Into the wolf’s mouth

Michael Lucken


At one of his exhibits in Tokyo, a visitor once told Nicolas Buffe reproachfully, “Your work is inspired by the world of manga and cartoons!” as if to say, “It’s close — too close — to what’s done in Japan.” “What a coincidence! Here we are!” the artist might have replied, having lived in Tokyo since 2007 and just finished his doctorate at the Tokyo University of the Arts.

Mixing themes borrowed from the Renaissance, Hollywood movies, and Japanese cartoons, the work of Nicolas Buffe challenges boundaries and, with them, identities: identities of people, of cultures, and of styles. Can Buffe’s work find a place in the Japanese “we”? Can Japan be part of a Western “I”? Beyond that, to what extent are these distinctions still meaningful?

In Europe, for more than two centuries, Asian artists, especially Japanese artists, were considered imitators, whether of local traditions or of European art forms. This judgment, with its extremely negative connotation, was a way for Westerners to assert themselves in contrast as “creators” and to justify their right of conquest. The Japanese themselves assimilated these values. By 1913, Sôseki was asking his fellow Japanese to stop copying foreign styles. “When we think about it, it is possible that a time may come when, far from merely imitating others, we will have our own originality and independence. We must!” proclaimed the novelist.[1] And several years later, in 1927, the “orientalist,” Kuwabara Jitsuzô, a professor at the University of Kyoto, applied the stereotype to others — “The Chinese are, in general, gifted imitators but not doers”[2 ]— thereby emphasizing Japanese superiority. By then, Japan had completely assimilated the values of romantic modernity, in which mimetic desire is a driving force.[3]

Since the 1970s, the Japanese pictorial aesthetic has achieved growing success internationally, and the imitative balance has shifted. In Europe and in the U.S., tens of thousands of young people draw in Japanese manga style. Should we simply turn the tables on ourselves and lament this state of affairs? No, we should use this shift first and foremost as a chance to reflect on modern values and the division often expressed by the word “we”: “we Westerners,” “we Japanese.” Isn’t it ironic that Japan has progressively adopted the substance of modern values — the emphasis on the value of the individual and science, the ascendancy of creation over imitation, and economic liberalism — and that we lack the vocabulary to describe the community of modern cultures beyond distinctions of race and geography?

Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream has long been a source of inspiration for Nicolas Buffe. I remember how passionately he spoke about it when he was still a student in Paris. Poliphilo is a young man whose love is unrequited. Persevering, he finally succeeds in seducing the one he loves. He kisses her, on the verge of realizing his desire, but she disappears at the very moment he thinks she is his. This illustrated tale from the Renaissance speaks of the impossibility of one individual uniting with another, even in dream. At the moment when one expects to lose oneself in the other through love, one is brought back within one’s own confines. There is only “I”; “we” is an illusion. From this perspective, Poliphilo is a modern man alienated from his lover. He can desire, he can try sometimes to lose himself in the other or in a group, but he knows in his heart that he will never achieve his goal. Even today, this material is definitely workable subject matter!

Since the 1920s, Japanese philosophers have pondered how to overcome the contradictions of modernity. Inspired by Heidegger and German phenomenology, writers such as Nakai Masakazu have explored the question of distance (or ma in Japanese) as the space of the intersubjective relationship.[4] To be interested in ma is to see space as the tension between individual objects that are by necessity connected. For example, the distance we place between musical notes highlights each one, but it also connects them. On a broader scale, we can examine one culture at a distance from another to better show how they differ. The emphasis on ma was Japan’s response to the assault of the Western colonial perspective.

The work of Nicolas Buffe blurs distance: between classical and popular culture, fine art and entertainment, gravity and frivolity, the ideal of beauty and the decorative function, Western references and Eastern references, the perennial and the ephemeral, the museum and the street. Most of the oppositions that shape modern aesthetics push and shove within it. It isn’t satisfied with observing the confrontational hierarchies of Western modernity or claiming the Japanese ma, i.e. tidy space that is respectful of differences and situations. On the contrary, “Enter the wolf’s mouth,” it says. “Go see what’s in his belly!” There is something proliferant in Buffe’s work, as if it were an organic structure growing up against its own limits. In this sense, it has a decorative dimension. The decorative is not an end in itself, but rather the means to ignore existing boundaries and to break free of established systems.

In late 2012, Kitano Takeshi published a book entitled The Anatomy of the Idiot. Despite its farcical tone, the book is a serious reflection on the question of ma, which Kitano questions and critiques: “The sense of distance [ma] for which the Japanese are so gifted could become a hindrance to the realization of new things,” he writes.[5] By mixing genres and emphasizing gateways, Buffe not only looks critically at the twentieth century, but also proposes a stimulating solution through art. While painting in Europe has long been conceptualized, to use Alberti’s term, as an “open window” on history and the world, Nicolas Buffe sees it as a “door.” In fact, he has realized and shown a number of works in the form of doors: on top of existing structures, as at the Diane von Furstenberg shop in Paris in 2008; at the entrance to his exhibit “The Game of Love and Chance” in New York in 2009, and in interior courtyards such as at the French Embassy in Japan in 2009. Even the homepage of his personal website features a drawing of a door. The arches and columns that structure his compositions are also doors of a sort. Notably, this way of accentuating gateways also evokes video games, in which the goal is often to find a gateway to the next level.
All this is just a game? Yes, of course… and yet!
By making the painting a door, not a window, the viewer doesn’t have to feel he is inside looking out, here looking there, in the present looking at the past, or a “we” looking at a “them.” He can look in from one side of the wall, but he can also take a few steps and look around from the other side. This choice has not only a strong aesthetic dimension, but also an ethical one. To invite the viewer to pass through walls — whether physically or metaphorically makes no difference here — emphasizes the plurality of experiences and points of view. Plurality is an as-yet poorly supported but essential concept. Plurality is the opposite of singularity, but it is also the opposite of diversity, which is simply the juxtaposition of singularities. Furthermore, it is not a mixture that pretends to be a “natural” fusion. Plurality means accepting a form of disjunction of the subject — accepting faults, fractures, and contradictions. It means refusing the isolated “I” as well as the indefinite “we.” It does not mean questioning individualism — the individuality of Nicolas Buffe’s work is certainly obvious — but rather accepting that individuals are complex and not beholden to one master. Why is recognizing what is obvious for many still so terrifying?

(English translation by Linda Beamer)

1. Natsume Sôseki, “Mohô to Dokuritsu,” Natsume Sôseki Zenshû, vol. 33, Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten, 1957, p. 125.

2. Kuwabara Jitsuzô, “Shinajin no Bunjaku to Hoshu,” Kuwabara Jitsuzô Zenshû, vol. 1, Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten, 1968, p. 487.

3. See René Girard, Mensonge romantique et verité romanesque (English. translation, Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, 1965), Paris, Hachette, 1961.

4. See Nakai Masakazu, “Geijutsu no Ningengakuteki Kôsatsu,” Nakai Masakazu Zenshu ̄ , vol. 2, Tokyo, Bijutsu Shuppansha, 1981, p. 3-10.

5. Bito Takeshi, Manuke no Kozo, Shinchosha, 2012, p. 157.

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