Prismatic Japan

Angles on Contemporary Japanese Art

catalogue essay for Volume 1 of RAPT! 20 CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS FROM JAPAN, Tokyo/Melbourne, 2007
Reiko Shiga - Levitation (2004); Asako Narahashi - Jonanjima #3 (2002)

I - The Lens of Internationalism

Ultimately, culture speaks to itself. Its circulation of signs, meanings and references appear outwardly projected - but they respond to a gravitational pull to their point of emission. This reflux is only noticeable in the arena of internationalist exchange. Every attempt by a culture to raise itself to a level of internationalist consciousness ultimately confirms the locality and specificity of its originating perspective.

Progressivists treat cultural identity as some frail soul forever on the verge of being extinguished in the searing haze of the internationalist gaze. But cultural identity is more like a tragic tattoo of one's origins - badly smeared across aging skin, desired to be removed but left to blur indelibly. Cultural cringing - a common activator of the impulse to move to the internationalist platform - is a form of pathetic tattoo removal: the image may have magically disappeared, but a slight touch of the skin's surface will confirm its branded absence.

Contemporary arts and culture over the last quarter century has accelerated both its internationalist drive and its internationalist networking. Perversely - though with a perplexing naïveté - contemporary arts and culture debilitates this drive by positing cultural identity as the focal point of so many presentations. The internationalist terracing of festivals, biennales, surveys and travelling exhibitions aggregately seems spurred by neurotic concerns over one's lack of cultural identity - but everyone's cultural identity is normalised by identical neuroses when arranged for the world to see. Theatre, dance, opera, art and cinema all seem intent on being emblematic of their cultural backgrounds, bearing their tattoos in broad strokes to ensure success in an internationalist market network.

This 'global warming' of ambassadorial exchange through art would not be so symptomatic of internationalist art/culture logistics if there were not a continual supply of artists who embrace the idea that they could in fact address their culture in a homogenous centrifugal way. Many contemporary artworks - despite their voguishly affected impenetrability - lay claim to reflecting the artist's cultural background primarily in sociological terms, leaving their 'art-marking' to be conveyed through the language of craft execution and aesthetic arrangement. A specious documentary mode will be infused to impart slight statistical veracity to the artist's Otherness, thereby restating the 'irresponsibility' of art-making as the responsibility of art practice.

Yet artists are not solely responsible for this predicament. Curatorial contexts, government support, critical debates, national stigma, ideological critique - all create a contextual funnel for so-called 'practice' which streams art conducive to their collective objectives. At the international level, 'included artists' seem to present work pre-fabricated to fit curatorial parameters designed to re-enforce the very internationalism that grants growth and travel for such presentations and exchanges. In one sense this fulfils criteria of being productive, but the glut of events primed by nationalist exploration are more self-perpetuating than actively regenerative. It might make for great mock-heroic competitive sportsmanship - but it largely makes for tediously belaboured art.

The end result is an arts terrain that more resembles a shopping mall food-court, where cuisines - the first and final frontiers of cultural taste - are essenced into emblematic synaesthetic modules and arranged in contrast to each other by smell and texture. For example, you eat Indian food because you like the taste of 'Indian-ness', and that taste is an abstracted concentration of all that is processed to produce a phenomenon of 'Indian-ness'. Contemporary art of national significance operates similarly: you digest the culture through experiencing it, which in turn reinforces its emblematic status. But whereas local cuisine finds support by those from that culture when they are home, much contemporary art packaged as official cultural export can be comparatively marginalised on home ground because of its aesthetic obviousness and anthropological reductivity.

These views are simplistic at this point in time. It's a no-brainer to see how saturated internationalist trends have become in any arts medium - especially in the essentialist domain of contemporary art. Instead, it is worth considering alternatives to the internationalist model so as to escape its hold on nationalist labelling. And the most ready way to do so is to embrace irresponsibility in order to negate the prescriptive validational operations of art shuttled off to internationalist congregations.

It's not ground-breaking to claim that a culture reveals itself more through telegraphed and contracted short-hand communications to audiences on its home turf than through mannered and protracted declarations to those swaning through international venues. Speaking the vernacular is an act of consensual embodiment of source referencing which allows for deeper and more complex dialogue, and an announcement in dialect reflects its speaker better than an act of diplomacy. How the arts speak to their home audience can be achingly parochial, but the precise cultural identity of the speaker in such a context is fuller and more rounded than when the speaker dons national costume and presents conceptualised travelogues as foreign content.

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

II - The Mirror of Difference

When Japan enters the international forum of the modern era, its cultural identity is unavoidably potent. Centuries of tradition have been forged upon an oil-and-water mix of isolationist purity and trans-hierarchical density. Consequently, Japan's cultural identity attains a rare balance of utterly formal tone and massively electrified noise. This specific 'Japan-ness' has been something the West has sought for some time now.

1. Artists have been drawn to Japan's mannered gestures and decorative statement in all its visual arts. Early 20th Century modernism in art and design would have cast different light on the act of seeing if it weren't for Japanese illustration in the preceding six centuries.

2. Architects have been inspired by Japan's consideration of materials and forms in constructing both living and ritual spaces. Western redefinitions of the status of inner and outer space would be far narrower without an awareness of Japanese building precepts.

