ART / Not floating but drowning: Iain Gale on Masami Teraoka, an artist who brings the 'Floating World' down to earth

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The Independent Culture
THE JAPANESE language is often puzzling. Take, for instance, the word Ukiyo. When written using certain ancient Buddhist characters, it refers to the everyday world of mundane troubles, lost illusions and despair. However, written using updated characters, as it was from the 17th century, Ukiyo can also denote the famous 'floating world' of untroubled hedonism which reigned in Edo between 1615 and 1868, and which is memorably captured in the graceful Ukiyo-e (floating world paintings) of Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai. Now, however, a contemporary Japanese artist, Masami Teraoka, appears to have returned the word to something of its original meaning in a unique series of watercolours, on show in London from today, which offer a cautionary tale for mankind on the brink of self-destruction.

An understanding of the nuances of Teraoka's work is helped by some familiarity with traditional Ukiyo-e, and a contemporaneous exhibition at the British Museum provides the perfect opportunity. The big names are all present: Moronobu, Hiroshige, Hokusai and Utamaro. Here are the beautiful, porcelain-skinned women wrapped in kimonos, revealed by their titles to be courtesans and geishas. We observe them taking part in the 'tea ceremony', reading letters, at their toilette and merely sitting in contemplation, often accompanied by their cats or babies. Other pictures feature elegant Samurai warriors and scenes from Kabuki plays and fables. There are also a handful of the infamous erotic subjects, sexually explicit and often disturbingly savage, which hint at the reality behind the tea-house shutters.

Although stylistic development of the Ukiyo-e is evident over the 250 years covered by these images, all of the pictures possess that distinctive uniformity of handling and faultless, if mannered, draughtsmanship which emanates from an unswerving technical heritage. The Ukiyo-e artist would kneel before a sheet of tightly stretched paper, with the tools of his trade - ink, stone, brushes and pots of colour - laid before him, and slowly take up the brush in the first stage of a laborious process described by the Western observer Josiah Conder in 1889:

'With a very fine brush, and with the thickest black ink, the outlines and central black dot of the pupils of the eyes were put in . . . With a very fine long pointed brush taking up the thickest ink from the ink stone, the single hairs were drawn over the coils of hair, carefully following the curves of their contours . . . The same brush, charged with rather lighter ink, was used for the thin separate hairs . . .'

Masami Teraoka would recognise every painstaking step. In the Hawaii studio where the painter has worked since 1980, he kneels on the floor, surrounded by china palettes, and selects his brush with care before drawing the first line of a new work with a single faultless stroke. Hokusai would feel at home here but whether he would understand the multi-layered imagery of his spiritual descendant is another question.

Despite inheriting the technique of the Ukiyo-e masters, Teraoka, who has worked in America for the last 25 years, has used it to create a very different painted universe. This is not the sensual paradise of the 'floating world' but a grotesque parody of it, conceived with the specific aim of emphasising the self-destructive decadence of late 20th-century society.

Evidence of Teraoka's concern with such a theme first surfaced in his work in the 1970s, when he made the radical move from his early Mondrian-influenced abstraction to the traditional methods of his native land. Perversely, the motivating force behind Teraoka's return to tradition was the consumer- obsessed imagery of late Pop Art. This drove him in 1974 to produce his first series which combined the two styles. In Mcdonald's Hamburgers Invading Japan, half-eaten burgers and their wrappers appear in a number of paintings in the style of the early 19th- century master Utagawa Kunisada, their very presence implying the violation of Japanese cultural identity. This culture clash has since retained a place in Teraoka's work with increased degrees of refinement, and features strongly in his Hanauma Beach series of 1985, in which Samurai are reduced to the status of tourists and tour guides and their swords transformed into golf clubs.

Since 1979, however, Teraoka has also tackled more urgent issues. His concern with ecological catastrophe is evident in such works as his La Brea Tar Pits series and Los Angeles Sushi Ghost Tales, in which, as in a Kabuki play, a ghost with the head of a fish appears to the artist to deliver a solemn warning of the fatal consequences of polluting oceanic life.

