Arts » Visual Art

East Meets Least

In Akron's My Reality, Japanese anime dwarfs its Western counterpart.

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Takashi Murakami's "Mr. DOB in the Strange Forest."
  • Takashi Murakami's "Mr. DOB in the Strange Forest."

At first, it's like a trip to F.A.O. Schwarz on blotter. Two 12-foot inflatable pink rabbits are stationed at the show's entrance; their giant heads, scrunched against the ceiling, form an archway. On the other side is the freaky "Mr. DOB in the Strange Forest," a big plastic mouse surrounded by colorful doe-eyed mushrooms.

But then comes the buzzkill. To the left, a creepy pair of identical dwarf heads leer at you from pedestal mounts. Inspired by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, they more closely resemble the Convicted Sex-Offender Next Door than Dopey or Bashful. They're also a perfect example of what's wrong with My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation, now at the Akron Art Museum -- namely, sloppy curating.

Originally assembled by the Des Moines Art Center, the traveling show claims to be the first to explore the effect of Japanese animation (anime, pronounced "annie-may") and comic books (manga) on contemporary art. It features the recent paintings, sculptures, videos, and photographs of 17 Asian and Western artists.

But based on the offerings of the six Americans and three Europeans, it appears that anime's style and themes have only superficially influenced Western art, if at all. Maybe the curators should have waited until anime's influence more interestingly saturated our hemisphere. Or focused exclusively on its pervasive hold on Japanese art. Alas, the curators were in a yank to be first, resulting in a wildly uneven show that juxtaposes imaginative Japanese works with infuriating Western ones.

Anime emerged in the '60s, a product of post-WWII cross-cultural pollination between the U.S. and Japan. Early artists in the genre borrowed features from Disney characters -- like Bambi's eyes -- and blended them with traditional Japanese painting techniques that emphasize outline and flat areas of color.

The anime figures are odd amalgams of cute innocence and sexy adult sophistication who populate apocalyptic future worlds. Today, there's an anime character for every demographic: Hello Kitty and Pokémon for the kids, Sailor Moon for teen girls, cyborgs for boys, and Mon Mon Candy for adults. No matter what the product, though, the creations have the flat look and decorative flair of Japanese art.

Paul McCarthy's sleazy dwarfs are in the wrong show. They have no connection to anime's style and themes, and they'll likely scare kids -- My Reality's target audience.

That said, marketing the show to children isn't such a great idea anyway. In an obvious attempt to be kid-friendly, the curators have ignored or sanitized adult themes. Instead of explaining that Takashi Murakami's "Mr. DOB" is about Japan's fear of nuclear attack (hence the mushrooms), the chat label prattles about the character's similarity to Mickey Mouse. And perhaps because they don't want kids to read any slams on Disney, they simply omit any commentary about the dwarfs, which satirize Walt's whitewashed world.

Miltos Manetas's videos don't belong in any show. The Greek expat recorded video games, then digitally manipulated them. For the first hour of his 70-minute "I Am Sorry," two characters stand still with their swords drawn, ready to fight. Every few minutes, their shadows rotate and the background sky changes color. Genius. In "Flames I and II," Manetas creates short loops of Tomb Raider, in which Lara Croft visits the same obstacle over and over. The digital age's Sisyphus, perhaps?

Except for Inka Issenhigh, whose surreal painting "The Adoration" looks like Japanese wood-block prints and has the glossy surface of lacquerware, the Westerners pale next to the vibrant Asians. Inspired by the 1995 sarin gas attacks in a Tokyo subway, sculptor Kenji Yanobe evokes a funny but frightening world with his series of Atom Cars -- one-man getaway vehicles for use during nuclear disaster. In the darkly comic "Survival Racing Car, Yellow," he builds a deep-sea diving suit over an electric wheelchair and accessorizes with a cane. "Survival Gacha-pon" is a monster bubble-gum machine equipped with supplies for survival. For a few yen, the buyer gets one of 54 tiny items, from a condom to a cigarette.

Multimedia artist Mariko Mori -- sometimes called Japan's Cindy Sherman -- stars in "Kumano," a short video that meshes sci-fi with ancient Buddhism to depict a future society of spiritual enlightenment. Korean artist Lee Bul renders the hard body parts of female cyborgs in delicate white porcelain. Past and future also mingle in her "Cyborg Leg," in which a single limb gleams like an elegant Ming vase. No matter the medium, the Asian artists successfully construct their own imagined worlds -- the My Reality in the exhibition's title.

Kathryn Wat, Akron's associate curator who inherited the show, does her best with disjointed material. The gallery walls are painted in trademark anime colors like hot pink, tangerine, and electric blue, and she created a manga reading room where visitors can learn about and watch anime.

Despite its flaws, My Reality is a worthwhile show for teens and adults. The Asian art deserves a look; just stay away from Lara Croft.

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