Two Moons on the Shore, a Wind-Up Bird in Norwegian Wood: Haruki Murakami and Contemporary Art

Curator: Ayelet Zohar


Asim Abu Shakra, Farid Abu Shakra, Tasuku Amada (Japan), Yoonsaing Baik (Korea/ Japan), Dror Ben-Ami, Sanford Biggers (USA), Pesi Girsch, Natsumi Hayashi (Japan), Andrea Hazan, Penny Klepuszewska (UK), Meiro Koizumi (Japan), Nashun Nashunbatu (Mongolia/ Germany), Ayelet Zohar


Haruki Murakami, possibly Japan’s most notable contemporary author, is known for his juxtaposing style, mixing elements from the mundane, real and fantastic worlds. Like weaving fabric, Murakami’s way of employing varying sources into one continuous plot has a strong cinematic quality, hence attracting visual attention. This exhibition does not necessarily refer to specific Murakami imagery, but is more concerned with his literary strategies: dissecting, cutting and pasting, integrating features that otherwise seemingly reside in worlds apart.

My own encounter with Murakami was relatively late. A couple of years ago at an academic conference, I heard a well-informed discussion on Murakami’s Jerusalem Prize speech and was deeply impressed: a Japanese author willing to get his hands muddy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be my kind of author, I thought to myself. After quickly reading Norwegian Wood (which lay on my shelf for too many years), I picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, where I truly fell in love. Murakami, I realised, is not just a person willing to express his views on a remote conflict, he is also prepared to look into Japan’s notorious colonial past, and offer a meticulous reading of some of its events and details in a manner that gained my admiration. In the book, Murakami brings the nightmarish story of the fictional Lieutenant Mamiya, who served Japan’s colonial system during its most blemished years. The Lieutenant recounts the terrifying story of his personal experiences between the rivers of Manchuria, the steppes of Mongolia, the depth of an empty well, concentration camps in Siberia and a miserable journey back to Tokyo.  In the same book, Murakami continues with another horror episode, telling of the killing of animals in the Hsinching (now, Changchun City) zoo, during the last days of the war and Japan’s withdrawal from mainland Asia. This layer of criticism, readiness to engage directly with Japan’s recent and painful past, the presence of the suppressed memories of war within the texture of contemporary Japanese life, is where I met and felt admiration for Murakami.  

Murakami, however, is not a ‘war-writer’. His novels stretch far beyond the images of colonialism and war. Nonetheless, the memories of this painful past, the suppressed events of the twentieth century, continue to torment Japanese society even when unspoken or repressed. Murakami’s greatness is in his willingness to delve into this constrained past and the unconscious energy that drives Japan. In this sense, Murakami’s later literature is first and foremost directed to his Japanese readers, in a manner that allows specific memories to be raised and discussed beyond current social and political taboos. 

Several projects in the current exhibition bring to light Murakami’s courage in making his Japanese readers confront their past and see its affects on their present lives. Several projects in the show directly bring this aspect to the fore: Meiro Koizumi’s (b. 1976, Yokohama, Japan) performances and embodiments of the Kamikaze figure/image: in A Voice of a Dead Hero (2009) Koizumi is dressed as a wounded Kamikaze pilot, crawling along the streets from Kudanshita Subway station to Yasukuni Jinja in Tokyo. Yasukuni is the shrine that houses the souls of WW2 dead, and infamously serves as a point of reference in disputes concerning the memory of war, Japan’s readiness to take responsibility for wartime atrocities, and re-evaluating the anger and hate still felt by its Asian and Pacific neighbours. Another interesting reference to this novel comes from Asim Abu-Shakra’s (1960-1989, Palestinian-Israeli) image of a severed rhinoceros head lying on a chair, a painful reminder of Murakami’s story about the zoo massacre. Nashun Nashunbatu’s (b. 1969, Ordos, Inner Mongolia, China) work depicts the barren landscapes of the immense steppes of Mongolia and north-east Asia.

Another subject haunting Murakami’s novels is the presence of characters described as detached, lonely, unhappy, isolated and living aimless lives, which represent many of Japan’s younger generations. Murakami expresses deep remorse as well as criticism toward Japan’s recent consumer capitalism. His books are filled with descriptions of victims of this assumed successful-order, exposed as a tragic personal and societal failure. While its victims are less obvious than the victims of war, they are enslaved by a system of financial success, blind to any other personal or social aspect. Japan’s economic miracle of the 1960s-1980s is spelled through descriptions of supressed family life, depressed personal desires, unhappy co-workers, confined minds, all geared up to the great machine of economic success. But despite this rigorous, well-greased mechanism of fiscal success, no one can control the inner minds, imaginings and personal desires of the suppressed characters that lie among Murakami’s novels. Therefore, the main conflicts facing Muakami’s characters lie within the tension between the demand for success in social and financial terms, and the personal desire for creativity and love, and the failure to express either; the manipulative power of enchanting female characters and their dubious aims; and the cultural trap between personal aspirations and collective success.

