaning, the role of framing and the way the selection and framing of images creates a rhythm, the social context of manga immediately after the war and how successive generations of artists have added layers of sophistication, characterisation and, above all, an ever-expanding range of subjects to the empire of manga.

Summary

It’s FREE. It offers an in-depth understanding of the work and practice of one of the leading contemporary manga artists at work today. And the Japan House itself is a place of beauty to admire and wander round. And it closes at the end of tomorrow.

Get your skates on!


Related links

Upcoming events at Japan House

Other reviews about Japanese history or art

Manga @ the British Museum

Wow! The British Museum sure knows how to put on an exhibition! This comprehensive overview of the history and variety of Japanese manga comics, characters and stories, is the largest show on manga ever staged outside of Japan, and an all-singing, all-dancing feast for the mind and imagination and the senses!

Higashikata Josuke, a hero from Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure (1987 to the present) by Araki Hirohiko. Photo by the author

The long Sainsbury Exhibition Galleries at the back of the Museum’s main courtyard have been turned into lowlit funfair and phantasmagoria of all things manga, absolutely packed with a riot of ways of displaying, showing, highlighting, explaining, animating and enjoying all things manga. There are:

  • bookshelves packed with manga books (tankôbon) to take down and read
  • blow-ups of favourite manga characters in striking poses stuck to the walls
  • frames from manga books blown-up onto big canvases hanging from the ceiling
  • animated manga adventures (anime) projected onto screens all over the place
  • display cases examining scores of aspects and elements of the manga style
  • wall labels explaining the history and origins of manga
  • an long, painted theatre curtain covered with traditional Japanese characters from the 1880s, showing manga’s roots in theatrical costume and caricature
  • a huge model of a human head flayed of its skin to become a looming, muscled menace (a manga character, not an anatomical model)
  • footage of the enormous Comiket convention which attracts tens of thousands of manga fans every year
  • footage of a typical ‘cosplay’ festival where thousands of Japanese and foreigners dress up as their favourite manga characters
  • clips from some of the classic animated films produced by the famous Studio Ghibli projected onto a couple of big screens hanging from the ceiling
  • TV monitors which show interviews with famous and venerable practitioners of manga art
  • and all the way through, countless wall labels giving an enjoyable overload of information – either long ones giving you the history and development of the form, or shorter ones giving brief explanations of the huge variety of genres and subject matters which manga has covered

The press release explained that the exhibition is actually structured into six sections but it didn’t feel like that at all, and this review reflects the random, scattergun and sometimes repetitive experience of wandering around the big exhibition hall attracted to this or that image or TV interview or display or information label, sometimes several times, as I tried to get the facts and history and varieties of manga clear in my head.

Information panel early on in the exhibition. Photo by the author

Manga – a quick overview

To quote Wikipedia:

Manga are comics or graphic novels created in Japan or by creators in the Japanese language, conforming to a style developed in Japan in the late 19th century.

The term manga in Japan is a word used to refer to both comics and cartooning. ‘Manga’ as a term used outside Japan refers to comics originally published in Japan.

In Japan, people of all ages read manga. The medium includes works in a broad range of genres: action, adventure, business and commerce, comedy, detective, drama, historical, horror, mystery, romance, science fiction and fantasy, erotica, sports and games, and suspense, among others.

Since the 1950s, manga has steadily become a major part of the Japanese publishing industry. By 1995, the manga market in Japan was valued at $7 billion, with annual sales of 1.9 billion manga books and manga magazines in Japan (equivalent to 15 issues per person per year [the population of Japan is 127 million]).

Manga stories are typically printed in black-and-white, although some full-color manga exist. In Japan, manga are usually serialized in large manga magazines, often containing many stories, each presented in a single episode to be continued in the next issue.

A manga artist (mangaka in Japanese) typically works with a few assistants in a small studio and is associated with a creative editor from a commercial publishing company. If a manga series is popular enough, it may be animated after or during its run.

Nowadays Manga has expanded way beyond printed magazines and books to include animated films (anime) and a huge gaming industry.

