Yoshitomo Nara - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Friday, October 6, 2023 | Phillips
  • “The little star dwellers give thanks to everyone
    They thank all the stars blinking in the Milky Way 
    What haven’t been fulfilled are dreams 
    What have been seem like dreams, but aren’t 
    They’re living right in that terrifying real world 
    Good dreams and bad dreams take shape: the real world 
    Days like dreams, looking back they’re all scary scary shadows...”
    — Yoshitomo Nara’s diary entry on June 5th, 2000


    As Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara jotted down his dreamlike vision in the summer of the new millennium, the sensational artist broods on reinventing his synonymous oeuvre of the little girl that would soon launch his meteoric rise onto the international stage. Executed around this pivotal period, No Means No carves a milestone in his exhaustive perfection of a complex visual lexicon, marked by a young child who traverses between trepidation and bravery. An icon that appeared initially in the artist’s output in 1991, the young heroine spans almost two meters in height and suspends mysteriously before a void of pearly white, staring directly into the audience to absorb us into the very celestial universe conceptualized in Nara’s diary.


    With a translucent opaqueness allegorically inviting introspection as windows do, the little star dweller’s intricately enlarged pupils consist of lustrously prismatic swathes, representing a sharp departure from the artist’s simple geometric execution of the eyes in the 1990s. An approach only realized a year prior to No Means No’s execution, the incandescent emerald irises are exclusively emphasized in contrast to the diminutive representation of her face. Citing the human eyes as 'mirrors of the soul,' i Nara directs the viewer to encounter the girl’s gaze which has undertaken the purpose of a conduit. His little star dweller transports the audience into the milky way in his journal, away from the bad dreams and safely surrounded by the blinking stars inside the oculus. No Means No would launch Yoshitomo Nara’s most ambitious and career-defining project—a technical enquiry into how these very effervescent eyes arouse the most palpable universal emotions of tranquility, suspension, and connection, as manifested most recently in his Starry Eyes series of the 2010s.


    Detail of the present lot

    To be offered for the very first time in auction, No Means No exemplifies the height of Nara’s artistic prowess from its rarest period. This monumental canvas has been featured in various exhibitions around Europe, most notably one of the artist’s most significant site-specific exhibitions up to date named Yoshitomo Nara + graf: A-Z Project, which toured to Malaga, Hague, Hiosaki, Bangkok, London, Yokohama, and Osaka. As testament to No Means No’s superb quality, Nara’s other stylistically and thematically linked canvases executed in the same year have already found homes in the most prestigious international institutions. Indeed, No Means No belongs to an increasingly scarce group of the artist’s most illustrious works since Nara’s 2006 monumental canvases have not surfaced in auction since 2015.

  • Universal Self-Portrait


    The present work’s utmost significance must be appreciated in juxtaposition alongside his output of various times and medium. Growing up in the rural areas near the city of Hirosaki in the 1960s, Nara recalls a profound loneliness in his childhood. Alongside a generation of melancholic youths raised in the aftermath of World War II, a young Nara sought empowerment in the insurgent and cathartic pop culture of rock music. Tracing the origins of his interest in art to album covers, the visual elements of the 1970s Japanese underground culture informed the artist’s archetypal little girl: the simplified shapes, bold colours, linear contour, and minimal background compose the image of a devious cherub with a protruding head, flatly standing against the void. Initially appearing in the early 1990s during the artist’s continued art studies in Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in Germany, the little girl is inherently autobiographical, symbolizing an ambivalence resulting from physical isolation, a genuine desire for human connection, and a sneering attitude towards containment. In subsequent years, through experimentations with depth, colour, and texture, Nara refined her as a dichotomic emblem of innocence and vulnerability and ingeniously associates her with the adult emotions of anxiety and pain. 


    “It is as if I’m confirm my own sense of self—as I am speaking to myself as I paint the face…”
    — Yoshitomo Nara

  • Indeed, Nara’s oeuvre of the early 2000s—encapsulated by the present work—address a crucial transition as he reflects on a fruitful twelve-year practice in Germany upon his return to Japan in 2000. Completed in 2006, the present work summarizes Nara’s venture from representations of loneliness to envisioning beyond the figurative: In lieu of menacing expressions and chubby fists, Nara’s rebellious warrior has been humanized into a singular figure of calmer demeanor and less distorted proportions. The anti-war slogans and insurgent symbols of knives prominently featured in Nara’s 1990s output have disappeared. Nara arms his heroine with his newly acquired European modernist vocabulary of reduced saturation, tremendous scale, and textural surface to overcome the boundaries of cultural references and language barriers. Possessing the power to embody anyone in her orbit, Nara’s young girl now speaks for herself to channel a mesmerizing reality, at once intimate and inscrutable.


    “Nara captures the tension between innocence and experience, physical isolation and mental freedom, containment and independence. [He] embraces the whole of the human condition.”
    — Art historian Kristin Chambers in “A Visit to Naraland,” 2003



    No Means No: A Legacy of Peace


    Yoshitomo Nara, No Means No, 1991
    Collection of the Aomori Museum of Art
    © Yoshitomo Nara


    Dating back to 1991, the earliest iteration of No Means No appears as a work on paper now housed in the Aomori Museum of Art, portraying the artist’s childhood memories of rumbling airplanes blazing across the sky. Born in 1959 in Hirosaki, a young Nara witnessed his country swallowing shame and melancholy as a failed aggressor in the second World War. Also raised alongside the gruesome Vietnam war, he fostered a poignant detest against war as he lived and breathed the uncertainties and trauma. At 21, Nara moved to Düsseldorf in 1988 where he further resonated with the anti-war sentiments of post-war Germany. In response, Nara embraced the directness and rebellion of rock music and cartoons as remedies, incorporating these two influences from the onset of his career: slogans of protest as exemplified by the blazoning words No Means No (1991) above the airplane have frequented the artist’s visual vocabulary since the 1980s.


