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Unnen at Nanzuka: Toshio Saeki's New Solo Show

By Sophie Arni

Nanzuka Gallery is located on the basement floor of an office building in the buzzing area of Shibuya, Tokyo. It is accessible via a thick black door, a kind of shell-proof armored door often associated with nightclubs entrances.

A quick glance, no security guard in the periphery. No one, except me in front of this big black door with a small Nanzuka Gallery square logo printed on it. I open the door, which leads me to a pitch-black staircase. Think upscale club entrance, in an underground part of Berlin. It didn't help that the staircase was completely empty. A light of hope emerged I saw the brightly lit exhibition title and dates vinyl on the wall. "I must be in the right place," I kept thinking as I slowly made my way downstairs. The distant sound of 808s was missing. "Why is it so silent?" As I reached the B2 level, exhibition flyers and the usual stacks of press releases were laid out on a black counter-top. "I must be in the right place," I thought again. Turning around, I saw another shell-proof door. I opened it and, there I was.

A beautiful white cube. Brightly lit by wonderfully abstract neon suspended on the ceiling. An elegant gallery assistant, who sat in front of her iMac screen, welcomed me with a greeting. Another visitor was browsing the catalogues at the entrance lobby. As I walked into the space, a striking red mural caught my eye. On view is a solo exhibition of renowned illustrator and artist Toshio Saeki, a powerful figure in the Japanese contemporary art scene since the 70s. He designed the cover of John Lenon and Yoko Ono's album Sometime in New York City in 1972.

This exhibition marks Saeki's largest solo exhibition to date. It features primarily his illustration prints, which do not exceed A4 size following usual ukiyo-e custom. Also shown are Saeki's drawing sketches for these prints, which reveals his intricate process behind every color and composition choice. Finally, some giants prints are vinyled on the white walls of the gallery, providing a highly saturated (and highly Instagrammable) backdrop to his smaller prints.

Saeki was born in Miyazaki prefecture and raised in Osaka. He moved to Tokyo in his twenties, abandoning his advertising career to work his creative vision for popular erotica magazines. His training was in traditional ukiyo-e prints, a lot of which showed erotic content in the 18th century Edo Tokyo. Tokyo indeed became the capital of Japan during the Edo era. With the influx of young samurai and soldiers coming to populate the city, entertainment districts and suggestive printed content flourished.

Saeki has invented a new kind of erotic ukiyo-e (also known as Shunga) for the modern Japanese era. In 21st century Tokyo, he touches on the subconscious desires of the Japanese overworked society. Erotic magazines are still big business in the city. Many factors are at play: the disparity of gender equality in the workplace, the fetishization of Japanese schoolgirls, and the overall conservative shyness that Japanese society holds against taboo topics - which brings some quite extreme opposites to the limelight.

Japan has difficulty embracing critical and radical thought, as it is a collectively-minded society in which the good of the community prevails over individuality. By showing highly-personal subject matter, the artist dialogues directly with each viewer's subconscious. He deals with the topic of fetishization for example, with a powerful drawing of a schoolgirl riding a salary-man's back, controlling his eyes with a black and powerful whip. He makes visible the silent violence projected unto women in a poignant physical form. The girl regains control of the gaze, reclaiming it with her own hands. Describing this print, provocative might be the word that comes to mind; but Saeki's composition is filled with suggestions instead of dogmas.

It is up to the viewer to decipher Saeki's intended messages. With the right mix of sensationalism, raw provocation, relevance, and black humor, Saeki's prints play on both superficial and intellectual fields. His prints demand to be looked at, yet they also welcome critical thinking. Do they celebrate women or submit them to twisted desires? These ukiyo-e prints (which translates as 'floating world' in English) are taken from the artist's imagination or are they reflective of a bigger problem, a larger issue?


Unnen, Toshio Saeki

January 20 - March 3, 2018

Nanzuka Gallery, Tokyo, Japan

Unless specified otherwise, all images are taken by Sophie Arni at the exhibition venue.

#japan #eastasia

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