Icaro by Moebius and Jirō Taniguchi (1997) describes the mind-bending adventures of a young man, Icaro, with the ability to fly and a young woman, Yukiko, who risks her life – and more – to help Icaro achieve his dream. Photo by the author

Modern origins

Manga developed from serialised cartoon strips in newspapers in the late 1800s. Political and satirical artists Kitazawa Rakuten (1876-1955) and Okomoto Ippei (1886-1948) are considered the first manga artist. Their work inspired the next generation, including manga legend Tezuka Osamu, creator of Astro Boy.

Osamu’s first manga book was New Treasure Island published in 1947, which blended influences of earlier manga, Disney cartoons and movies. It sold a sensational 400,000 copies, not bad for an 18-year-old and just after the war when the country’s economy was in ruins. Osamu went on to pioneer various manga ‘looks’, not least in his use of cinematic page layouts, casts of recurring characters, and imaginative stories.

Osamu produced manga aimed at both male and female readers, The Mighty Atom (1952) for the former, Princess Knight (1953) for the latter.

Some young visitors enthusiastically copying details about one of the many manga characters blown up and painted on the wall. Photo by the author

Visual techniques of manga

Manga has evolved a set of signs and symbols (manpu) which manga artists use to suggest actions or emotions.

Reading direction Like Japanese writing manga is read from top to bottom and from right to left. The action is contained within frames called koma, which divide the page.

Fukidashi Speech bubbles. The shapes of speech and thought bubbles change to reflect mood and content.

Gitaigo / giseigo Sound effects are used to convey drama and to involve the reader in the action.

Screen tone (tōn) The colour and texture and ‘tone’ of the background, or of the entire image, can be varied to reflect the mood of a scene.

Two characters from the women-only Princess Jellyfish series (2008-17). Photo by the author

The profession of manga

There are about 5,000 professional manga artists in Japan and the number continues to grow. There are many routes into the industry: some up-and-coming artists submit manga ideas to publishing houses, some are spotted at fan conventions, some get work as editorial assistants and work their way up.

There’s a monitor showing footage of manga artists and scriptwriters working away in a modern studio, in almost factory, mass production, conditions. The books and magazines and stories are certainly churned out on an industrial scale.

Typical manga stories progress through fixed stages, from sketches and drafts, to a script and storyboard (neemu), to final pages approved by an editor for publication. Many artists write and illustrate their own manga, some use a scriptwriter. Others rely heavily on their editors for content and drawing.

Shelves packed with manga books and a bench to sit and read on. Note the nationality and age of the visitors. Photo by the author

The manga industry

Manga is big business. The total income of the Japanese manga industry in 2016 was about three billion dollars. Four of the top manga publishers – Hakusensha, Kodansha, Shogakukan and Shueisha – dominate the market. They are in constant competition, publishing new stories and characters, striving to keep popular manga artists on their books, and running regular competitions to discover new artists, while any new innovation is quickly copied.

Alongside many other audiovisual displays, the exhibition includes half a dozen TV monitors showing interviews with current leading practitioners of the art, including:

  • Nahuma Ichirō, born 1963 and now editor-in-chief of Big Comic
  • Suzuki Haruhiko (b.1955) co-creator of the popular series Captain Tsubasa (1981-8) and now Managing Director of Shueisha
  • Torishima Kazuhiko (b.1952) now chairman of Hakusensha, but who, as editor of the weekly Shōnen Magazine helped to create the popular Dragon Ball series (1984-95)

Visitor demographics

The exhibition was heaving, absolutely packed. There were a lot of Japanese here, and I heard French and Italian being spoken. But what really impressed me was the age of the visitors. At Tate Britain’s Frank Bowling exhibition, which I went to last week, most of the visitors were the traditional older, grey-haired types — and, after soaking myself in manga, I popped upstairs at the British Museum to see the Edvard Munch show which was rammed with really old people, including at least three old men who were using sticks and moving very slowly – the oldest of the old – barely mobile.

The contrast between those shows of ‘fine’ art, and the crowd in the Manga show couldn’t have been more dramatic. Manga was packed with kids and teenagers and – mirabile dictu – even non-white people!

