'n_scape' & 'Becoming' as Acts of Japanese Art

published in Bijutsu Techo Vol.59 No.890, Tokyo, January 2007
Reiko Shiga - Levitation (2004); Asako Narahashi - Jonanjima #3 (2002)

I am standing in front of one of Asako Narahashi's photographic seascapes. This is my first encounter in the RAPT! series of exhibitions in Melbourne, Australia. Before me is a voluminous container of defocused water, with epidermal signs of land floating in the distance in sharper focus. In other images this focal dynamic is reversed: curvaceous slugs of water glisten and glint while buildings rise and sink like gelatinous polyps. The thrill of land liquefied is palpable. Scanning the line of framed waterscapes, a gorgeous 'unreality' is unleashed from their pictorial frame which liberates the notion of 'landscape' into something that is burned into mind instantaneously: "n_scape", or the malleable flex induced by the act of landscaping.

The mandate to frame the landscape here is dissolved in the act of taking these images. Depth, scale, ground and distance are rendered fluid beyond measure. The photochemical surface of these images is articulated as an essentially 'swimming medium' where photographic grain itself is a molecular ocean. This dialectic between the infinitesimal substrata of media and the ways in which representational form can be reflected within a medium's materiality is at the base of all Japanese pictorial arts. In fact, the distanced quasi-scientific notion of 'representation' may not have ever existed in Japanese visual discourse. Maybe all images from Japan are beyond representation, floating as apparitions of form conjured from heightened physical manipulation of fundamental materials.

This may be imperceptible to the Japanese eye. Yet I cannot stress enough how radical this gesture toward perspective is to Eurocentric, gravitationally grounded perception since the Renaissance. For Japan is the domain where ground hums, space vibrates and all traverse of the two endears rhythm, frequency and velocity - metaphors alien to European discourses on land mass and their artistic rendering. Narahashi's seascapes defy land as having potential to be kept still. Furthermore, her oceanic vistas are less spatial and more temporal: their swirling currents enveloping indiscriminate globules of land pose the ocean as 'all time' and the land - possibly representing 'Japan' - as merely 'a point in time'.

Narahashi's images serve as an ideal portal to this review. As part of the Australian advisory team, I witnessed the long gestation which allowed the RAPT! project to grow through a fertile rhizomatic networking between the critical outlooks of curators Iida Shihoko, Fumihiko Sumitomo and Yukihiro Hirayoshi. Always, this was an exciting project due to their notable refusal to 'code Japanese-ness' for an Australian audience. More importantly, the artists selected for the project generally appeared to be working not only beyond nationalist implications (critically stating their 'Japanese-ness') but also beyond internationalist paradigms which continue to contract creative enterprise into socio-anthropological investigation.

Tomoko Konoike - Mimio's Journey (2003); Kazuna Taguchi - She Can’t Even Remember (2004)

Narahashi's watery walls of opaque density are suitably 'beyond image': they are documents of time and flux, posing in the masked guise of landscape photography. A parallel strategy is discernible in Hirofumi Katayama's vectorscapes. My first impression is that these are photographs of impossibly sterile architectural voids - designed by precious architects who feel violated when humans dare enter their created spaces. As I hover about 5cm from the surface of Katayama's images, I then perceive the algorithmically simulated glint on a stainless steel barrier: the image suddenly becomes transformed into a true vectorscape within my consciousness. I now know I am inhabiting the unreal, and that within this 'n_scape' I am liberated to traverse its impossible blankness - to go nowhere but be everywhere at once.

By the time my eye tightly scans the fabrications of Kazuna Taguchi, I am ready to embrace the disbelief of any mirage within my optical field. This excitable distrust of all ocular surface is for me one of the most erotic aspects of Japanese visual arts - the thrill that all you see is not what you see no matter how hard you look. Far from inducing delusion or disillusion, this prompts a rethinking of what filmmaker Stan Brakhage knew was 'the act of seeing with one's own eyes'. His reference to forensic practice applies well to Japanese visual arts, whose collective output defies ontological summation and in place posits transcendental modes of vision. Taguchi's drawings invert the definition of the medium by concatenating a self-negating process that 'dematerializes' photography and drawing in turn. The resulting images suggest reincarnations of their former selves: they are a single surface, a single mask, but a multitude of textures and voices.

Perhaps the most perverse excavation of 'landscape' lies in Noboru Hoki's selected works. While many misread Hoki's practice as relating to manga, a fulsome encounter with these irreproducible works in the flesh is well enough to guide the viewer away from obvious references. Hoki's technological dissolution between the act of painting and the act of drawing is a precise celebration of the Japanese calligraphic tradition - all the while subverting it into a type of 'soft schizophrenia': it is painted and drawn; it is background and foreground; it is a face and a rock. This conflation between the micro and the macro extends the voice of traditional Japanese painting where each and every brush stroke declares "I am ink, but I am also a tree". Again, Japan does not illustrate: it becomes.

Yuken Teraya's cut-out trees similarly whisper their ontological status. His paper manifestations of trees that mystically arise from within the cavernous waste of consumer paper bags are beautiful acts of conjuring. Yet they chillingly convey the presence of a tree with greater force than the god-like acts of mimicry that constitutes the European landscape tradition. The newer developmental work he exhibited in RAPT! suggests ways in which he has been coming to terms with scale and distance within the Northern Australian natural environment, configuring oblique star constellations within small camping tents. Teruya's work places the viewer at the precipice of the act of looking.

Noboru Koki; Yuken Teraya

Shiro Takatani also produced a new work based on his experience of Uluru in Central Australia. His intricate construction similarly advances the phenomenal sensation of looking. Again, it is hard to ignore the Japanese sensibility of combining consciousness with practice, where the philosophical and the perceptual are so thoroughly entwined they require no explication. Takatani's evocation of standing in the centre of Australia and looking up into the sky may sound simplistic, but the experience of peering down into his eye-glass containing projected digital time-lapse cinematography while subtle audio was dispersed vertically above and below the eye-piece was a sublime gesture of the interconnectivity of time and space. I did not so much as 'be there' as I 'became there'.

Perhaps the most startling 'site-specific' work was the suite of photographs produced by Reiko Shiga following her residency in Brisbane. Many visitors mistook her work as being not from a Japanese artist - surely a high compliment to her practice of interviewing her subjects, then 'becoming them' through the act of producing their portraits. Shiga's outcomes are slippery elusive images, characterized by ghostly ectoplasmic surfaces which portray the state of the subject 'becoming photographed'. Her employment of dispersed water spray at the moment of flash symbolizes both the birth of the subjects' encounter with Shiga and their simultaneous evaporative death via their frozen entrapment within the moment.

The main point here is how palpable the idea of 'becoming' is in so much produced from Japan. It's easy enough to study Nihonga painters and Edo printmakers and acknowledge some of these precepts of visuality, formal technique and material execution. But the fact that such tropes are rejuvenated through not only disparate visual practices but also through successive modernist and postmodernist cycles of contemporary Japanese art is both refreshing and stimulating. This is in marked contrast to the European international art platform that over the last decade has escalated frighteningly obvious ways of historically 'reworking' late modernist abstraction, minimalism and conceptualism through skeletal modes of referencing, quoting, appropriating and defacing. Japanese art conversely transforms from evolving within. It perhaps cannot help completely dissolve tradition with invention. Certainly much of the works in RAPT! exuded this mix of hyper-materiality with semantic multiplicity - and all without any overt labelling of cultural identity.

I have chosen only a small selection of the 20 artists in RAPT! to express a networking of sensations and perspectival experiments which I feel underline Japanese visual discourse while transposing it. Yet clearly other works require in-depth discussion along related yet distinctive lines. For example: Tomoko Konoike's animation installation and its morphological expansion of reincarnated energies through characters on-screen and materials in-space; Zon Ito and Ryoko Aoki's delicate mark-making and their disembodied fragments of image and materials; Yuki Kimura's gestural arrangement of her personal 'road trip' into a cartography of spatial connections and chance occurrences; Kyota Takahashi's 'projected skins' laid over concrete, sand and walls in various spaces; Rei Naito's invisible habitation of predetermined environments as an act of becoming the space through 'ghosting' her presence within it. The whole of the RAPT! project I sometimes felt was a special gift - a suite of dimensions that transported me into the imaginary state of 'becoming' that crucially shapes Japanese culture.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.