A grey Sunday in Bratislava… quite possibly the greyest day of the winter yet, and what better time to inject some colour into your life? Having use of a car for the day (given that getting there by public transport there is a challenge to say the least) we took the trip out to Danubiana (Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum) to see Ayako Rokkaku’s exhibition “Where the Smell Comes From” which impressed me for totally different reasons to those I imagined.
Rokkaku paints not with brushes but directly, and without much preliminary planning, onto the canvas using nothing but her hands as the tools. Her works, clearly inspired by Japanese animation, are gaudy, ostensibly child-like depictions of young girls with baleful eyes and billowing skirts wandering, often lost, in fantasy-scapes full of the colour and disorder of a fairy tale.
In “Where the Smell Comes From”, we are experiencing the world through the eyes of a child. The paintings mostly have these girl protagonists, wearing expressions of sadness, or perhaps stroppiness or frustrated-ness, moving through worlds that shimmer with butterflies, childishly oversized flowers or toys. Rather (for example) than showing how a dragonfly looks to us, the observers looking in on the picture, we see the dragonfly through the eyes of the girl it flies around: larger-than-life, hanging in the brightly-coloured air seemingly forever, as children often see things: in an incredibly different (and invariably more interesting) way. In the downstairs video installation, another girl drifts through a vast, featureless world of sea and sky and, upon colliding with a huge structure, proceeds to aimlessly slide down it, climb it again and then, after dancing on the top with a similarly brightly-dressed character, launches a pencil into the sky. Once again the main subjects of the painting are reacting in a somewhat irrational (or unfathomably child-like) way to their environment, and this is typical of all the works of art here.
The alternative explanation, of course, is not these girl protagonists are reacting irrationally, but that their environment is a kind of disotopia – as childish as it may at first glance seem, the backgrounds of these pictures are complex, often frightening gardens of vibrant chaos, where rationality is totally removed. This last explanation is very plausible, given Rakkuku admits to taking inspiration, or rather motivation, from the 2011 Tsunami.
It’s these backgrounds of Rokkaku’s that I found myself captivated by far more than her technique. For in many of the pictures, the backgrounds take control and it is no longer the somewhat petulant girls dominating anymore. If they do appear, they are utterly lost into these chaotic scenes of giant mushrooms, monstrous ducks (and what are those things inside them?!), houses floating in the sky, trees made of fire and witches familiars – scenes in which Rokkaku enlisted the help of various groups of school children to create. On one occasion, in the Tsunami-hit Japanese city of Ofunato, she worked with 200 children on an 8-metre canvas. And these scenes are childishly innocent, on one level, but on another, far darker. Some pictures feature helicopters exploding in flame and planes dropping bombs (OK, admittedly heart-shaped ones) on lop-sided towns.
Of course, what with every painting being called “untitled” (a deliberate move away from trying to dictate what we are seeing) those helicopters could be birds and those ducks alien spacecraft. There is no right or wrong answer. But dark or comic, it is the children that painted these pictures that are the real stars of the show. Each picture seems themed around their initial drawings. And, quite clearly, what this exhibition is more than anything is an insight into the immense and at times prophetic talents young children possess: more so than any art I have previously seen. The major thing it lacks is giving any credit to the children that created these masterpieces: is there an age under which giving official credit for work ceases to apply? But “Where the Smell Comes From” will certainly do one thing. It will make you think, and have you hotly debating each vibrant, intriguing image you see. Perhaps it takes children to make you really think about art.
“Where the Smell Comes” from runs until December 9th at the Danubiana Meulensteen Art Museum in Čunovo. If you lack your own vehicle, bus 91 runs from the bus station under Most SNP until Čunovo – then, you will have to walk the final 2.5km.
Thanks! in part to Prešporák for this post – the builders scuppered my Internet connection this morning so this post is written from there!