At the end of the show there’s an interactive gimmick where you stand on a white circle that’s been painted on the floor and a camera up on the wall captures you and projects it onto a computer screen where you can select a variety of manga backgrounds and even, I think, change your own appearance to become a manga character.

The point is there was a whole cluster of black kids doing it, pushing and joking with each other and clustered round the screen giving each other ridiculous appearances. From visiting well over 150 art exhibitions I can tell you that you never get groups of black kids at art exhibitions. Isolated black individuals or couples, maybe.

I smiled as I watched them larking about, genuinely having fun, and it crossed my mind that, if art galleries and museums are sincere about ‘reaching out to all sectors of the community’ and ‘promoting diversity’, the obvious way to do it is to put on shows on popular subjects. Trying to attract the street people I see everyday in Streatham and Tooting to an emotionally and intellectually challenging exhibition of woodcuts by the late-Victorian and chronically depressed Norwegian artist Edvard Munch is always going to be an impossible challenge.

Putting on a fun, interactive show, with plenty of moving pictures, animations, cartoons, TV clips and things to do, on a subject which lots of kids and teenagers can immediately relate to – that’s the secret of attracting more diverse and varied (and younger) audiences.

Busy and immersive

This is a terrible photo but it shows you how busy and visually immersive the exhibition is. At bottom is a huge video photo of a typically packed manga bookshop (it is in fact Comic Takaoka, in Jinbôchô Tokyo, one of the oldest continually operating manga bookstores in Japan).

Above it is one of several screens hanging from the ceiling on which are projected an animated version of Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure which the British Museum commissioned from leading manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu and which has gone on to be animated.

You can see loads of other blown-up images hanging like a forest in the background.

And off to the left, there is the enormous plastic sculpture of a flayed head, the Colossal Titan, maybe ten feet tall, from a manga story called The Attack on Titan (2012-13). It’s like a fair.

Installation view of Manga at the British Museum. Photo by the author

Historical precursors

Manga as we know it emerged in the late 1800s, building on Japan’s long tradition of visual storytelling. Precursors of manga include narrative handscrolls and woodcut prints and cheap illustrated novels. The exhibition goes way back to display a picture handscroll dating to 1100, the so-called Handscroll of Frolicking Animals, which shows cartoon animals wrestling, playing and, well, generally frolicking.

Other examples of historical precursors are scattered through the exhibition but the most striking example of manga’s historical roots is the 17-metre-long Kabuki theatre curtain from the Shintomiza theatre in Tokyo which dates from the 1880s and depicts traditional Japanese folk characters and monsters. This repays some study and a slow stroll along it taking in the garish and grotesque characters and animals.

Shintomiza Kabuki Theatre Curtain (1880) by Kawanabe Kyōsai (1831-1889). Photo by the author

Style and gender

During the 1950s two styles of manga emerged:

  1. shōnen and seinen aimed at boys and young men, respectively and focusing on action and adventure
  2. shōjo aimed at girls and women, focusing on romance and relationships

In fact these gendered genres were created by, and read by, either sex indistinguishably. Around 1970 a pioneering group of women, named the Year 24 Group, brought a new stylishness and sophistication to shōjo stories.

Genres

In the latter half of the exhibition are loads of displays, each one highlighting the wide range of subject matter manga stories can cover. Each of them was accompanied by a couple of examples of storylines around that particular subject.