    “I remembered the darkness of a stormy night in my childhood. I was waiting in the dark for the power to be restored, hearing the thunder with my mother. I was looking at her profile lit by a candle while she was telling me a story about the war-time, when she heard the bomb attacks in the darkness with her mother.”
    — Yoshitomo Nara in an interview with Hideo Furukawa in 2013

    Out of the seven iterations of No Means No revisited by Nara throughout his prolific career, Nara created four between 1991 to 1998, each executed at most three years apart to illustrate the phrase’s utmost significance. In October of 2006, North Korea conducted nuclear experiments along the northeast coast of the Japanese sea, confronting Nara’s deepest antipathy towards war. Completed in the same year, the present work renders the pacifist undertones quintessential to Nara’s practice through its title and drastically evolved imagery. Whereas the title has been inserted into former renderings of No Means No, this colossal canvas witnesses a watershed development in the artist’s oeuvre, powerfully evoking sensations of peace without words and symbols. The innocent nature of the girl, endowed by her creamy palette and round contours, tempers the presumed harshness of the titular message to oppose conflict, testifying to Nara’s ever-expanding visual vocabulary.

  • A Real World Fantasy


    In 2001, Nara’s largest and most comprehensive exhibition yet titled I don’t Mind, If You Forget Me spanned over five rooms in the Yokohama Museum of Art. Launching a thorough investigation of the fundamental relationship between people and their surroundings, Nara invited the visitors to design dolls inspired by his artworks. In 2003, he joined forces with design collective Graf to further realize the exhibitions that cemented his worldwide acclaim: wooden huts adorned with the artist’s personal collectibles serve as temporary residences for his artworks. Stepping inside each fantastical room, the audience has been transported into Nara’s creative mindfield. Debuting this revolutionary concept at a major British gallery, No Means No finds home in one of the wooden structures in a Newcastle exhibition, welcoming the beholder into Nara’s dreamscape.


    Installation view of the current lot at Newcastle, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Yoshitomo Nara + graf: A-Z Project, June 14 – October 26 2008
    © Yoshitomo Nara


    Most notably the pearlescent background, formal elements of the present work simultaneously mirror the connection between the observer and the observed, a seminal and timeless contribution to the art historical canon. No Means No harbors a transformative landscape through repeatedly applying varying degrees of a singular colour before finishing with a layer of luminescent wash to retaining the material traces of its creation. Considered by curator Taro Amano to be “another unconscious eye,” the ambiguous background pulsates, submerging the audience into an expanse beyond the confines of the canvas. A remarkable graduation from Nara’s previously flat cartoon representations, this approach brilliantly recalls the milky way referred to in Nara’s diary entry, embodying a gleaming universe devoid of childish fear and adult ambivalence. This incredible revision of the background has become central to the artist’s lifelong mission of reaching into the unconscious imagination of himself, his character and his audience, as it frequents the artist’s canvases around this period and would later develop into simmering puddles.



    Collector’s Digest


    • No Means No exemplifies the very best of Nara’s practice at a time where his market is stronger than ever. His big-headed child imageries dominate the artist’s top 20 auction record set in the past 4 years, including Missing in Action (2000), the current second-highest result achieved at Phillips Hong Kong in 2021, as well as Hothouse Doll (1995), a second-highest record at the time when Phillips Hong Kong sold it in 2020. The momentum has only continued to increase, as most recently this March, Phillips Hong Kong presented Lookin' for a Treasure, generating one of the artist’s highest auction prices of 2023.

    • Recent international exhibitions have cemented Nara’s unparalleled current influence: In the past three years alone, Nara’s solo exhibitions have christened the most prestigious global institutions such as the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth which ended this past June, Yuz Museum in Shanghai in 2022-2023, Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2021-2022, Dallas Contemporary in 2021, and the Kuandu Museum of Arts in Taipei in 2021.

    • Rarely can a contemporary Japanese artist at Nara’s age matches his institutional prestige. His artworks are prominently collected by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, the British Museum, London, and the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Australia, amongst others.



    i Yoshitomo Nara, quoted in 'An Interview with Yoshitomo Nara', Asymptote Journal, November 2013

    • Provenance

      Galerie Zink, Berlin
      Private Collection, Michigan (acquired from the above in 2007)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Kanazawa, 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Yoshitomo Nara: Moonlight Serenade, 30 September 2006 - 21 March 2007, p.87 (illustrated pp. 54-55, 60, 80)
      Berlin, Galerie Zink, Yoshitomo Nara + graf: Berlin Baracke, February 10 – April 21 2007
      Newcastle, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Yoshitomo Nara + graf: A-Z Project, June 14 – October 26 2008

    • Literature

      Noriko Miyamura and Shinko Suzuki, eds., Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010, Tokyo, 2011, no. P-2006-007, p. 390 (illustrated, p. 202)
      Yoshitomo Nara, Yoshitomo Nara: Self-Selected Works - Paintings, Kyoto, 2015, pp. 99, 156 (illustrated)

Property from a Distinguished Asian Collection


No Means No

signed, titled and dated '"No Means No" Nara [in Japanese] 06' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
162.5 x 130.8 cm. (63 7/8 x 51 1/2 in.)
Painted in 2006.

Full Cataloguing

HK$52,000,000 - 72,000,000 

Sold for HK$65,530,000

Contact Specialist

Danielle So
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2027

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 6 October 2023