The Doraemon Exhibition Singapore 2022: Fine Art versus Fan Art

5 Nov 2022 to 5 Feb 2023. 10am to 7pm

National Museum of Singapore. 93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897

When I first heard of the Doraemon Exhibition I thought it was an exhibition all about Doraemon, where visitors get a glimpse of original manga sketches, design notes, artefacts belonging to the creator, anime and movie adaptation concepts, and possibly rare collectibles and such. There are indeed some reproduced and original comic pages in one of the galleries, but the Doraemon Exhibition is primarily a contemporary art exhibition, where participating artists created their own interpretation of Doraemon. There is a wide variety of media ranging from painting, photography to installation and performance art. Some artists took the figurative approach, representing characters from the series while adding their own stylistic treatment. Others opt for abstraction, expressing sentiments and ideas without direct visual references to the series.

doaremon exhibition 1
The very first work visitors will encounter in the first gallery are two paintings by Takashi Murakami in his signature superflat style, with characters from Doraemon alongside Kaikai, Kiki and flowers. Probably the most prominent and popular work for many visitors.
I Wonder When We’ll Grow Up (2017). A monumental painting of Shizuka by Tomoyoshi Sakamoto, inspired by a scene from Doraemon the Movie: Nobita’s Little Space War.
A painting by Makoto Aida. Who’s taking a shower? Iykyk 😏
Doraemon Dress by Yasumasa Norimura. A dress with distinctive character elements. One of the two fashion(?) design works featured in the show.
Doraemon Dress by Yasumasa Norimura. A dress with distinctive character elements. One of the two fashion(?) design works featured in the show.

As Doraemon is such a prominent cultural icon, all of the artists involved in this exhibition are fans, having read the comics or watched the animations in their childhood. Technically speaking, artworks created by fans in response to an existing work are known as fan art. I remember my school days where art teachers looked at fan art with great disdain. In fact, anything borderline pop culture-ish was frowned upon. In university, some of my animation professors openly hated “anime style”, and when I became an art educator, fellow art teachers actively discouraged students from drawing “manga” (they call everything manga, or worse say “draw anime”) for their final year projects. If popular culture is deemed inherently ill fitting for high art spaces, what distinguishes these works as contemporary art to be exhibited in high-profile museum spaces, whereas other forms of fan creations are relegated to domains of mass consumption? What has this exhibition done to bridge the gaps between art and popular culture?

Gravity Adjuster by Mr. (That’s the artist’s name, not a misspell). His official biography states that he has “leapt into the field of contemporary art from Japan’s “otaku” culture”.
Gravity Adjuster by Mr. (That’s the artist’s name, not a misspell). His official biography states that he has “leapt into the field of contemporary art from Japan’s “otaku” culture”.

Perhaps one could argue that the artworks shown are more technically accomplished and conceptually sophisticated than the average fan art. Indeed, they are visually stunning to behold in terms of scale, complexity and the innovative use of mediums and processes beyond the arsenal of regular fan creators. Two of my favourite works are multimedia installations in darkened rooms: The Bell and the Sun – Secret Gadgets Museum by Ryota Kuwakubo consists of a tiny model train moving on a train track surrounded by everyday items such as shuttlecocks, spray bottles and baskets. LED lights mounted on the side and front of the train illuminate the objects on front and around the track as the train moves along, casting magnified shadows on the surrounding walls like a full-scale projection of the model train’s perspective of its journey in the land of the familiar turned strange. Another work, Chrono-space by Akinori Goto, involves light projection from a ceiling projector down on a nylon sculpture. As beams of light sweep from one side of the sculpture to the other, the structure of the nylon fibre catches light and forms shapes of Doraemon characters, before slowly morphing into abstract patterns again. Hidden behind dark curtains, not many discovered these mesmerising works, allowing me the pleasure to immerse in silent contemplation alone in the dark.

The Bell and the Sun - Secret Gadgets Museum by Ryota Kuwakubo. Smart use of light and shadows to turn familiar objects into strange alien landscapes through projection. The blue bell is made with two plastic baskets, the type that is often used to wash vegetables.
The Bell and the Sun - Secret Gadgets Museum by Ryota Kuwakubo. Smart use of light and shadows to turn familiar objects into strange alien landscapes through projection. The blue bell is made with two plastic baskets, the type that is often used to wash vegetables.
Akinori Goto, Chrono-space (2017), nylon projection (©Fujiko-Pro, image courtesy National Museum of Singapore). No amount of photographs and videos can do justice to the immersive experience of viewing these works. Go look at them! Image from Hyperallergic: https://hyperallergic.com/783843/national-museum-of-singapore-world-debut-doraemon-exhibition/
Akinori Goto, Chrono-space (2017), nylon projection (©Fujiko-Pro, image courtesy National Museum of Singapore). No amount of photographs and videos can do justice to the immersive experience of viewing these works. Go look at them! Image from Hyperallergic: https://hyperallergic.com/783843/national-museum-of-singapore-world-debut-doraemon-exhibition/

As any angsty art student will soon find out if they study art theory, the determination of a work’s artistic worthiness has little to do with their intrinsic qualities, but very much to do with who made them and for whom they are made. Arthur Danto’s Institutional theory basically states that if a work is produced for “the art world” (made for the fine art market and recognised by important institutions and people such as museum directors, curators, fine art dealers, critics, and relevant media) then it is legitimate high art. The artists involved in the Doraemon exhibition were responding to an invitation by the exhibition organiser to produce works specifically meant for museum displays, so from the onset their positions have been predetermined. Perhaps more importantly, all the artists are already accomplished practitioners in their current domain, and none of them makes comics.

An abstract composition titled Light and Shadow by Calligrapher Suitou Nakatsuka. At a glance there seems to be no direct visual references to Doraemon, but it is inspired by elements from Doraemon the Movie: Nobita and the Birth of Japan. Nakatsuka used a single six-panel folding screen to depict various kanji words symbolic of the story, using colour schemes of three characters from the narrative.
An abstract composition titled Light and Shadow by Calligrapher Suitou Nakatsuka. At a glance there seems to be no direct visual references to Doraemon, but it is inspired by elements from Doraemon the Movie: Nobita and the Birth of Japan. Nakatsuka used a single six-panel folding screen to depict various kanji words symbolic of the story, using colour schemes of three characters from the narrative.

Fine art has been challenging its own boundaries by incorporating what was once deemed “non-art”, but as comic fans or creators, is it possible for comics to cross this boundary between perceived high and low art? Must comic artists “take the leap” across the great cultural ravine and reposition themselves as fine artists in order to find a place in museums and galleries? Is the art world and the comic world mutually exclusive because they cater to “different markets”? Doraemon exhibition is certainly one among many that seeks to bring together patrons of these two segregated markets, and I certainly hope that there can be more comic-focused exhibitions presented in spaces once reserved for fine art.

Comic strips by Akira Yamaguchi, presented in an ink and wash style. This strip is about Nobita and Doraemon having a kissing contest. All Japanese materials came with English translation on the side.
Comic strips by Akira Yamaguchi, presented in an ink and wash style. This strip is about Nobita and Doraemon having a kissing contest. All Japanese materials came with English translation on the side.
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