Since his highly provocative Monument for Nothing exhibition opened at Tokyo’s prestigious Mori Art Museum last November and ran through this March, Japanese artist Aida Makoto has been generating attention and stoking heated debate. He has been called a rebel, a “hellraiser” and controversial more times than he would like to count.
Among his works are images of an overtly phallic mushroom cloud drawn in a cutesy manga-style, a massive wall plastered with tweets sent by real people following the 3/11 triple disaster that devastated Japan’s Tohoku region, a sprawling tent filled with a jumble of dolls, pink plastic toys and other ultra kawaii (“cute”) items, a suicide machine that is rigged to fail no matter how many attempts are made, and an apocalyptic scene rendered in the style of a Japanese traditional landscape painting.
While these works may suggest for some a dark, tormented man, in person Aida is down-to-earth, “bearish more than bullish. Many people are surprised to discover this,” he told The Diplomat. In response to the controversy that his works have sparked, he added, “There are so many motifs in my work that could infuriate people, but they only focus on a handful (mostly sexual). I think this reveals an immature society.”
Controversy aside and kitted out in khaki cargo pants, a brown double breast pocketed shirt and paint-splotched rubber clogs, Aida sat down for an exclusive interview with The Diplomat to share his thoughts on the creative process, his art and the state of Japan—a subject ever present in his work.
Born in Niigata in 1965 to a sociologist father and a mother who was a science teacher, then young Aida dreamed of becoming a manga artist. His creative gumption was evident early on to his teachers, who would often scold him for doodling in class. During junior high school, by which point he was a self-described “leftist”, he became fascinated by WWII and read avidly on the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army overseas.
Around that time, the young Aida took up oil painting. At 16, he was switched on to various subculture luminaries and devoured literature, with Mishima Yukio at the top of his list, followed closely by Western giants like Dostoyevsky. He was also drawn to the new wave of Japanese manga that broke through cracks in the nation’s pop cultural edifice in the 1980s.
“When I became a high school student I wanted to be an author. But when I compared whether I was better at writing or painting, it was clearly the latter. This is why I joined an art class,” Aida said. Driven by his urge to become “a creator,” Aida moved to Tokyo to study oil painting at the Tokyo University of the Arts, graduating in 1989 and going on to earn an MFA from the same school. He was gradually subsumed by the city’s avant garde.