Between Pop art and Takashi Murakami’s Superflat lies a minefield of bad taste, a universe of objectified femininity and commodified childhood, endless poop and booby jokes, frivolous consumerism and comics that border on child porn. In the ’90s, that morass was sanitized and repackaged as contemporary Japanese art. One key phenomenon that failed to graduate—which is unfortunate, because it challenges Murakami’s portrait of ’80s and ’90s Japan as a land of anime-consuming nerds and provides evidence of the Americanized obsessions of the early postwar period lingering to the end of the century—was hyperrealism.
While hyperrealism in Japan was strong in painting and comics, the trend’s figurehead, Sorayama Hajime, worked in commercial illustration. Sorayama is represented in MoMA’s permanent collection, but for something that is fairly unrepresentative of his oeuvre: the design of Sony’s robotic pet dog AIBO (1999). Since the late ’70s, his detailed ink-and-airbrush images of chrome-plated female robots have served, for example, in ads for Suntory Whisky, as cover art for Heavy Metal magazine and Aerosmith’s album Just Push Play (2001), and as masturbation fodder for the tens of thousands of adolescent males around the globe who have bought his book Sexy Robots (1983). Inspired by the likes of Playboy as a young man in the ’60s, Sorayama typically modeled his droid vixens on old-school pinups and nudie magazine photos. Between 1995 and 2004, Penthouse carried his hard-core images of leggy white women spread-eagle or puckered in bondage. After dwelling on perfect curves and glistening flesh, the eye could move to shreds of diaphanous and crinkly metallic clothing, where Sorayama’s technical facility with transparencies and reflections was on display.
Even if you are into this sort of stuff, Sorayama’s recent show at Nanzuka would have been a letdown. The show’s title, “An actress is not a machine, but they treat you like a machine,” is a quote attributed to Marilyn Monroe, who was the focal point of the show. Sorayama has, unimaginatively, taken classic images of Marilyn—standing over the air vent, stretched out nude on red velvet, posing in cheesecake publicity shots—and repainted them in acrylic, giving her chrome skin, hinged joints, and in some cases an illuminated visor for eyes. The series pays loving homage to the pinup of yesteryear, but this is a cold stroll down memory lane. Where Sorayama’s hyperrealism had succeeded in the past was not so much in photorealistic perfection as in the creation of a superreality of greater intensity through selective accentuation of visual hot spots, which turned the female body into a confederation of erogenous zones. These Marilyns, however, are all undifferentiated glimmer. There was no question of Sorayama riffing on Marilyn in a queer vein, à la Morimura Yasumasa. Yet he might have remained straight as an arrow and still made something compelling by, say, going all the way, as Paul McCarthy did with his raw, naked That Girl (2012-13), and providing fans an uncanny pornographic tour of Marilyn’s legend. Sorayama has forgotten how to be perverse, even in his own retrogressive way.
There were also two new sculptures in the show, both classic “sexy robots” made out of fiberglass and painted a gleaming metallic. One was life-size, standing contrapposto with an arm draped daintily over a hip, her nipples, garter belt and high heels picked out in gold plating. The other was a foot and a half high, sitting on a cube with one leg drawn up, as if sunning herself on the side of a swimming pool. Hyperrealism has come a long way since the ’80s (its recent erotic highlight is Frank Benson’s Juliana, 2015), and so has mediated sex. We have yet to reach the level of Spike Jonze’s Her (2013), where flesh-and-blood humans are only desirable to the extent that they facilitate the primary fantasy, sex with machines. But remember that Superflat began in Japan almost 20 years ago with Murakami’s interest in the fact that non-naturalistic cartoon characters were the preferred erotic partners of an entire subculture. Sorayama has enough loyal patrons that he can ignore these developments. But it would have been so easy to get that little robot sculpture moving, like Sony’s AIBO, and bring his quaint Star Wars-age technofetishism and nostalgia for the Playboy “good life” into rough alignment with our own age of virtual companionship.