Dundee Contemporary Arts Centre
3 October – 15 November 2015
by CHRISTIANA SPENS
Having achieved cult status in his native Japan, Hideyuki Katsumata’s largest show to date fits in naturally with Dundee’s cultural heritage, given the Scottish city’s expertise in video games and comic books. Katsumata is at home here; his huge, cartoonish figures stretch to the high ceilings of the exhibition space, seeming to tower over the figures streaming in below, comfortable in their temporary home. They are new to the world as well as to Dundee; most of the work on show is the result of an intensive 10 days in which Katsumata hand-painted a large mural on to the walls of the exhibition, as well as creating prints to be exhibited alongside it.
The first monster emerges boldly from red and white walls, so large that only his top half pops up from the floor. He bears teeth and a formidable glare, his body made of patterns that seem biological in origin – brain-like, cell-like, nervy. A surplus of eyes in this creature begins something of a theme, with stray and dislocated eyes popping up throughout the exhibition. While the first monster could have sprung from a comic book, the second monster – black and furry, with two black horns and a devilish tail, bears the style of a younger children’s book, with the simple strands of fur and eyes popping out in fright. It scampers playfully along the wall, as if being chased by another, as yet unseen, creature.
In the next, larger room, there are multicoloured mats on one half of the floor, for children (and presumably adults, too, though the day I visited, there was merely an assortment of fascinated young children), in front of a huge screen showing a particularly psychedelic animation (in fact, a pop video that the multidisciplinary Katsumata made), with perplexing, unpredictable creatures and shapes, dancing and morphing and moving. The colours are luminous and the shapes – more eyes, lips, patterns of fur, trees and plants – are kaleidoscopic in their transformations. Fox-like creatures, wolf-like monsters and small winged objects fly through the screen alongside cartoonish, looming human faces; it is impossible not to be entranced and mesmerised by such a magical stream of art and imagination.
USO de HONTOU, translated as “that’s unreal, but it’s also real”, is, indeed, surreal, then; it is a form of surrealism for an age saturated and even nourished with games, comics and other pop culture. Katsumata’s imagination runs wild in a bold and psychedelic style; the vast, limitless world of graphic art is explored with addictive enthusiasm and refreshing adventure. In an art world sometimes overrun with cynical statement pieces and empty thoughts, Katsumata’s art is a brilliant escape, full of richly mythological thoughts and alternative realities. The work also implicitly suggests that the future of the visual arts may be slightly beyond the boundaries currently assumed by many in the art world; it may lie in the surreal possibilities of video-game landscapes and other graphic art, where animation, photography, collage and new approaches to narrative promise a new lease of creative life and engagement. To be immersed into such a dazzling world of experiment and style is not only entertaining, but eye-opening. The many eyes that follow viewers around the exhibition provoke rather than intimidate; they suggest a world out of place but brilliant, a sense of walking into a comic strip or video game full of UFOs and aliens – Alice in Wonderland-like and compelling.
Although Katsumata’s world is inspired by pop music – he has made pop videos and illustrated record sleeves for artists such as CUZ (Sam Dook from The GO! Team, and Mike Watt from Minutemen, FiREHOSE and the Stooges), Rainbow Arabia, Simone White, Little Dragon, T-Bone and Mad et Len – the most obvious influence in this particular exhibition seems to be from the world of comic books. Katsumata may have been paying homage to Dundee’s comic book history (The Beano and The Dandy both originate from the city publisher DC Thomson) and iconic, mischievous characters such as Dennis the Menace, Desperate Dan and the Bash Street Kids. Certainly, the creeping creatures on the walls are reminiscent of the naughty tiptoeing of those characters, in pose as well as style.
There is, of course, a long lineage of comic books influencing fine art; indeed, in Edinburgh’s National Gallery, Roy Lichtenstein’s famous paintings of comic book strips are on show now, too. Katsumata, however, seems to be more boldly involved in the world of imagination that comic books capture and invite audiences into; his work is inspired by that sort of imaginative quality rather than a wry statement on melodrama or pop culture. That head-first attitude to the subject matter may concern some, may suggest that it is not art, for that absence of obvious cynicism. Such an assumption would be a mistake, however; while rampant imagination and engagement with pop culture may not be fashionable when it is not tempered by distant criticism (such as Andy Warhol’s or Damien Hirst’s), the surrealism of Katsumata seems to signal that a change may be in order on that front. His expressive and stylish work creates a world that is mesmerising and fascinating; in so doing, it provokes thought in a refreshing, new way, in which the audience need not decipher every vague statement, but explore a whole world of surrealism.