Since he came to prominence during the Japanese pop art movement of the 1990s, the cult illustrator Yoshitomo Nara has intrigued, delighted and disturbed with his curious cast of wide-eyed, balloon-headed characters. These cutesy, cartoon-like creatures at first appear full of innocence and wonder, but on closer inspection reveal what could well be expressions of fearful malevolence. The overall effect is more than a little unnerving.
It is with some trepidation, then, that visitors may approach Nara's latest work, to be showcased at the Hayward's forthcoming Walking in my Mind exhibition. For the occasion, the London gallery will be transformed into a series of installations by 10 different artists, each expressing the "fundamental impulses, feelings, memories and imagination" at the heart of that contributor's work.
Nara's realm is described as a physical manifestation of his "mental landscape", and one imagines that it could be more than a little dark. In the past, Yoshitomo Nara has called his illustrations a sequence of "self-portraits, reflecting [his] memories, [his] conscious and unconscious mind"; the sense of unease lurking behind the innocent façade deriving from own childhood experiences.
Born in Hirosaki in 1959, Nara was raised in poverty and had "an extraordinarily lonely childhood". By way of escapism, the young boy cultivated a wild imagination, largely informed by the expanding manga movement of the 1960s, and punk and rock music, which thrived in post-occupation Japan. Western literature, comic books and television, which had arrived with the American GIs in 1945, also provided a much-needed escape.
The installation, on display later this month, is billed as a homage to the memories triggered every time Nara puts pen to paper. And given that the result is at times a smiling child wielding a hunting knife, and at others a startled-looking, shy dog, it's sure to be a curious journey into the mindset of Yoshitomo Nara.
Walking in my Mind is at the Hayward Gallery, London SE1 (www.haywardgallery. org.uk), from 23 June to 6 September