  • Sport Packed with passion, competition, rivalry, and dramatic physical activities which forge lasting friendships, sport is a natural subject for manga and has even been credited with making certain sports like soccer more popular in Japan
  • Sci fi An obvious area is science fiction, not least because the cartoon style gives scope for drawing any number of futuristic spaceships, gadgets and gizmos. An example is Toward the Terra (1977-80) set in a future where computers controal all aspects of birth, life and death. Only the Mu, a mutant breed of humans with telepathic powers, question the oppressive status quo.
  • Horror Arising out of traditional Japanese horror stories, the clever use of frames means the horrifying thing can be ‘off screen’ or only hinted at, while the reader only sees the characters’ terrified reactions
  • Religion Japan has two belief systems, Buddhism and Shinto. the example given here was of a manga comic which imagines what would happen in Jesus and the Buddha were modern flatmates, an idea which made me burst out laughing
  • Love and sex This is a huge area. Some titles are sexually explicit and so veer into pornography. Others are squeaky clean romances for younger schoolgirls. And everything in between, including high school romance, maternal love, and Boys Love, an odd term which apparently refers to gay love affairs. As with everything to do with sex – a basic element of human behaviour which no society has ever been able to understand or police – there are, apparently, ‘concerns’ about some of the depictions of sex, and the United Nations, no less, has apparently listed some manga stories and threads as violent pornography. Should it be banned in order ‘to protect women and children’? Discuss.
  • Transformation Adventure stories are full of people or things which can transform shift shapes – think of all the superheroes who pop into a phone box to change from boring salarymen into saviours of the world. Then multiply that idea by a thousand themes and variations. They give the example of Cyborg 009 which ran from 1964 to 1992 and concerned nine cyborgs, forced to transform into weapons by the evil Black Ghost Corporation, but who gained superhuman powers and escaped to run off and have thirty years’ worth of colourful adventures. Cyborgs creator – Ishinomori Shōtarō (1938-98) currently holds the world record for manga output, having created 770 titles and 550 volumes.
  • Education Manga is incorporated into educational texts, to produce simplified introductions to all manner of subjects from Marxism to sex education.
  • Current affairs Manga can be produced on current political affairs or traumatic national history. The curators give the example of Kōno Fumiyo’s moving story about a family living with the after effects of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which won international praise.

Among the scores of snippets from various manga plotlines and heroes which I read, the most memorable was The Willow Tree, created by Hagio Moto in 2007. The entire story was displayed in its entirety in a long glass case. A woman stands by a tree and a boy passes by, growing older in each passing scene. As the seasons pass the willow tree grows and the boy becomes a man. On the final page the man approaches the woman under the tree, and we learn that she is his dead mother who has been watching over him all this time. When he tells her that he knows she is there and that he is fine, she disappears. The changing appearance of the tree, and its falling and regrowing leaves, symbolise not only the passage of time, but the evolving nature of maternal love.

Willow Tree by Hagio Moto (2007)

Comiket

Twice a year there’s a Comiket convention-event which lasts three days and attracts hundreds of thousands of participants and visitors. A big screen shows a speeded-up video of the hordes of visitors arriving outside the convention hall and then circulating round the vast arena of displays and stands, intercut with interviews with fans explaining why they attend.

Lots of fans bring along their own manga comics which they’ve created, known as dōjinshi, often using well-known characters, the manga equivalent of fan fiction. There are about 35,000 dōjinshi groups in Japan.

Cosplay

Short for ‘costume play’, this simply refers to dressing up as your favourite manga characters. Another massive video display shows a montage of mainly young people dressed up as all manner of manga characters and fooling around for the cameras, some acting out entire scenes, some going as far as staging entire storylines.

The annual World Cosplay Summit began in Nagoya in 2003. Cosplayers attend from round the world and the event includes a parade and a competition to be crowned world cosplay champion.

A still from the film about the World Cosplay Competition. Photo by the author

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli is a Japanese animation film studio based in Koganei, Tokyo. The studio is best known for its anime (or animated cartoon) feature films. It was founded in 1985, after the worldwide success of the anime, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984).

Six of Studio Ghibli’s films are among the 10 highest-grossing anime films ever made in Japan, with Spirited Away (2001) the second highest, grossing over $290 million worldwide, and winning that year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film.

Two big screens suspended from the ceiling play a montage of clips from the Studio’s greatest hits, and down at floor level there are monitors showing interviews with some of the studio’s leading animators, explaining their approach and how anime differs from manga.

Still from The Wind Rises (2013) directed by Hayao Miyazaki for Studio Ghibli. Photo by the author

The frame

In among this bombardment of information and entertainment, I came across one information panel which struck me as saying the most interesting thing about manga as a visual art form. Inoue Takehiko was commissioned by the Museum to create a manga triptych to conclude the exhibition, and has contributed large, blown-up portraits of three of the tough urban heroes from his series REAL. These are accompanied by clips from an interview with him in which he says:

For me it is all in the frame (koma). I think frames are set to take you beyond, and at the same time to confine, infinity within their confines…a good manga is composed of human figures drawn as if alive defined within an artificial environment defined by the frame.

