By Amy Zimmer
DNAinfo News Editor
TURTLE BAY — Passersby got an unintentional sneak preview Monday morning of the Japan Society's upcoming show, "Bye Bye Kitty!!! Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art."
People whipped out cell phone cameras to snap pictures of Kohei Nawa's life-size deer covered in plastic beads as a team of workers unpacked its crate on the sidewalk on East 47th Street, between First and Second avenues.
The deer, which weighs a quarter-ton (without its antlers), needed to be hoisted between two scaffolds to remove it from its base, which didn't fit into the exhibition space's elevator.
Zina Schmitz, who lives in the area and works in finance, initially thought the crowd gathered around the Japan Society was related to Friday's devastating earthquake and tsunami.
She was pleasantly surprised by what she saw.
"I'm in love with this deer," Schmitz, 36, said after taking a picture. "It's an amazing piece. It's like the artist prolonged the life of the deer. The beads look like ice on top of it."
Japan's recent earthquake and tsunami will surely hang over the exhibit that opens March 18, but Joe Earle, vice president and director of the Japan Society, noted that much of the work itself had already contemplated such destruction. After all, he said, every Japanese child, from a very young age, is trained to prepare for such disasters.
"Japan is a country that is always going to suffer from earthquakes," said Earle, who had gone to the history books and read that Northern Japan's Iwate prefecture — the hardest hit — had suffered greatly from an earthquake in the eighth century. "Everyone in Japan thinks about these things. Everyone has always talked about the 'big one' coming… and it's reflected in the art."
The Japan Society will donate 50 percent of the proceeds from admission to "Bye Bye Kitty" and all of its other programs through June 30 to Japan relief efforts. The institution, which plays a major role in U.S.-Japan relations, already raised $120,000 for its Japan Earthquake Relief Fund that it launched this weekend.
It wasn't easy for Nawa, who spent three months with a team of eight on transforming the dead animal into a work called PixCell Deer, to leave Japan this weekend to come for the installation. He pointed to his heart, and said, "It's a little bit complicated in my mind."
The beads encasing the deer play with notions of nature and their representation by digital technologies, Nawa explained.
The "Bye Bye Kitty" show may sound like a lighthearted exhibition because it has the word "kitty" in the title, but the emphasis is on the "bye bye," Earle said. It's a rejection of the "faux cheerfulness" in the work popularized by Haruki Murakami and the kawaii, or cute aesthetic, of the "Hello Kitty" franchise.
"It's a very serious show," Earle said of the works by emerging and mid-career artists, from the ages of 27 to 45.
Despite its seriousness, the show's pieces will surely inspire delight, as evidenced by Monday's sidewalk spectacle.
"Even the most indifferent people are showing some interest," Earle said.
Where to donate to help the relief effort for the Japan earthquake: