Selegna Sol: On Yoshitomo Nara’s art
By Wyatt Hong
Being cute is an evolutionary advantage. I'm not talking about getting laid. I'm talking about babies. Cuteness is a trait common across mammalian young that prevents them from getting killed. Haven't seen a baby harp seal? Go Google it. Konrad Lorenz, the behavioural scientist-cum-Nazi, termed the constellation of a round face, large eyes, small nose and mouth, kindchenschema ("child schema") and theorised that this activates an emotional response that leads to nurturing and thus survival of the young.
"So cute," I uttered.
I was not at a zoo, but at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which had reopened in April after LA's final and most deadly Covid surge. I was standing in front of a portrait of a girl, perhaps around five years old. The ponds of her wide-set eyes stared out from an oversized face set on shoulders half its width. The two dots and single line that were her nose and mouth checked all boxes of Lorenz's schema. I took a step towards her, breaking the social distancing rule. I could not smell the paint for my mask. What filled my head instead was the smell of Johnson & Johnson's Baby Powder.
I had stumbled into the retrospective of Yoshitomo Nara without ever having heard of him. Yet I had immediately recognised his manga-like portraits. I had passed them in prior lives, in Seoul and New York. Once one is past the age of 30, every painting becomes imbued with personal narrative, and one goes to museums less to be touched than to remember being touched. It had been years since I felt anything in front of a Rothko than endless pangs of deja vu.
I stopped in front of a painting of a girl in a bowl cut wearing a smirk. I looked over at my wife.
"Looks just like you."
She gave me the smirk, mirroring the painting with her large eyes, small chin and the pucker of her mouth. Once, a lady handing out dumpling samples at H-mart had mistaken me for her dad. Do I have a proclivity for kindchenschema? It's true my friends called me a cradle-snatcher when I proposed to my wife during her senior year in college. Don't call the cops quite yet – I am only three years older than she.
In the next gallery was a girl in green, standing waist deep in a pool of milk. I noted again the bowl cut over the round face and the dots that were her nose, but instead of the luminous marbles of her eyes there were crescents of her shut eyelids. The uncertain line of her mouth held back something I could only describe as sorrow. The description on the wall said this was the only major painting Nara had produced in 2011, the year of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
"So sad," I uttered.
"So sad," my wife echoed my words.
What I felt I didn't know. But I knew I felt. Minutes ago, walking through the museum's permanent collection, I had lectured my wife on Kandinsky's theory of colour: how he believed that painting should be like music, how it should appeal to an innate sense of harmony without having to rely on narrative or representation. I was heaving up stuff I had learned in art history class, when my college professor had waxed poetic in front of the giant projector screen like an actor in monologue and, in my auditorium seat, I too had gloated in the exercise of discovering what was not there and putting a name to it.
But here was a child about to cry. It was too simple to need a lecture.
I stepped forward to soothe her, when I realised she would be eternally sad.
In the middle of the gallery, a giant, white teacup held a tower of cherubic heads with bunny ears, the topmost one shedding tears that were the source of the fountain. In her silent weeping, she seemed to be almost sleeping, no longer grimacing like a child crying for her mother, but beyond that stage, when, in exhaustion, she realises that there is no one to hear her, that there is no one who will come.
Walking past a street where children play, you realise you are no longer one. You feel the void in your heart, but what you have lost you cannot name. Stopping a stray ball with your foot and meeting the child's expectant eyes, you feel a kind of sadness, or sympathy, for the transience of their world. And while your life has become a wrecking ball made of glass, breaking or being broken with every human encounter, you hold your swing, for you are in the sanctuary of childhood.
