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Giant Robot Biennale 3: Behind the Scenes with GR’s Eric Nakamura

“This isn’t just a kid putting in a random group of young artists and ‘taking’ or ‘borrowing’ a great space,” Eric Nakamura says. “It’s much more to me than that. I can do that elsewhere.”

Eric Nakamura

Nakamura, the editor and publisher of the Asian American pop culture magazine, Giant Robot, is organizing his third art exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum: Giant Robot Biennale 3. The show will feature the work of eight emerging artists along with a customized vinyl figure collection. 

“At the Museum, I’m conscious of the people who work and volunteer there,” says Nakamura. “I’m part of the history as well. There are things like legacy and history which is much larger than one exhibition.”

“I wouldn’t be satisfied with just an average group exhibition,” he adds. “That’s easy and lazy. I’ve put more thought—and I’d like to think, more creativity—to make this exhibition different than the last. The challenge is to use the Museum wisely and create an experience that people hopefully won’t forget. I remember going to great exhibitions when I was in elementary school at a time when I didn’t care about art. The challenge is to create something that’ll affect someone else in the same way.”

“I’d like to think that since ‘JANM’ is a family museum, we’re creating something that’s perfect for a family that’ll hopefully inspire people,” says Nakamura. “The Biennale exhibitions have come at perhaps one of the best times in art. It’s a time where there are more young artists than ever. Just 10 years ago, it was near impossible to be an artist, but now it’s possible. I’m not sure if families understand this, but it’s part of what we’re showing.”

“This exhibition is the most realistic reflection of the Giant Robot art experience which is important but also transparent,” Nakamura explains. “The artists are ones that you will find in our space in West LA and I do feel their work reflects what I’m most excited to see these days.”

The Mad Guard (2012), Rob Sato. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Giant Robot Biennale 3 features artists Rob Sato, Deth P. Sun, Ako Castuera, Eishi Takaoka, Saelee Oh, Sean Chao, Albert Reyes, and Zach Gage. All have long ties to Giant Robot. The artists’ styles range from whimsical to haunting, and span a variety of media.

“If anything, this show is really going to be doing what Giant Robot does best,” says Clement Hanami, the museum’s director of programs and a frequent collaborator with Nakamura. “And that is to highlight the works of artists who are not well known by large groups of people but really bring into the fold the next generation of young American artists.”

Doughnut Break (2012), Sean Chao. Photo by Jenni Nakamura.

“What I like about Giant Robot is that they are not necessarily trying to be the end-all definition of what it means to be Asian American or Asian American pop culture,” Hanami says. “Rather, what they do is present to us the current trends that are occurring in society that would have these references to Asian and Asian American pop culture. And in sharing it, documenting it, and making it available for us, we participate in this ever-evolving definition of Asian American pop culture.”

That evolution of culture is something that Nakamura says is happening very quickly. “I’ve seen mass perceptions of Asia and Asian America as the same, then I’ve seen the idolization of Asian popular culture, to it becoming almost a part of life,” Nakamura recalls. “Then there are new generations of folks who are just getting into Asian pop culture in full force and they’re different than the folks who were into it 10 years ago. Their starting point is in a different place. The artists? Most are in the age group of being in the younger folks of the first generation that I witnessed. At this point, they’re ‘old schoolers’ of Asian pop culture without even knowing it. They grew up with sketchbooks and some Internet—not all-Internet like the generation that followed them.”

A new type of art that has caught Nakamura’s eye is called Customs. “The common notion of ‘Customs’ is that, it’s having artists paint or ‘decorate’ (customize) different versions of similar objects,” he explains. “I’ve been involved with that, but this is different. The real world of Customs is a genre in itself. There are many Customs artists who are doing more than painting. They’re actually sculpting and changing the form of the object into an entire new shape or concept. The latter part, ‘concept,’ is where I think it becomes its own genre of art.”

“The idea of turning an object into an idea is what’s exciting to me and what I want to bring to the Museum,” says Nakamura. “For the objects, we’re using David Horvath’s vinyl figures—both from his solo work and from his co-created Uglydoll line—and the Big Boss Robot, which I designed. Some artists are combining them into one piece and some are making them interact in other ways. This might be one of the greatest Customs exhibitions, featuring over 80 artists so far, including many who are well known artists from at least seven countries! It’s actually a very rich offering.” 

Plaseebo (2012), Bob Conge. Courtesy of the artist (L); Hungry Dinosaur (2012), Yoskay Yamamoto. Courtesy of the artist (R)

Also not to be missed, says Nakamura, is a piece by Albert Reyes called the “Haunted Maze.” The piece is being created especially for Giant Robot Biennale 3

“Reyes lives in El Sereno (California), and every Halloween, he invites people to his house where he has a haunted maze,” Nakamura says. “The funniest part is that the maze is actually up all year around and he does work on it and it changes annually. It’s an experience and having it at the Museum will be crazy!” 

“Albert Reyes is one of the biggest underdog artists I know,” Nakamura says. “You can’t help but root for him. His humble sense of humor and multicultural understanding is what I like best in him.”

While Nakamura strives to be innovative, he is mindful that dramatic departures from the Museum’s traditional programming could be jarring for some audiences. “The biggest worry I have with the Museum’s exhibitions is having everyone understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” he says. “On the one hand, perhaps the younger audience may come and enjoy the Biennale a lot and that’s great, but I do hope they stay to learn something about Japanese American history and its place in the larger history of America. I also hope that young Japanese Americans will both understand that the Japanese American National Museum isn’t just a museum about concentration camps, but that is also involved in community services and contemporary art.”

“On the flip side,” says Nakamura, “for the folks who help ‘build’ this institution, whether it’s financially, through volunteering, being part of the history, or just through plain support, I hope they understand what’s going on here with the Biennale and how it’s helping shape the museum for the future by bringing in a positive audience, press, direction, and reputation.”

The Museum’s new president, G.W. Kimura, expresses both enthusiasm and optimism for the new show. “We are excited to present Giant Robot Biennale 3,” says Kimura. “The previous Giant Robot iterations have been highly successful and provocative exhibitions. GRB3 will feature the best art at the intersection of Japanese, Asian, and Asian American pop culture. This is an extremely fruitful area of artistic and cultural discovery and Mr. Nakamura and Giant Robot have been the vanguard of showing it off to the world.” 

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Giant Robot Biennale 3 

September 23, 2012 - January 20, 2013 

Japanese American National Museum
Los Angeles, California

The Japanese American National Museum presents Giant Robot Biennale 3, its third show in conjunction with Eric Nakamura, owner of Asian American pop culture juggernaut Giant Robot. The expansive show features a gallery of eight emerging artists along with a customized vinyl figure collection.

Watch the video produced for the exhibition on JANM’s YouTube channel >>

For more information about the exhibition >>


© 2012 Japanese American National Museum

art asian americans Erik Nakamura exhibition giant robot Giant Robot Biennale 3 GRB3 janm Japanese American National Museum pop culture