”Japan Unlimited“ at frei_raum Q21 / MuseumsQuartier Wien, Vienna
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Austria and Japan, the exhibition “Japan Unlimited” curated by Marcello Farabegoli features some of the most prominent and active artists from Japan who confront the limits and freedoms of political-sociocritical art. Being narrations of a version of events in disagreement with the establishment, some of the works chosen for the exhibition have a history of censorship or self-censorship in Japan. A similar curatorial formula was approached at the section of the Aichi Triennale “After ‘Freedom of Expression?’”. Due to severe tensions, even resulting in the threats to set fire to the site, the director of the Aichi Triennale had to close down after only two days of opening. Furthermore, the Japanese state cancelled an important sponsorship. As the Aichi Triennale, also “Japan Unlimited” has caused many protests in Japan and political frictions in Japanese parliament and up to the Japanese chancellery: the Japanese embassy in Austria, which initially included the event in the official program of “150 years of friendship between Austria and Japan”, five weeks after the opening (!) withdrew its symbolic support for the show which then made headlines in almost all Austrian, many Japanese and some important international media: www.marcello-farabegoli.net/
Referring to two concepts that shape Japanese society and signify its characteristic codes of behaviour – tatemae (behaviour which relates to the expectations of the community) and honne (the feelings hidden from the public) – the exhibition examines in what form this dual principle plays a role in contemporary Japanese art.
Tatemae and honne govern the relationship between community and the individual and define the co-existence across particular codes of conduct, laws, traditions and conventions. At the same time, they mirror aesthetic questions that reflect the relationship between form and content, reality and representation, criticism and affirmation. The exhibition explores the question of what poetic practices, subtexts and metaphors arise from this tension between social conflict avoidance and criticism. What control mechanisms exist, how does one deal with them and what position can criticism or socio-critical art assume in the public discourse? To what extent does the conscious overstepping of boundaries play a role in the socio-political context and is it here that artistic practices reach their limits? The works on display offer renewed discourse around indirect control systems and related power structures of official narrative.
In May 2011, the artist collective Chim↑Pom travelled to Soma City, a city in eastern Japan which was hit hard by the earthquake and the tsunami. With a high risk of radiation from the nearby Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant few volunteers came to Soma City. The video KI-AI 100 shows Chim↑Pom and youths in a circle practising the kind of coordination exercise familiar from martial arts. They shout the battle cry kiai a hundred times to gather energy through exhalation (voiceless kiai) and articulation (voiced kiai), a technique they use to amass strength for the reconstruction of the city. Ritual actions under the guise of tatemae can be seen as a potential way to achieve honne. Chim↑Pom juxtaposes the original version of the video with a censored version Enduring the Unendurable KI-AI 100 in which words rendered taboo by the Abe government and the Japan Foundation – including “radioactive” and “Fukushima” – are crossed out. In so doing Chim↑Pom references direct and indirect censorship and its consequences.
Momoyo Torimitsu’s animation Business as Habitual is based on a photograph taken at the first appearance of the CEOs of Tepco (Tokyo Electric Power Company) following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It shows how the managers of Tepco apologised to the people of Japan. Momoyo Torimitsu explores the gesture of apologising through bowing, which reflects social status and demonstrates respect. The gesture, however, does not say anything about whether regret is in fact present. Although the CEOS publicly expressed regret, they concealed the facts and true extent of the disaster. Here tatemae was employed as a marketing strategy in order to avoid taking responsibility. The three ex-Tepco managers were charged in 2016 with professional negligence resulting in death and were acquitted on 19 September 2019 – six days before the opening of “Japan Unlimited” – in the first instance by a district court in Tokyo.
In his work The video of a man calling himself Japan’s Prime Minister making a speech at an international assembly, Makoto Aida appears as the fictitious Japanese Prime Minister, delivering a speech in broken English. Although his performance is entirely fictitious, Makota Aida appears to be parodying Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: he lectures on the nationalistic tendencies of Abe’s LDP Party and his draft legislation for expanding the scope of Japan’s armed forces. While addressing political practises between national isolation and imperial aggression, Makoto Aida visualises the principles of tatemae and honne in the context of political farce, which becomes evident both in his performance as a politician and in the editing.
BuBu de la Madeleine & Yoshiko Shimada reconstruct a photograph of the Japanese Emperor Hirohito and the American General Douglas MacArthur in a collage from their series Made in Occupied Japan. MacArthur’s staff worked on the first draft of the Japanese constitution, brought into force in 1947, in which the Emperor’s status as “God” was abolished. In their re-enactment, the two artists remove categorisations of man/woman, USA/Japan, perpetrator/victim. The heart surrounding the photograph, however, alludes to the close economic and military relations between Japan and the USA, to the related dependencies, power relations and unwritten laws, whose post-war mythological masquerades are still effective today.
Hirohito’s New Clothes by Gianmaria Gava was created by the artist especially for “Japan Unlimited”. On 24 June 1943, an unknown photographer took a picture of Japanese Emperor Hirohito on board the Japanese battleship Musashi off Yokosuka Naval Base. The Emperor, sitting at the centre of the front row, is surrounded by officers of the Imperial Japanese Navy. In the background, huge, out of scale guns loom large. In Hirohito’s New Clothes, through camouflage, the body of the Emperor is replaced by parts of the background. In particular, part of the menacing anti-aircraft gun stands out in its place. Does the artist reveal the true face of the Emperor? Does such a photograph represent the truth or just a misplaced reality? Just because of Hirohito’s disappearance, its presence the image becomes all the more central.
For her installation Elf Meter (Eleven Metres) from the cycle Death Penalty in Japan, Hana Usui made four strips of paper eleven metres long – the length of the rope used for hanging – dipped them in Japanese ink and formed them into figures. In addition, in Japanese the number “four” (shi) is pronounced the same as the word “death” (shi). Hana Usui’s work does not offer shocking pictures of state-sanctioned violence, rather it uses the indirect form of abstraction as a means of getting straight to the point. She transfers the unspoken into an aesthetic form of the indirect which appeals to the viewer directly with lasting effect (honne), by placing instruments of execution (rope, trapdoor) within the image quasi in an archaeological/criminal-historical manner.
In his work Warum ist es so schwer die Leere zu akzeptieren (Why is it so hard to accept the emptiness) and the corresponding excerpt from the footage of his film essay L+R, Edgar Honetschläger, the only Austrian artist in the exhibition, explores to what extent western influence alters/shapes modern Japan and how Japan nevertheless remains true to itself (honne and tatemae). The central motif of the 10-part silkscreen print is a concrete factory located in a conservation area, appearing like a deconstructed industrial steamship inserted paradoxically into a forested mountain landscape. The concrete factory also appears in the film “L+R”; an off-camera voice recites Junichiro Tanizakis’s essay In Praise of Shadows, in which the author addresses how Japanese society would look today if it had not been subjected to western science
“Japan Unlimited” is organised by Q21 / MuseumsQuartier Wien in cooperation with the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.
Partecipating artists:Makoto Aida (JPN), Chim↑Pom (JPN)*, Gianmaria Gava (ITA/AUT), Edgar Honetschläger (AUT), Sachiko Kazama (JPN), BuBu de la Madeleine (JPN) & Yoshiko Shimada (JPN), Midori Mitamura* (JPN), Ryts Monet (ITA/AUT), Yoshinori Niwa* (JPN), Jake Knight (GBR), Tomoko Sawada (JPN), Sputniko! (JPN/GBR), Ryudai Takano (JPN), Shinpei Takeda* (JPN/DEU), Momoyo Torimitsu (JPN/USA), Hana Usui (JPN/AUT), Tomoko Yoneda (JPN/GBR), Naoko Yoshimoto (JPN) *Q21/MQ Artist-in-Residence
At frei_raum Q21 exhibition space / MuseumsQuartier Wien
until 24 November 2019