The 19th century in the Netherlands was known as the Dutch Golden Age. At the time, the Dutch enjoyed prosperity and advancement in the fields of commerce, technology, military, and the arts. Under this economic atmosphere, many affluent merchant families collected elaborate dollhouses to signify their wealth and social status. Amongst avid collectors, one lady from Amsterdam by the name of Petronella Oortman had the most remarkable custom-made dollhouses - all the minute details of the interior were faithfully replicated to scale, and all the miniatures are made with the same materials as the original. This impressive dollhouse cost as much as a real house by the canal - it was definitely an extraordinarily expensive hobby. The basic form of the dollhouse is similar to that of a tall cabinet. It opens up fully in the front to reveal the interior, so viewers can freely let their gazes roam from room to room and marvel at the meticulous craftsmanship.
Yoshitomo Nara's three-dimensional work Our Thai House Mini is also a miniature house. This is an especially rare format within the oeuvre of the artist - the form of the house references the Thai stilt house with a vaulted roof. Yoshitomo Nara uses the pseudonym YNG on multiple occasions to exhibit his fantastically coloured wooden houses. For instance, for the solo exhibition in Toyota city in Japan this year, the artist showed a small house that allowed viewers to enter and view the interior as well as paintings inside. Our Thai House Mini is an exceptual work that is in the style of the dollhouse - it is a highly coveted work that has tremendous potential for private collection.
Conventional paintings and sculptural works require viewers to directly view the surface - they rarely involve narration of the interior. From 2005 to 2006, Yoshitomo Nara created giant wood crates with windows for viewers to look into in order to appreciate the interior designs as well as paintings. However, the exterior of these works are no different from ordinary shipping crates. Our Thai House Mini is a unique work that balances the visual experience of both the interior and the exterior. Constructed with long wooden slats, the house has a distinct flavour that draws from Eastern cultures. Planks that were painted pastel blue alternate with the unpainted ones to create geometric patterns that suggest vibrant rhythms. The richly textured surface of the reclaimed wood gives this work an aged exterior with its natural weathering effect.
Other than painting on canvases, Yoshitomo Nara also had created numerous works on wooden boards. These works belong to the Billboard series - typically, they are bold and brilliant in terms of character modelling and palette. At the back of Our Thai House Mini, it hangs such an iconic work from the Billboard series. This work is rich in narrative and details - it is comparable to Nara's larger works. On the front of the house stood a girl wearing a pair of sunglasses. Her proportion in relation to the house gives the illusion that she is standing directly in front of the viewer. On the roof, it is written hello in German, and the girl greets the viewers with text Wie Geht's (how are you?). Perhaps it is signalling the viewers to enter the house to explore the piece. In establishing this friendly relationship, it highlights the mutual trust between the artist and the viewers.
Jonathan Swift's island nation of tiny people in Gulliver's Travels does not exist in real life. Yet, fantasy worlds can be constructed when imagination is channeled into art. When viewers stand in front of Our Thai House Mini, rather than hoping to see tiny people inside the house, perhaps they wish to shrink down and step into Our Thai House Mini. They can then sit on the little wooden chair, and contemplate intently the paintings on the wall under the dim yellow light emitted from the light bulb. On the first floor, it hangs a pair of classic Nara portraits: one girl has her eyes closed as if she is meditating; the other opens her eyes widely as if she is staring at something - she is most likely startled by the uninvited viewers. A flight of stairs leads the viewers to the upper floor. The girl in this portrait has a pair of watery brown eyes that are specked with pale yellow and blue flecks. They look like the enigmatic night sky that draws the viewers into a realm of endless reveries. The picture is pieced together with cloth swatches of varying sizes. Not only does this treatment give the work an undulating surface, it also achieves a patchwork effect that suggests the process of wearing and repairing. The calm expressions of these three figures inside the house are the polar opposite of the joyous expression on the figure outside the house. Their placid countenances convey that they are nestled within the safety of the house, far away from the conflicts of the outside world.
The major difference between Our Thai House Mini and the dollhouses of Petronella Oortman is the expression of privacy. Yoshitomo Nara's house retains all four walls. The modestly-sized windows allow viewers to peer into the interior. This arrangement guides the psychology of the viewers - no longer can they brazenly and directly gaze into the house. Instead, viewers are being cast in the role of voyeurs peeping at something exotic. Although traditional European dollhouses are also concerned with private spaces, they are more closely associated with the display of wealth and conspicuous consumption. The expression of Our Thai House Mini is much more natural and introverted. It creates a fascinating contradiction: on one hand, the work seeks to communicate with the viewers. On the other hand, it presents myriad of obstacles. Its welcome is extended with much hesitation.
The mental states of humans are always changing. An optimistic appearance can be used to mask various degrees of fragility and anxiety. They need to be respected, empathised, and consoled. The art of Yoshitomo Nara captures the hearts of the public because it constantly acknowledges these universalities in humanity. And Our Thai House Mini serves as a sanctuary in which the soul can seek respite from reality and soar across the realm of fairytales.
Our Thai House Mini
signed with artist's signature, dated '2007' (on the reverse of the acrylic on wooden panel and acrylic on cotton mounted on canvas)
YOSHITOMO NARA (JAPAN, B. 1959)
Bijutsu Shuppan Sha, Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1 - Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs, Tokyo, Japan, 2011 (illustrated, plate S-2007-006, p. 288)
Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo, Japan
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Private Collection, Europe