Years ago, on a trip to Japan, I came across a swastika. Dozens of them, actually, in museums across the country. I was shocked, what Westerner wouldn't be?
No doubt this has happened to many Western travelers in Asia, and no doubt many have gotten the re-assuring answer from tour guides or friends: don't worry, it just means "good luck." Buddhists have been using it as a symbol for luck for more than 2,000 years.
So why was I still a touch unsettled by that swastika again at the Asia Society exhibit, "Yoshimoto Nara: Nobody's Fool"?
I'm still struggling for an answer. After all, I know that Nara says he is simply using a symbol from his native Japan, where the artist still lives. But it is hard to shake the sense that Nara, one of the leading figures in Japan's Neo-Pop movement, is entirely innocent. His work is characterized by its subversiveness, with large, seductive, often gorgeous manji cartoons doing dangerous things: smoking, cut up, their faces laced with teenage ire and angst.
If you add to his truculence that his market is, in large part, Western (he's represented by New York's Marianne Boesky Gallery), then why cannot we ask if his use of the swastika is in some way part of subversive too? And if so, is it in good taste?
Obviously, the Asia Society, who has otherwise put together a pleasing show, anticipated these questions. On each of the glazed ceramic bowls where the swastika appears, the museum places a placard explaining the symbol's beneficent relation to Buddhism. Otherwise, wall-texts are scarce.
You'd be wrong, even stupid, to call Nara an anti-semite, but you can ask whether his professed innocence should be so easily accepted.
If his art predated the Nazi's, perhaps (though I would wonder about any Western museum's decision to exhibit such an artifiact, as if explaining its origins vitiates its still noxious effect). But it doesn't. And worse, it's based on the Pop art theory, whose central premise is the sly subversion of kitsch.
Maybe Nara cannot have it both ways.
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