In many instances, the distinguishing line between the immediate appearance of Teraoka's paintings and traditional Ukiyo-e becomes hard to discern. A classic example is his Wave Series of 1984; a triumph of erotica which mirrors Hokusai's well-known 1814 illustrations to Young Pines, in which a nubile female pearl diver is orally ravished, in explicit detail, by an octopus. It is only by her sub-aqua mask and the witty cartouche: 'Woman and Giant Lunch Box' that we can distinguish Teraoka's version. Such details guide us through the complex symbolism of what is possibly the artist's greatest achievement to date - the Aids Series.

Although to some they might seem as simple as any state-funded poster campaign, these powerful and often horrific paintings, filled with dread and truth, could become the enduring images of the post-Aids era. Within an ancient didactic iconographical tradition, Teraoka has achieved an admirable marriage of technique and narrative content. As he himself explains: 'The message and the beauty go hand in hand. The balance of the two is of the utmost importance.' Having enticed us into his world with the simple beauty of his imagery, Teraoka hits us hard with his message.

Unlike his artistic ancestors, he makes no attempt to conceal the earthy reality of the 'floating world' but presents it to us, with all its dreadful consequences, in a polemic for safe sex. Elegant Ukiyo-e scenes in which courtesans entertain clients are re-interpreted by Teraoka as scenes from a Kabuki play. Although, as in the traditional image, the ghost of a geisha's lover might appear, in Teraoka's version the phantom is transformed from folklore character to warning device. We can see from the lesions which cover his spirit body that he has died of Aids. In his hands he bears a packet of condoms. He has learnt his lesson too late. The message is clear.

Similarly, in other pictures, women are no longer prepared simply to pose as decorative objects. They bite open packets of condoms and test them for strength. Once unwrapped, these prophylactics are revealed to be of gigantic proportions - a witty commentary by the artist on the priapic exaggerations of traditional Ukiyo-e erotica. But beneath such wit Teraoka is not pulling any punches. The demon of Aids is a constant presence in his recent work, just as the hideous demons of more familiar diseases - smallpox, measles and leprosy - crouch and hover in a votive plaque at the British Museum, painted by the artist Soga in the 1860s.

However, while in Soga's painting they are forced to submit to the powerful god Susano'o-no-Mikoto, Teraoka knows that no deity will intervene to make a pact with the demons of our modern plague. We can only save ourselves, and maybe that is where the artist can help.

The Waves and Plagues series by Masami Teraoka are at the Rebecca Hossack Gallery at St James's, 197 Piccadilly, W1 (071-434 4401) to 16 Oct.

Ukiyo-e Paintings from the museum's collection are at the British Museum, Great Russell St, WC1 (071-323 8525) from 25 September to 31 January 1993.

In his Geisha in Bath of 1988, Masami Teraoka looks directly to the Ukiyo-e tradition. With its single figure image, his picture bears a close resemblance to the delicate paintings of courtesans undressing produced by two masters: Keisai Eisen in the 1830s and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi in the 1860s. Here, a courtesan, notable for the classic Utagawa school characteristics of aquiline nose and protruding lower lip, sits in her bathtub. However, rather than the paper tissue which she might have held in her teeth in the traditional images, in Teraoka's painting she attempts to bite open a condom packet, in readiness for the arrival of her first client. Above her head further condom packets fly through the air. The background text translates as the girl's thoughts: 'Ma nakanaka akanai . . . I cannot open this at all . . . I don't have any scissors . . . I hate to go borrowing scissors from next door . . . ' she complains. Having eventually opened the packet with her teeth she is appalled by the contents: 'This could be spermicide; it's so slimy . . . Oh no] Kono tokudai . . . this is the giant size, the export model . . . Damn it] My boyfriend won't be able to use it]' Taking as his motif the geisha, his symbol for traditional Japan and immovable attitudes, Teraoka emphasies the suicidal lack of interest of a pleasure-based culture in safe sex. However, as a lighter counterpoint, Teraoka tells us that the condom packets are carried through the air by the breeze: 'Kon domu ga tonde yuku yuku', and so parodies the classic narrative of Japanese erotic literature in which lovers cry at orgasm - 'iku, iku'.

(Photograph omitted)