The second part of this statement is not necessarily true. The human figures of manga are most notable for not looking remotely lifelike, but having highly simplified, open, innocent facial features (characterised by unnaturally large, doe eyes), and for being improbably athletic and dynamic.

But the first half touches on something really profound about all art, which is the power of the frame in limiting and defining the image. This is true of one-off paintings, drawings and prints. But is immensely important in the creation of all manner of cartoon strips, from manga to the French tradition of bandes dessignées through to Anglo-American comic strips.

It is not about the individual picture – although these can often be of stunning impact and beauty – but fundamentally it is about the dynamic experience of reading through a series of framed pictures. And, as Takehiko points out, the framing is vital in creating the mood and tone of each image; and the way successive frames are defined, creates a kind of visual narrative energy, over and above the logical content of the pictures, of their narrative.

It would be really interesting to learn more about the psychology of reading comic strips – how they affect the eye and the mind in a way that static individual images don’t. Wonder if anyone’s researched this subject.

In fact, now I reflect on it the day after visiting, I realise that the exhibition gave a lot of information about the various subject matters of manga, but maybe not enough analysis of that look. All the characters and stories have the same simplified cartoon style and all have the supersize eyes with big catchlights in them.

And, reviewing all the photos I took, and manga online, I realise another fact which is so obvious no-one comments on it. Which is that manga characters don’t look very Japanese. Here’s a photo of a typical Japanese young woman picked at random off the internet, after googling ‘Japanese girl.’

A random Japanese young woman

And here’s a manga of a young woman, from the Wikipedia article.

Figure in manga style by Jez (2016)

The real woman has brown or lightly tanned skin, the manga has pure white skin; and the Japanese has the characteristically narrow eyes of the Far East, while the manga figure has those alarmingly big, round catchlit, cartoon eyes.

It would have been good to have had it explained just how that look came about. Why – for over fifty years – it has stayed essentially the same. And why it denatures the ethnic Japanese appearance in favour of something more…generic and, often, more white and western-seeming. (I may be wildly wrong about this, I’m just going on the impression gained from studying the examples of manga on display here, in this particular exhibition. For example the lead figure in the still from The Wind Rises could be Harry Potter, there is absolutely nothing Japanese about his appearance. Why?)

Golden Kamuy (2014 to the present) is set in early 20th century Hokkaido, where young Sugimoto Sa’ichi leads a ragtag band on a dangerous quest to locate a stolen golden hoard belonging to the Ainu people

Anyway – this is a fabulous and hugely enjoyable exhibition. If you or your friends or kids are remotely interested in manga, this is a must-visit experience.

The Guardian review

The next day I read the review by the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones.

Jones savages the exhibition, raising two issues, the unnecessary comparison with Old Masters, and the omission of the filth and the fury associated with Japanese art.

Manga versus the Old Masters

Seems like whoever took Jones round, knowing he was a critic of high or fine art, tried to justify the show by comparing manga with classical Japanese art. This leads Jones to dismiss the exhibition we have as unworthy of the British Museum’s purpose and to wish it had been a completely different show –

I’ve rarely seen a show whose catalogue is so much more interesting than the display in the gallery. Not only are the drawings in the book dirtier, but there are far more illustrations of classic Japanese art. Surely this is what the exhibition should have been. It should have used the contemporary allure of manga to draw us into a huge survey of Japan’s art history.

I think he’s wrong. An exhibition of classic Japanese art should be that, and just that, and not need any gimmicks. This is an exhibition of a worldwide visual and commercial phenomenon. It needs no other justification. Jones accuses the museum of pandering to popular tastes. As I discussed above – if you want to attract kids and young people to museums you have to reach out to where they are. If, on the way to the manga show, the walk past Egyptian mummies and Assyrian lions and Viking helmets, all the better. They are acquiring the museum-going habit, the air of elitism and snobbery which I know – from personal experience – puts so many people off visiting art galleries and museums, is being dispelled. Once they’ve been to this, it’ll be easier (less intimidating) to go to something a bit more recherché.

