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The (Un)Bearable Heaviness of Being: Tadashi Moriyama and the Art of Excess

New York-based Japanese artist Tadashi Moriyama revels in the act of creating densely-knit parallel
universes that both nod to the physical realities of life in the here and now while also envisioning
potential futures where man and machine meld into one, a realm where technology overtakes us, or
perhaps makes us whole. His colorful drawings and paintings can be bright and cheery in certain works
that seem to celebrate the many facets of life in major urban Meccas, where rainbow washes and circular
blocks of packed housing might reference the artist’s native Japan with its much discussed urban density
with its ever-present neon signs and mass consumerism leanings. In others, however, a darker, perhaps
even menacing, color palette of blues and blacks nod to the stresses, worries and evils that life in
contemporary society often brings to the table, while also foreshadowing darker days ahead, as the natural
world continues to lose out to that of the technological and automated.

Moriyama’s early works are often devoid of people, but several of his recent drawings included in this
show begin to introduce a human element to the artist’s imagined built environment. These new figures
in the work are not idealistic or realistic representations of mankind, for they might better be explained as
individuals in distress or in need. Whether floating face-down in a pool as in Total Amnesiac or clearly
melding with technology as in Blue, where a spectral blue man hovers Godzilla-like over a cityscape and
seems to be fully blended with not only the environment, but with the symbolic iPhone-like device that he
holds, Moriyama is making nods to the current state of uncertainty that affects all parts of the globe today,
a world mired in financial turmoil, natural disaster and unbridled warfare. Looked at in this vein,
Moriyama’s work draws parallels with the early and often unseen work in the artist On Kawara’s
“Bathroom Series” of 1953-54. These gory drawings and paintings depict multiple human forms set
within the white-tiled walls of an otherwise pristine bathroom in various stages of being butchered and
maimed. Body parts and blood are readily apparent in excess, and these human forms become receptacles
of meaning that no doubt stood for Kawara’s reading of Japan’s own uncertainty at the time the works
were made in the immediate Post-War period when Japan was still languishing in economic crisis and
social instability. A painting from the following year, 1955, titled Black Soldier, shows two human legs
in long perspective plummeting down a cement tunnel into an abyss below. Moriyama masters this same
feeling of social angst and powerlessness in his work today, and like the now-exalted On Kawara,
critiques the lived realities of his day.

In drawing parallels with Kawara, it might also be useful to discuss Tadashi Moriyama’s work in
comparison with South African artist William Kentridge as well, as certain parallels seem readily
apparent in both artists’ works. Like the lauded Kentridge, Moriyama also makes animated films as part
of his art-making process that act as narrative stories which address certain aspects of society that both
artists feel are necessary to bring to light. Kentridge, of course, critiques notions of racism and greed in
his native South Africa through stories built around two fictional characters who inhabit a world that
periodically crumbles—both physically and philosophically—around them. Although stylistically much
different from Kentridge’s constantly reworked charcoal drawings that form the foundation of his films,
Moriyama’s animations build on the social critique aspects of Kentridge’s work in their close examination
of structural collapse in the face of changing societal trends and mores. Moriyama seems to urge us to
question the benefits of technology, making us wonder if it is a vehicle to Utopia, or perhaps more likely,
a road to self-destruction. As the body grows ever more close to the machine, will it lose its own
independence and become nothing more than a single part of the overarching system that powers the
world along? Much like the Hollywood film, “The Matrix,” in which humans are both controlled by—
and provide nourishment to—the computer-based system that dominates the world, Tadashi Moriyama’s
drawings and paintings portray a skewed social system where individual powers are lost to that of the
ruling elite—whether that be man or machine. Today, we might all feel powerless in the face of
collapsing economic markets, war and natural disaster. Tomorrow, we may be even less able to steer our
destiny as machines and computers grow ever closer to our hearts and brains. Whether this plays out in
reality or not, Tadashi Moriyama prepares us for it, and his wonderfully excessive and dense futurescapes
allow us to prepare for the inevitable in a most thought-provoking and aesthetically delightful way.

Eric C. Shiner is The Milton Fine Curator of Art at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh,
Pennsylvania, USA.

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