Tetsuya Ishida’s Alienated Generation

The late painter deftly captured the turbulence and terror that reverberated throughout Japan during the “Lost Decade.” A new show at Gagosian New York showcases the epoch’s enduring relevance today.

“Supermarket” (1996). Photography by Martin Wong, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

The 1990s were a strange time for Japan. The country’s bubble economy burst in 1991, ending decades of rapid-fire growth following World War II. Four years later, the devastating Great Hanshin earthquake and sarin gas attacks on Tokyo’s subways stoked widespread fear. At the same time, technology was progressing—the advent of Windows 95 popularized computers, cell phones, and gaming consoles while computer-controlled robots replaced assembly line workers. Enter the “Lost Decade,” a period when young adults struggled to find full-time jobs or simply didn’t work. Japanese people may recall the slogan of the times as ibasho ga nai, or “without a place to call home.”

Tetsuya Ishida was coming of age during this precarious decade and, amid the economic stagnation, decided to translate his generation’s existential distress into paintings. Feelings of human alienation and hopelessness are palpable throughout his meticulously detailed canvases often depicting stoic-faced young men melding with everyday appliances, industrial machinery, and civic architecture. In one, suited salarymen laying supine on a conveyor belt are dissected, almost robotically, by scalpel-bearing factory workers, nodding to the punishingly long hours expected from both collars at the time. Other lost souls simply became hikikomori, or recluses who withdrew from society and often refused to leave their bedrooms, a visual Ishida captures viscerally in the joyless Untitled (1998). 

“Untitled” (1998). Image courtesy of Tetsuya Ishida Estate

“At first, it was a self-portrait,” Ishida said. “I tried to make myself—my weak self, my pitiful self, my anxious self—into a joke or something funny that could be laughed at. It was sometimes seen as a parody or satire referring to contemporary people. As I continued to think, I expanded it to include consumers, city-dwellers, workers, and the Japanese people.”

Though he rose during a repressive time, Ishida dreamed big. He was learning English and saving money from his part-time job to fulfill his ambition of showing paintings in New York City. That dream would never materialize—he died in 2005, at the age of 31, due to a train accident. Critics and curators have been drawn to Ishida in the ensuing years, though, with Gagosian showing his paintings in Hong Kong in 2013, leading to appearances at biennales in Gwangju and Venice. Now, on what would be his 50th birthday, his dream is finally coming true. A new exhibition at Gagosian New York posits how Ishida’s deft fusion of realism with Surrealism captured Japan’s fraught national mood at the time—and perhaps had prescient insight into our current tech-saturated era of high-achievement hustle culture and burnout.

“Conveyor-Belt People” (1996). Photography by Martin Wong, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

“Tetsuya Ishida: My Anxious Self” will be on display at Gagosian (555 West 24 St) until Oct. 21. Purchase the catalog here.

All Stories