In the terrain of post-Superflat Japanese painting whose sources emerge largely from animation and manga, the work of Tomoko Konoike remains somewhat singular. A graduate of Tokyo's prestigious Fine Arts University, Konoike's "break" into the contemporary art scene is relatively recent and came only after she had worked for several years as a commercial toy and character creator.
Konoike is known for her large paintings, animations and sculptures that depict, in varying formations, several characters from what can best be described as an ongoing saga or mythology which she has created and which continues to inform her output. This saga mainly revolves around an adolescent girl named Mimio, around whom gather a large six-legged wolf, flapping-eared white elf-like creatures, flying daggers and other natural or supernatural constructs. One could read these characters as players in classic Alice in Wonderland or Nutcracker type narratives, which describe a journey from childhood innocence into adulthood and their accompanying dream-like fantasies. There are obvious parallels with the work of directors such as Hayao Miyazaki.
Konoike's most recent exhibition at Mizuma Art Gallery was titled "Hidden Mountain & the Lodge" and inventively used the gallery's two spaces, separated by three floors, to stage a literal climb upwards through the building. The main gallery housed a panoramic fusuma sliding door painting. On one side was depicted a classic, symmetrically balanced mountain goddess whose young face was embedded into the mountain's craggy sides, with large eyes gazing out and her mouth open. This reminded me of certain ancient Buddhist and Shinto iconographies that show creatures with opened mouths symbolizing the sound A, the first letter of the mystical holy seed syllable OM or AUM. The rear side of the fusuma depicted a cosmic singularity, a Big Bang moment of explosion whose point of emanation seemed to be a human brain, swirling amidst galaxies and deep space.
Moving up through the building to Mizuma's Action gallery, one encountered drawings and a model of the mountain behind more fusuma doors. I felt that Konoike's strength of vision was somewhat dissipated here, moving into a rather too literal domain of mountain references which included a hanging rescue stretcher, a stuffed antler head and a tent that one could crawl into to watch a video. I expected to be confronted by more mysterious and numinous images as one moved upwards (in the Neo-Platonic sense of ascent corresponding to greater abstraction and complexity), but things became ever more tawdry.
One of Konoike's mythical creatures, the six-legged wolf, appeared in several drawings, making me ponder its meaning in her saga. The wolf became extinct in Japan around the Meiji period, following its active extermination as a threat to modern farming and ranching methods. Japan's two native species, the Honshu wolf and the larger Hokkaido wolf, continue to exert influence as archaic mythic symbols within certain thinning strands of esoteric Shinto and Buddhism, particularly the mountain asceticism of Shugendo. The wolf seems to be a resonant symbol of Japan's "fall" into modernity, its consequent separation from the natural realm and its attendant dreams. Konoike's works can be understood as a kind of lament or desire to re-dream this pre-modern time through a specific cosmology of creatures and landscapes that remain very much embedded in archaic archetypes developed over many thousands of years on these islands. In this sense her work can be understood within a techno-shamanistic discourse, using technologically nuanced characters and images to evoke proto-religious sentiments.