Makoto Aida

“Sorry, I’m a Genius”


The Mori Art Museum (MAM) 

Nov. 17, 2012 – Mar. 31, 2013

Reviewed by Gianni Simone


Harakiri School Girls 2002 Acrylic on holographic film, print on transparency film 119×84.7cm Collection: Watai Yasuyuki


The Mori Art Museum (MAM) is part of the so-called Art Triangle in Roppongi, an upscale district (some people would say “foreigners ghetto”) in Tokyo. When it opened with great fanfare in 2003, it attracted its share of criticism because it seemed to favor crowd-pleasing blockbusters over thought-provoking projects. However the initial problems were soon rectified, and now the MAM is highly regarded as one of the best contemporary art institutions in Asia.


Guided by director Fumio Nanjo’s expert hand, the museum has been especially successful in introducing the best art from Asia – one of the MAM’s stated goals – as testified by wide ranging collective projects about India and the Arab world, and Ai Weiwei’s solo retrospective. As for Japan, Motohiko Odani’s haunting “Phantom Limb” in 2010 has been recently followed by enfant terrible Makoto Aida’s exhibition.


For several years Aida has been one of Japan’s best kept secrets. With only a few solo shows abroad, he has participated in many collective projects like 2003’s “The American Effect: Global Perspectives on the United States, 1990-2003” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and 2009’s “Wallworks” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. This time, though, the MAM has put all its considerable PR power behind him, resulting in one of the most hyped Japanese exhibitions in recent years.


A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City (War Pictures Returns) 1996 169 × 378 cm


Aida’s multifaceted talent – and the large-scale paintings he has started to produce since 2000 – is big enough to thrive even in the museum’s cavernous spaces. Each room highlights a particular phase of his career so far, as well as his biting sense of humor. Indeed, more than the exhibition’s duller English title (“Monument for Nothing”, its Japanese version – “Tensai de gomennasai,” means “Sorry, I’m a genius”) perfectly exemplifies Aida’s wit and nonchalant approach to art and fame. During the press conference he even apologized for been unable to finish the huge painting he had been commissioned by the MAM, adding with a suave smile that these are the kind of things you would expect from a genius…


Aida’s free-range reinterpretation of both Eastern and Western art is showcased in works which deliberately mix sublime lyricism and vulgarity, like a cherry tree painted in traditional Nihon-ga style over a collaged background of call girl stickers that are usually plastered over city walls and inside telephone booths.


“War Picture Returns” is a series of paintings that Aida made over three years in the late 1990s. He never takes sides, but rather taunts everybody while stressing the absurdity of war and how difficult it is to divide the world between black and white, good and evil.

Aida often recreates the style of the old propaganda posters, using traditional Japanese folding screens and materials like mineral pigments that he mixes with acrylic paint, photocopy on holographic paper, and collage.


Some of these works are very graphic, like “Gate Ball” (1999) which depicts a group of old people who merrily play a game of croquet (a very popular pastime among senior citizens in Japan) using the severed heads of children from different Asian countries that were occupied by the Japanese army during the war. Another work which should make many flag-waving Americans spill their cookies is “A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City” (1996) where a storm of Zero fighter planes flies over a burning Manhattan.


From "Poster" series, paper, ink, colored pencil.


The “Posters” series, on the other hand, parodies the “morally uplifting” works that Aida was forced to make when he was a child. By distorting their original messages, he highlights society’s hypocrisy and false truths while stressing his deep-rooted distrust for authority and formal education.


Aida’s wry wit is again on display in some of his 3D works. “Shinjuku Castle” is an attempt to ironically upgrade the shabby card box “houses” in which many homeless people live around Tokyo and other Japanese cities.


“Shinjuku Castle”, mixed media


Aida’s desire to lead an idle life is represented by “The Non-Thinker” – one of the works he made especially for this exhibition. The FRP-made statue parodies Auguste Rodin’s “The Thinker” that in typically Japanese fashion he turns into Onigiriman (Rice Ball Man), a slacker superhero who looks like he is sitting on top of a huge pile of poop.


"The Non Thinker", mixed media


Aida’s otaku-like obsession with young girls can be found throughout the exhibition. This subject has been explored ad nauseam by many Japanese (and even some foreign) artists, but Aida often goes one step further by putting the viewers in an uncomfortable spot, making them accomplice to his perversions.


“Harakiri School Girls” portrays in vivid colors a group of cute mini-skirted nymphets who, between ecstasy and excruciating pain, proceed to disembowel or behead themselves while striking provocative poses.


The big painting ”Blender” possibly goes one step further in depicting a hellish scene – between Dante’s Inferno and torture porno – in which thousands of naked girls are used to make a special brand of what Aida calls “cranberry juice.” It must be said that Aida often warns us not to seek too many hidden ideas in his works. He admits that some of them are just “nonsense fun” – albeit of the twisted variety. In a way he holds a mirror in front of us, challenging people to react to them, and our reactions often say more about ourselves and our hidden thoughts and feelings than the artist’s intentions.


Blender 2001 290 × 210.5 cm


This exhibition even features an x-rated area that is off-limits to minors. Inside a dark room – guarded by a shy-looking female staff – we find among other things a photomontage of a girl copulating with a giant bug and an exquisitely made painting of teenage girls in different stages of amputation. These works are reminiscent of Trevor Brown though his cute style is replaced here by another take on traditional Japanese painting.


The same red-light room is dominated by “The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora” where a quiet suburban area is the scene for a mortal combat between an anime character and the titular multi-headed dragon.


One of the most striking pieces included in the exhibition is “Ash Color Mountain” that Aida took two years to complete. Seen from a distance, the huge painting seems to present a classical landscape. Upon closer examination, you realize that the mountains emerging from the mist are actually made of the bodies of thousands of office workers piled up one on top of each other. The message – a bleak look at capitalism – may be obvious, but you would be hard pressed to find a more original take on globalization.


There are many other rooms to explore, which show Aida’s sometimes contradictory approach to and scathing critique of such themes as technology, communication, ecology and suicide through his distinctive style full of bizarre contrasts. Although what emerges at the end of this marathon is an artist whose complexity defies easy analysis and categorization.


The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora 1993 310 × 410 cm