3. Composers have been enchanted by Japan's philosophical contemplations on how sound and space shape the act of listening. The expansion of many movements in modern music developed through shifting focus from European history to Oriental practice.

4. Novelists have been mesmerised by the tangential dramas that unfold from being in Japan, visiting Japan, or becoming involved with a Japanese. Societal contemplations and poetic critiques born of such cultural clashes have shaped much modern crypto-fiction.

5. Economists have been fascinated by Japan's incredible rises and falls in mass-production and corporate control. A complete sub-industry analysing Japanese economics has celebrated and attacked the radical ways in which the Japanese do business and make profit.

Like a healthy parasite, these intertwined cultures cling to Japan. Sometimes Japan is wanted because it is so old yet alive. Through its certified living treasures and its undying local customs, Japan serves as a time-capsule, a lost world, a granted wish. Its past is palpable; its present prescient. Those critical of the West's crass multinational controls treat Japan like fresh air, clear water and flavoursome fruit. Other times, Japan is desired because it is so new yet pervasive. Through its revolutionary design concepts and their visionary execution on a large scale, Japan serves as a futuristic metropolis, a hallucinatory dimension, a technological planet.

Consequently, Japan is panacea, utopia, holy grail; other times it is apocalypse, hell, nightmare. Not surprisingly, to nearly all, Japan is never perfect. Like the lover who utters a fateful sentence that destroys the mood, Japan simply won't be the Japan they want. From swooning Nippophiles who hate J-pop music, to anti-Western ideologues who abhor Japan's factory consciousness, to financial Jap-Bashers envious of Japan's past economic booms - a peculiar love-hate dynamic guides these East-West relationships.

Japan has the main thing that the West cannot produce - unWesterness. More than simply an Otherness - for the West certainly has enough of that already - Japan is an entity born from entirely opposite environmental conditions. For the West is ensnared by something in which Japan excels: surface. A veritable "empire of signs" as proposed by Roland Barthes, Japan lures and beckons through the high level of its signifying difference. From gardens of raked pebbles to plates of raw fish to vistas of giant neon, you can't miss its difference.

But what the West often misses is how 'difference' in Japan is not an operable concept. Japanese culture is far more inclusive than exclusive; far more diffusive than categorical. This means that citing the difference of Japan to the West - as countless critics do - leaves you stranded when trying to then map out that difference to create a view of Japan. All you can do when you play the difference game is draw a picture of Japan that is entirely Western in its perspective and orientation. Yet those same pictures are endlessly circulated in the West as if Japan requires continual decoding and deciphering.

Noboru Koki; Yuken Teraya

III - The Prism of Japan

Japan's post-Bubble prominence in the international arena of current and contemporary arts presentations has led the West to read Japan as providing a pre-set table of obvious 'differences'. Not surprisingly, Japanese contemporary art moves between ridiculing these expectations (best exemplified by Takashi Murakami's Super Flat ethos) and completely ignoring them. The works in RAPT! fit the latter category. Moving beyond Murakami's deliberately ironic stance of mirroring to the West the distorted perspectives it applies to Japanese post-war culture, RAPT!'s heterogeneous grouping of artists provides a snapshot of internal 'at-home' connections and currents conformed according to a wholly Japanese reading of Japanese art.

Precisely, RAPT! is neither 'about Japan' nor 'about contemporary Japanese art'. Rather, RAPT! unlabels itself and scrapes away any emblematic attachments the artworks and art projects have accrued in transit to these distant shores. As per the view of art from its local/home perspective back in Japan, the collected works/projects' 'Japan-ness' is submerged, muted, diffused within. Cultural identity is not declared: it's a given, requiring no utterance. Consequently, the 'difference' one expects of Japan is rendered remote, leaving much of the art to superficially seem unfocussed. But this lack of focus is felt only because internationalist art requires cultural identity be magnified and burnt into the national pavilions designed for such art.

Oppositely, RAPT! refracts its perceptions of both Japan and the world through a two-way internationalist prism - one that simultaneously generates a Japanese view of the West, and a reconstructed view of how the West views Japan. Maybe it's always been the case with critical functions of Japanese art (from Ukio-e through to Super Flat), but the works/projects of RAPT! exude a mix of withdrawal and resistance. Despite their internationalist 'conceptual Esperanto' which functions as a global shorthand in much contemporary art practices, the strains of a problematised Japanese cultural identity vibrate quietly within. Japanese contemporary art can and does tick the reference boxes of all the prescribed deities of conceptual art from Beuys to Barney: what's of more interest is how the resulting works can strike a pose of indifference to these figures whilst catching their limelight, and in the process mould a refracted vision of Japanese aesthetics and sensibilities.

This sounds uncomfortably conservative in some respects - but these days only a fool is cool. The evaporative stance of radicalism is best left to the George Clooneys and Michel Gondrys of the world, and all those who think in terms of revolution while wearing sweat-shop printed T-shirts of Che Guevara. RAPT! provides a peninsula for contemplating how Japan is navigating internationalist currents - looking ahead and behind through a prism that never allows forgetfulness of how cultural perspective is irremovable. A flavour, a tattoo, an accent: Japan.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.