Slinkies, bobbleheads, stress balls: tchotchkes. “Tchotchke,” a Yiddish term — pronounced chawtch-kee — is an overarching term for the miscellaneous knickknacks or trinkets that adorn many a desk and windowsill. Usually, these baubles come with a discreet “Made in China” sticker and have traveled from a factory line where an army of identical curios were produced, changing from melted plastic to a vibrantly colored treasure. This semester, the Gund Gallery is overflowing with tchotchkes, courtesy of internationally renowned artist Yoko Inoue, in the exhibition, Tchotchke: The Mass-Produced Sentimental Object in Contemporary Art. The exhibition opened Friday, Jan. 16 and was curated by Gund Gallery director Natalie Marsh and guest curator Joy Sperling, Professor of Art and Visual Culture at Denison University. On Tuesday, Jan. 13, Inoue gave a presentation in the gallery describing her affinity for these cheap wonders.
Inoue, born in Kyoto, Japan, moved to the United States and earned her MFA from Hunter College in New York in 2000. Her work has been shown at the Brooklyn Museum, SculptureCenter, Rubin Museum of Art, Bronx Museum of the Arts, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and the Greene Naftali Gallery, among other places in New York and around the country. She currently teaches at Bennington College in Vermont. A multi-disciplinary artist, Inoue often utilizes sculpture, collaborative projects, public performance art and installation to explore the relationship between people, objects and commoditized culture. Initially fascinated by lawn ornaments and other decorations that festoon living spaces, Inoue looked more at pop icons and the substance behind the décor.
Tchotchke replicates a typical flea market, complete with tarp-covered booths and dozens of objects painted alluring colors. This exhibition exemplifies modern consumerist culture and our fascination with shoddy plastic toys and figurines sold at flea markets. This collection includes Japanese cat sculptures called maneki-neko, laughing Buddha statues and Coca-Cola bottles topped with Kewpie doll heads. However, Inoue handcrafted each piece using clay, porcelain and other materials not often associated with plastic desk toys.
Gund Gallery Associate Jenna Wendler ’17 commented on the overwhelmingly vast amount of stuff in the exhibition. “There’s just so much,” she said. “There’s just so many objects and so many pieces and [it’s] very precise.” The typically sterile environment of a museum has been transformed, via brash colors and manic-happy-faced knickknacks, into a cloyingly sweet microcosm, an eye-candy shop.
International phenomenon Hello Kitty is a centerpiece for Inoue. During her talk, she discussed the adorable Japanese feline icon at length, describing how consumers do not typically think about the background of what they purchase. Hello Kitty, for example, is distinct from other characters marketed on miscellaneous materials because Hello Kitty, unlike Mickey Mouse or Pokémon, was developed specifically for consumer goods. She has no TV show or story of her own, but has become a wildly popular icon. What further interested Inoue was Hello Kitty in the context of post-war Japan, especially because Hello Kitty, introduced in the 1970s, was indeed created specifically for purchase. “I thought, ‘Wow, political trauma’s going on and then [Japan introduces] this cute cat for consumption,” Inoue said.
Inoue includes politics in her pieces in other ways. During her discussion, she projected photos of her past exhibits, including one that juxtaposed an array of cartoon character figurines with images of atom bombs falling on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She intended to contemplate notions of weapons — actual warfare contrasted with the assault of pop culture, and how too often an onslaught of cuteness can overshadow larger issues.
Her work resembles that of Andy Warhol or Jeff Koons, two modern artists whose work hones in on the worship of and fascination with mass-produced items, from Campbell’s Soup cans to Play-Doh. Likewise, Inoue’s work contrasts two distinct ideas: the fragile preciousness associated with museum art and the prosaic cheapness of a marketplace. Sperling pointed to this juxtaposition, calling into question an object’s value: “Who gets to say a work of art deserves to be in a museum, and who gets to say it deserves to be in a stall in Chinatown?” Sperling said. Inoue added that simply because her items are in a museum, one assumes they have a certain implicit value.
Inoue reconciles the mundane and the magnificent through her meticulous arrangement of the installation, which stimulates one’s acquisitive instinct — a familiar feeling one may experience in a mall, for example. She imposes this feeling into a museum setting where the viewer may be still has the impulse to find an eye-catching object though he or she cannot actually take anything. “[Y]ou’re looking to ‘shop,’” she said. “You look for selfish or sentimental … reasons. You catch yourself and say, ‘Wait, this is a museum.’” She explained the feelings she replicates in her installation. “If you think about [it],” she said, “I’m very manipulative. I’m interweaving lots of things. It’s not random. … The power of consumer culture … is really how you catch people, even with lies and conspiracy and sincerity.”
Inoue’s Tchotchke: The Mass-Produced Sentimental Object in Contemporary Art is now on display at the Gund Gallery until May 31.