Children occupy a special place in regard to morality. The conditions to which men subject each other and tolerate as fact of life become gross sins when applied to children. In Dostoevsky's last novel The Brothers Karamazov, Ivan tells his brother Alyosha why he doesn't believe in God, or rather, why he rejects His world. His prime example is the suffering of children. No equation, however divine, can justify their suffering:
In a more modern rendition, the story 'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' by Ursula Le Guin describes a perverted utopia whose happiness is conditioned on the torture of a single child:
What seemed utopian becomes plausible, even familiar, once the truth is revealed. "Now do you believe in them? Are they not more credible?" Le Guin asks us, and perhaps this is because our world has always been one where the suffering of children, like all taboos, are commonplace, even necessary.
Unlike Ivan, we no longer have feuds with God – we have done away with imaginary friends – yet we have accepted His world. The divine equation we now call nature. The suffering of the meek is explained by the law of natural selection, and if a baby lizard breaks forth from its egg only to be swallowed up by a snake, that is the unalterable process of evolution. Perhaps in a thousand years, the lizard will evolve poisonous skin through the mathematics of genetics, and in a million, turn into a Godzilla that gobbles up snakes for breakfast. But until then, tough luck for the lizard. A single tear, atoned or unatoned for, is negligible on the metric scale of nature, and one begins to doubt the utility of Lorenz's kindchenschema after watching YouTube videos of polar bears devouring baby seals.
Despite our acquiescence to nature, we have curiously not done away with morality altogether. We have devised a morality based not on religion but on social theory, and the big experiment of our generation is to see if men can be taught to love another not based on a belief in good but for the sake of propriety and political correctness. "Neither sacrifice nor love can result from a social process," wrote Tolstoy, who turned to religion at the end of his life, freed his serfs, gave up his estate, and died like a beggar on a train, and it remains to be seen whether the donations of Mrs Bezos and the Gates Foundation, our movements for lives, our walks for peace, and our chants for love can accomplish what the belief in heaven and fear of eternal damnation could not.
Like many who believe neither in an afterlife nor in Molly-fuelled nirvana, I had accepted in my early 20s that the choice is not between good and evil but between two evils. The world was a jungle and my job was to protect myself and my own, and, if need be, to hurt, even to kill. I had taken to heart Orwell's definition of being human, when he writes on Gandhi's saintliness:
But maybe Orwell is rotting in hell as I write this. Our world is an unforgiving test devised by God, and the judge at the gates of hell is not a man but a child in a bowl cut with wide-set eyes.
We walked through the next galleries without speaking. No longer was small talk among the visitors, or a hint of play. The tone had changed to something common to every great retrospective: when the paintings no longer remain as objects but become the subject, when they start seeing you.
The girls in the paintings lacked any expression: their faces had the blank stare of icons and voodoo dolls. I measured my breath as if I had entered a shrine. The girls stared out from their dark canvases like child oracles: pale, epileptic, their thin, taut lips holding behind some prophesy from God. If I had wanted to hug them before, they now remained distant and ethereal.
I stood in front of one of the last paintings in the exhibition, titled Midnight Truth. It was the same girl with wide-set eyes, yet I understood that I did not know her at all. The contours of her bowl-cut and T-shirt blended into the black backdrop with a softness parallel to a Rothko.
It was only then that I remembered her.
In elementary school in Korea, there had been a girl in my class with blue, wide-set eyes. She was congenitally deaf from the genetic condition that made her eyes beautiful. We had imitated her speech every chance we got, fleeing her as if she were a monster. And as I ran, the deep, guttural cries that she herself could not hear had sometimes given me true horror.
Her eyes watched me silently.
I turned my eyes away. Everywhere were eyes; everywhere children left in the dark. Their thin lips held back their judgement.
Was it too late? Who was responsible for them? I had long given up on being good. But strictly speaking, who was I to take responsibility for a world I did not create, into which I was thrown without consent or warning? And if one did decide, where could one go?
This brings me to the final lines of Le Guin's story, the name of whose utopia is merely Salem, Oregon spelled backwards:
It was time to leave.
"Let's go," I said, and holding my wife's hand, I stepped out into the blinding light of Selegna Sol.QLRS Vol. 20 No. 3 Jul 2021