Several artists in the show refer to these dilemmas: Natsumi  Hayashi’s (b. 1982, Saitama, Japan) images of lonesome, weak, floating young women, in the city or within personal dwellings, reflect the portrayals of numerous young women described in Murakami’s novels: charming, susceptible, quirky, at times fashionable and chic young women, yet also lonely, isolated and detached. Hayashi’s women bring to mind Fuka-Eri (1Q84), Naoko (Norwegian Wood), Kiki (A Wild Sheep Chase), Creta Kano (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), or the girl Colonel Sanders provides for Hoshino (Kafka on the Shore), all may be variations on his elaborate imaginings of women. To some extent these descriptions of precious, vulnerable, yet strong and destructive female power, can be compared to the concept of moé which defines female images in the manga/anime culture.[1] A similar experience raises in Koizumi’s second project – My Voice Cannot Reach You (2009) – where a young man, isolated within his own imaginary capsule, holds a long-distance call with a fictional partner (his mother?) while actually speaking to customer service representatives who politely answer his desperate quest for closeness and intimacy in an absurd play of misrecognition; Tasuku Amada (b. 1981, Niigata, Japan) creates an empty city of concrete buildings and huge bunnies who stroll around, echoing a sense of loneliness and estrangement, of animals leading lives free from human control, as in Murakami’s 1Q84 Town of Cats. Adding to this is Penny Klepuszewska’s (Leeds, UK) images of a single object laying in complete darkness, that might reflect Tengo’s father’s seclusion in the sanatorium, on the eve of his final departure (1Q84), or Kafka-kun’s isolation in the mountain hut (Kafka on the Shore).

Emptied locations, remote farms, secluded cabins, dense forests, desert islands and inaccessible towns occupy Murakami’s fiction. These stand as metonymies of his characters’ loneliness and isolation, of their misery and aloneness. Many of the scenes in A Wild Sheep Chase and Kafka on the Shore take place between dense concrete cities, and remote forests, as in Yoonsaing Baik (b. 1955, Busan, Korea) mysterious forest scene, watched from a bird’s eye view, painted in traditional (Northern) ink-painting style. Sanford Biggers (b. 1970 Los Angeles, CA), fully dressed in formal Japanese garb, sits quietly in the midst of a dense forest, waiting for an equally formally dressed young woman, who comes to shave his years long dreadlocks. The tension between the young African American, the rhythm and content of a traditional Japanese ceremony of retirement (for Sumo wrestlers), or entry into monkhood in the Buddhist tradition, form a Murakamiesque scene of surreal juxtaposition. Pesi Girsch (b. 1955, Munich, Germany) relates to the “forest” in her backyard - in a typical Murakami-like move, she inserts objects and people to complete a dreamlike scene: a bed with a plump sweet-looking baby and a white kitten; a male torso, hanging upside-down; then, the naked man holding the baby upright, or sitting on his lap. The entire scene is cut and interrupted by dark shadows and the plethora of leaves, branches and silhouettes that make the image a vivid tableau of an uncanny environment.

Last, but not least, are the real heroes of Murakami: creatures of relentless passion and comfort, silence and cruelty - cats. These come in every shade and spirit – man-eating cats, a cat-slaughtering man, a person speaking in cat-language, sneaky cats, invisible cats, secretive and lazy cats. Cats are present in nearly all of Murakami’s stories and novels.  They are present in this exhibition as well: Farid Abu Shakra (b. 1963, Um al Fahem, Israel) shows a white-on-white invisible cat, made like a delicate lace of pierced holes, where light softly penetrates through the merged image. In another painting a cat sneaks over a background of diving fighter aircrafts, where the enigmatic creature serves as near-Avatar of the author/painter in the scene (like in Natsume Sôseki’s novel I am a Cat). Asim Abu Shakra’s cat, on the other hand, is a reminder of Noboru Wataya, Toru’s lazy cat that disappears mysteriously after years of behaving like a cuddly creature, always laying on the porch and watching outside (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

Andrea Hazan’s (b. 1970, Buenos Aires, Argentina) installation is a space of vanishing memoirs, of objects and recollections sinking into the room’s walls, leaving only traces of a past presence.  Like Toru Okada, the hero of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle who dives into the well’s walls and passes into the hotel building, destructing any sense of time and reality, past and present, so does Hazan’s display of furniture, cutlery, teapot and samovar, wall-decorations and tableware dissolve into the cemented background that serves as a signifier of a lost past and transcending materiality.

Dror Ben-Ami (b. 1956, Israel) presents dark images of butterfly wings dissected and separated from the insect’s body. Ben-Ami’s work carries a distressing sense of death and beauty; cut-out elements, delicate, fragile particles that lie on the paper’s surface as eternal, decay-defying objects that keep their beauty intact, despite the obvious image of death and dissection. These paintings serve as a reference to a certain spirit in Murakami’s novels – of elements that show and glitter, then disappears and remain unexplainable - like the Air Chrysalis in 1Q84, the well in The Wind-Up Chronicle or the absent traces of disappearing objects in the short stories of the Vanishing Elephant.

Finally, I have added several images of my own work, a visual reference to my attraction to Murakami’s style of writing, and the worlds he creates and presents. Some of these works were created as early as 2005, others were completed recently. Several make specific references to Murakami’s images, especially the double moon in the sky, an image set in binoculars format, or the imprint of Charlie parker’s Ornithology record.


To be able to combine these visual references with Murakami’s literature, the exhibition presents its main wall as a site of a new syntax, juxtaposing visual works with textual references scanned from Murakami’s books. This wall of cross references is the main curatorial statement of the exhibition, where the syntax and assortment of art and text become the pivotal place of reference, as it creates a new perception, and a visual layer of interpretation of the work. This wall-installation also challenges conventional norms of display – linking text and image, under the notion that context and association create a new project which is able to embark into an innovative state of relations and meaning created among the interwoven references arising among the works.


Ayelet Zohar

[1] See for example the discussion of moé and phallic girls by Tamaki Saito 2009’s text: ‘The Asymmetry of Masculine/Feminine otaku Sexuality: moé, yaoi and Phallic girls’, Ch. 8 in: Ayelet Zohar (ed). PostGender: Gender, Sexuality and Performativity in Japanese Culture, Newcastle-upon-Tyne:  Cambridge Scholars Publication, 155-70.