Aida Makoto: Heisei Kanjin Project


‘I want to become a symbolic artist of Japanese strangeness…’ is how Aida Makoto (b. 1965) described himself during an interview with the Japan Society in 2011. After listening to him being interviewed at the Mori Art Academy a few weeks ago, it was evident that he still works under this philosophy. Aida was born in 1965 and gained a Masters in Fine Art from the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts in 1991. From the outset of his career, Aida began to paint in the style of ‘strangeness’ that identifies him today and which saw him regularly exhibiting across Japan from 1992, and from 2001 internationally in Germany, London and the USA.

It is perhaps easy to write off Aida Makoto as a pop artist out to shock with images of grotesque sexuality, young girls and violence. However, a deeper look into his philosophy as an artist shows he is using traditional themes to comment on contemporary Japanese society.

On the surface, his work can be linked to that of ukiyoe artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) and also to that of Teraoka Masami (b.1936). Hokusai may be said to have been part of the erotica tradition (see in particular this work) of ukiyoe while Teraoka may have started there but has developed a strong social commentary.

Left: Hokusai (1760 – 1849)  Right:  Teraoka Masami (b. 1936)

Aida’s ‘bishojo’ 美少女beautiful young girls/virgins, are metaphors for the emasculation, feminization and infantilization of Japan after the defeat in WWII. He also admits though that he enjoys painting them and this enjoyment makes his painstakingly detailed work easier…Aida has been diagnosed with ADHD and confesses to issues with ‘perseverance’. However, the ubiquitous Japanese ‘salary man’ also features in his work as an alienated form.

What I thought was to be an upfront artist talk actually turned out to be an unusual and somewhat quirky event aimed at raising funds for the Mori Art Museum to stage a solo show of Aida’s work. To be entitled ‘Tensai de gomen! ’ 天才でごめん!in direct translation ‘I’m a genius-sorry!’, the Director of the Mori Museum explained that this did not translate well into English, replacing it with ‘Sorry for being all left-brain’ referring to Aida’s actually unapologetic stance as a pure creative, unconcerned with what is seen as socially or politically correct or acceptable.

No, my Japanese is not that good yet! Mori provided headphones and simultaneous translation into English. The huge lecture room was full to capacity, well over 500 people, many non-Japanese.

The middle section of the event was the most curious. Three invited guests, fans rather than academic commentators or critics, spoke about their appreciation of Aida’s work; a mature female novelist and artist with evident feminist sensibilities, a young female author and a male astronomer.

The cross section of the three groups of ‘fans’ of Aida’s works was well chosen: One who understood and appreciated the work and its social commentary on the level intended; one who was in love with the artist and his idea of celebrating ‘strangeness’ and didn’t grasp the underlying philosophies at all; and one who appeared only interested in owning imagery of young girls. It is hard to describe this panel of ‘fans’ without sounding judgemental, so please forgive me.

I really liked the idea of having ‘fans’ with little to do with the art world, discussing their love of art and an artist. It offered some interesting viewpoints. It did, however, also highlight the reasons Aida struggles to complete his work: The majority of people can’t seem to see past a dirty old man painting young girls in school uniforms. Aida was at a loss to explain criticism of his work: Feminists complained about the young girls; they then complained when he left out business-suited women in his epic ‘salaryman’ work. He then confessed that he had lost interest in young women, now appreciating the mature woman…and yes, young boys too. But all this seemed a confused and perplexed response to outside commentary rather than a true expression of the artist’s inner self or ideas.

This was further evident when the third panel discussion began. The director of Mori Art Museum officially introduced the major reason for the lecture, Aida Makoto’s ‘Heisei Kanjin Project’, explaining that the controversial nature of Aida’s work meant they could not find corporate sponsorship for the exhibition. The event was likened to ‘kanjin’ 勧進,a traditional form of seeking public subscriptions for Buddhist temples, in this case, a public appeal for monetary support to help Aida realise the works envisioned for the November show at Mori Musuem.

This seemed a very strange concept, an artist and museum director appealing directly to the public for money to complete works for an exhibition. That the artist too found this odd was evident by the very obvious change in his body language. Aida is an unselfconscious artist. Listening to him talk, and auditing the many interviews with him available on YouTube, there is a sense of the accidental artist, a sense of continuous surprise that he is where he is, and that others are interested in what he has to say. At the mention of the fund-raising project, he appeared visibly embarrassed, nervous, and I would guess slightly ashamed, constantly bowing his head and staring at the floor.

This really put the whole event, exhibition and artist in perspective for me. The reasons for struggling to complete works, needing money from the public and the name of the exhibition are all because he is totally misjudged and misunderstood. I would argue unfairly so.

I donated to the project and await my limited print of one of the works destined for the exhibition. I am proud to see my name amongst the supporters list.

I am grateful that the Mori Art Museum understands and appreciates his work, and is going to such lengths to ensure that Aida Makoto is recognised as an important contemporary artist in the appropriate context.

You can read more about the exhibition and art project at the following address: Heisei Kanjin Project. You can also donate to the project here: Participate

Photo of Aida Makoto pictured at top was by Kohji Shiiki from Metropolis

Aida Makoto
The Giant Member Fuji versus King Gidora, 1993
acetate film, acrylic, eyelets
310 × 410 cm

Aida Makoto
The Ash Colour Mountain, 2008
540 x 379 cm

Aida Makoto
Waterfall, 2007-2010
Canvas, acrylic
439 × 272 cm

Aida Makoto
Harakiri Schoolgirls, 1999

Aida Makoto
Giant Salamander, 2003
panel, acrylic
314 × 420 cm

Aida Makoto
The Blender, 2001
Canvas, acrylic
290 × 210.5 cm