Manga and pornography

Jones’s article also mentions the fact that lots of manga is ‘dirty’ (an oddly old-fashioned choice of word) by which he means pornographic. This confirms a nagging feeling I had that associates manga with random pornographic images I’ve come across in years of surfing the web. Even googling just the word ‘manga’ produces results which include topless or bottomless manga schoolgirls, some with a variety of sex aids. And some of the comments at the bottom of Jones’s article go into greater detail, giving the types of pornographic manga that are readily available, along with the Japanese terminology defining them (for example hentai, which refers, apparently, to ‘any type of perverse or bizarre sexual desire or act.’)

Having read those comments, and looked up some of the images, two obvious points emerge, for me. One is that Japanese erotic taste is different from ours. They are casually explicit about some things we are shocked by, and, as anyone who’s met a Japanese knows, quite easily shocked and even insulted by the casualness of our Western manners.

Yes, folks, it’s almost as if they come from a strikingly different culture and tradition (something which is so easy to forget in our 24/7, internationalised, global culture). Having read all the Guardian comments, collected the pornographic terminology, and looked up some of the examples, there is a second easy point to make.

Which is that the Museum and its curator obviously set out to attract the widest audience possible, to attract visitors of all ages – I saw plenty of teenagers, and families with kids, sometimes toddlers, excitedly looking at the cartoons or filling in the Children’s Trail handout they’d be given. I stood by one wall label while a girl about 7-years-old read out the label to her sister who was too young to read. Should the curators have included hard-core manga pornography in the exhibition? Should that little girl have found herself spelling out the precise meaning of pornographic terms to her young sister?

Obviously not. As Jones points out, some of that stuff can be found in the catalogue, all exhibition catalogues generally going into more detail than exhibitions can, and no child is going to buy the catalogue.

So it was the right call. You or I can explore porno manga on the internet to our heart’s content, if we wish. It would have been a disaster to include any in this show, thus created an X-rated zone kids couldn’t go into and probably causing shock horror stories in the press.

This exhibition is about creating a family-friendly, child-safe environment in which a) to enjoy yourself b) to learn lots about manga c) to inspire kids and the museum-averse to coming more often. It’s a success in every way.

Curator

Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, founding Director of the Sainsbury Institute and Professor of Japanese Art and Culture at the University of East Anglia.


Related links

  • Manga continues at the British Museum until 26 August 2019

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Journeys Drawn: Illustration from the Refugee Crisis @ the House of Illustration

The ‘refugee crisis’ started to make headlines in 2015 as thousands of people fled wars in Syria, Iraq, and conflict and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

News footage of overcrowded boats coming ashore in Greece and Italy made the evening news, along with images of those who didn’t survive the trip, who drowned at sea, and then images of life in the squalid, overcrowded refugee camps which sprang up on the Mediterranean shore, as well as the so-called Jungle refugee camp in Calais.

Journeys Drawn is the first ever UK exhibition to explore the refugee crisis through illustration. It includes 40 multi-media works by 12 contemporary artists, several of whom are themselves refugees.

Illustrators have the advantage over ‘fine artists’, in that they are already used to working with stories and narratives, and most refugees’ stories are, by definition, stories about moving, about travelling, journeying – fleeing x and arriving in y.

Also, the genre of ‘illustration’ is flexible enough for illustrators to feel to treat subjects in all kinds of ways, from childlike picture-books, through stark political cartoons, to images packed with all kinds of information and detail – a kaleidoscope of approaches which ‘purer’, fine art tends to disavow.

A good example is the information-rich pictures of Olivier Kugler, who didn’t just depict the refugees he met on the Greek island of Kos (on a project funded by Médecins Sans Frontières) but created a format which can accommodate their stories through the extensive inclusion of text, especially the refugees’ own words, as well as inset images of their key objects and belongings.

As he says: ‘If you take time to view the drawing, it is like spending time with a person and their family in their tent.’

