The Erotic Grotesque Nonsense of Superflat: "Happiness" as Pathology in Japan Today

By Robertson, Jennifer | Michigan Quarterly Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

The Erotic Grotesque Nonsense of Superflat: "Happiness" as Pathology in Japan Today


Robertson, Jennifer, Michigan Quarterly Review


The Mori Art Museum occupies the top five floors of the fiftyfour-story Mori Tower at the center of Roppongi Hills, a mammoth steel and glass complex in central Tokyo that opened in 2003 as an integrated space for "artelligent living," working, playing, and shopping (Figure 1). A section of the spacious museum serves as an observation deck where daily hundreds of local and international visitors survey the cluttered and chaotic city spread out 258 meters below. According to the public relations brochure, the Mori Art Museum provides a "dynamic interface between the contemporary art and culture of our times" and serves as broad a public as possible.1 Seven hundred thousand visitors attended the first three months alone of the inaugural exhibition, "Happiness: A Survival Guide for Art and Life" (October 2003^January 2004). This exhibition serves both as catalyst and foil for my ruminations on the status of happiness and history, two popular and controversial subjects in Japan today.

Magical Timelines

Mori Yoshiko, who chairs the museum's board (and is married to Mori Minoru, the influential developer of Roppongi Hills), describes the "Happiness" show as

a look at the many diverse ways in which artists have expressed ideas of happiness over the past two millennia. At times it has seemed like a universal human right, at others it has been an intensely personal even private moment. Now, at a time of war and international instability, happiness and the positive ideas it expresses seem to have a particular importance.2

"Happiness" was given expression by 127 international artists and dozens of anonymously produced ritual objects spanning two thousand years of global history. The then-director of the museum, Briton David Elliot, rationalized the deployment of "happiness" as the starting point of an inaugural exhibition: a discussion about happiness, he suggested, is "long overdue" -two thousand years overdue.3 Elliot and co-curator Pier Luigi Tazzi invoke a nostalgia for a (thoroughly fictional) ancient time when the world presumably was infused with happiness by declaring that the Mori Art Museum show was "part of the redrawing of a circle that has somehow been broken."4 The itinerary, or "survival guide" in Elliot's words, for the show describes it as a journey across four "continents" of happiness -Arcadia, Nirvana, Desire, and Harmony - that represent and recreate an ur-terrestial bliss.

What the "Happiness" show aimed to achieve "in this time of war and instability" was not a proactive engagement with the social, psychological, economic, political circumstances of war and global instability. Rather, the curators sought to transcend the discomfort - and inconvenience - of having to think about such disturbing and traumatic subjects, especially in the oasis of conspicuous and luxurious consumption that is Roppongi Hills. Happiness, it seems, means never having to think about the unhappy subjects of war and global instability - and since war and instability have prevailed for more than two thousand years on our battered planet, happiness means not having to think about history at all.

The glibly optimistic "Happiness" project epitomizes a relentless presentism, the flattening of time and space as a wholly unironic mode of historical awareness that is pervasive in contemporary Japanese culture, most powerfully expressed in Takashi Murakami's influential aesthetic of "superflat," about which more below.5 To get a handle on the dynamics of this sense of the (a)historical, it might prove most useful to think of the Mori Art Museum's inaugural exhibition as a graphic exercise in constructing a selective (or dehistoricized) chronology. The quirky juxtaposition of nearly two hundred objects produced a novel timeline of global artifacts and events linked by their contributions to the production of "Happiness." A digression on the magic of timelines must preface my discussion of the "Happiness" show in conjunction with the pervasive aesthetic of superflat.

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