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

Rezan and Roca by Olivier Kugler (2015)

At the other extreme are the stark black-and-white images of David Foldvari. Foldvari usually does editorial work for The New York Times, Guardian and FT. He was commissioned by Save the Children to illustrate the stories of unaccompanied children at Civico Zero in Rome, a centre for refugee children. In his own words:

My main concern was to treat the subject matter in a way that was not patronising or clichéd, and to create some kind of emotional connection with the viewer without resorting to shock.

Typical of his style is this stark but deeply shaded, black-and-white image of one boy, Awet (not, in fact, his real name),which becomes even more powerful when you learn his story.

After fleeing his home in Eritrea at just 15 years old, Awet trekked to Sudan. He was smuggled with 30 others on a packed pick-up truck to Libya, but here they were kidnapped and imprisoned in a disused factory, where they were starved and tortured until their families could pay a ransom. Awet later managed to get onto a boat bound for Italy, only for it to fill with water. Rescued by the Sicilian coastguard, he found shelter at Civico Zero, two years after leaving Ethiopia. Which is where Foldvari met him.

Awet © David Foldvari

Awet © David Foldvari

I like realistic drawings, I am endlessly stimulated and excited by an artist’s magical ability to draw the world, to set down what we the rest of us only see around us, in solid lines and colours on paper – so I was immediately attracted to the documentary illustrations in pen, ink and watercolour which George Butler has made from what he’s seen in Greece, Belgrade and Syria.

As he puts it: ‘Reportage should tell a story, communicate an idea, or help someone relate to a situation.’

Of this picture, made in war-torn Syria, he says: ‘This was the first scene we saw as we came into Azaz – children playing on a burnt-out government tank. The fighting had finished here ten days earlier and would soon start again, but in the meantime the few residents left were trying to fathom what had ripped through their homes.’

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

Climbing frame tank by George Butler

There are a number of animations in the exhibition. This is Iranian artist Majid Adin’s award-winning animation set to Elton John’s song, Rocket Man.

Adin was imprisoned for his political works in Iran, before being expelled. He made his way by boat to Greece then trekked across Serbia before reaching the Jungle camp at Calais. He was smuggled to London inside a refrigerator in a lorry. In 2017 he won a global competition to create the first ever music video for Elton John’s hit Rocket Man and since then has been working as an animator in London.

Another video, by Karrie Fransman, uses a format called ‘zoom comic’ in which the picture is continually zooming in on the central image to open up the next scene. It was inspired by the testimonies of four Eritrean refugees who fled their homes to make the dangerous journey across Ethiopia, Sudan and Libya to Europe. The animation is narrated by Lula Mebrahtu, an Eritrean refugee who has found fame as a singer, songwriter and sound designer.

Kate Evans created a graphic novel, Threads from the Refugee Crisis, describing her experience of volunteering in the Calais Jungle. She published drawings from the camp within days of returning, and then went on to expand them into the book, ‘a poignant and emotive depiction of conditions in the camp, punctuated with political narrative, insightful commentary and angry responses from the public to her original blog post.’

Earlier this year Threads became the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for the Orwell Prize for Books.

Camp Sunset from threads by Kate Evans

Camp Sunset from Threads by Kate Evans

By now you should have got the idea of what the show looks and feels like.

In a way the subject matter is a bit repetitive – war, escape, camp. But visually, the artists and their works are extremely varied. I was surprised to see one set of pictures entirely in the style of Japanese manga, created by Asia Alfasi.

Alfasi grew up in Libya and moved to Glasgow at the age of seven. She now lives in Birmingham and has been working in the manga style since 2003. She aims to represent the voice of the Muslim Arab and her illustrated short stories have won several national and international manga awards.

In this wordless comic a young refugee returns to her destroyed childhood home. She is haunted by memories, but finds hope when she sees children playing among the rubble.

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

Childhood is hope by Asia Alfasi (2016)

All of the illustrations in this exhibition are good, some very good. All the stories are moving, some very moving. It is, all in all, quite a shocking and upsetting exhibition.

According to Wikipedia, ongoing conflicts and refugee crises in several Asian and African countries have increased the total number of forcibly displaced people worldwide at the end of 2014 to almost 60 million, the highest level since World War II.

Where are they all going to go?


Related links

The illustrators’ websites

Also currently on at the House of Illustration

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

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