The RAPT! symposium

a wandering wrap-up of ideas surfaced

catalogue essay for Volume 2 of RAPT! 20 CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS FROM JAPAN, Tokyo/Melbourne, 2007

Articulating contemporary Japanese art

The RAPT! symposium was a rare opportunity to open up some in-depth critical dialogue concerning the artworks that were at the time or had been installed across the Melbourne galleries. Having digested the works well to the symposium, I was eager to discuss my impressions of the work with the artists, curators and curatorial advisors from Japan.

Indeed, such a nexus of gathering so many of the artists, curators and researchers connected with this wide-ranging project was an important culmination of the RAPT! conceptual premise. Merely grouping and exhibiting the art was not the project's primary focus. In place, a strategic immersion in a multi-voiced mass of Japanese artists' perspectives was envisaged as a platform across which a foreign (Australian) audience might traverse. This interconnectivity of points between artists constituted the complex and compound matrix that made the whole RAPT! project a dense and uncompromised venture.

Discussing contemporary Japanese art

At the RAPT! symposium, the Japanese curatorial team reiterated their catalogue statements. This was followed by two presentations by Taro Igarashi and Kyoji Maeda, each of whom had presented papers at the Japan Cultural Centre in Tokyo as part of the project's research development.

For the Melbourne symposium, Igarashi reprised his "Japanese Architecture from 1955" slide talk - an informative overview of how Japanese architecture progressively negotiated the relation between surface and form over the last half-century by transforming the former into the latter. Precise illustrations demonstrated the clear resonance between Japanese allusions to classical and modernist formations, proving again how Japanese visual discourse is a dialectic of fabricated covering and shaping. The pivotal notion of Murakami's "Super Flat" was engagingly positioned as part of this continuum, leading Igarashi to cite ways in which architecture has since refined the idea of flatness to encompass a range of illusory projected depths and optical dimensions.

The second presentation was different from the one Maeda originally delivered in Japan. His slide talk "The Culture of 'Model' in Japanese Art" articulated the fascinating idea of kata (model) culture, wherein a strain of Japanese fixation on replicating form and style as therapeutic recourse has grown in cycles of popularity in Japan. He pivoted his theory on the recent success of the book "Tracing the Narrow Road to Oku" by 17th C haiku poet Basho - where people trace the kanji characters and effectively 'write over' the author's manuscript. In positioning this in lateral connection to the revered 18th C traditionalist painter Ito Jakuchu - who in fact 'traced' much of his work from existing Chinese scrolls and was included in "Super Flat" - Maeda offered a refreshing theoretical escape option from the Eurocentric ideas of originality.

Considering contemporary Japanese art

Having read Maeda's paper earlier, I took the opportunity outside of the symposium to discuss his idea of kata in relation to the phenomenon of The Ventures in Japan. An American band, The Ventures were the first instrumental guitar band to instigate the trend in instrumental rock following the wild success in the US of their amateur home-recording of "Walk Don't Run" (1962). They inspired hordes of American 'garage bands' who replicated the naïve simplicity of The Ventures' sound. The Ventures' success prompted the release of a series of "Play Guitar With The Ventures" albums, where their songs were broken down into modular permutations (drums with bass, bass with first guitar, both guitars together, etc.) so that young hopefuls could copy these models of instrumental combo music.

Perhaps because of this methodology, The Ventures became very popular in Japan - and continued to remain surprisingly popular for decades beyond their drop in the US charts following the British Invasion of The Beatles post-1964. Throughout the 70s and 80s, Japan hosted Ventures' replica competitions, where Japanese bands formed as copies of the Ventures' model, and then competed in replicating the unique Ventures' sound - judged by none other than members of The Ventures themselves. Maeda's idea of kata clearly relates to his chosen line of analysis concerning Jakuchu, but it also connects to much else in popular Japan - from 80s garaju culture (fans making 3-D plaster model kits for the replication of anime characters) to 90s manga doujinshi (fan copies and parades of famous manga titles). In this sense, kata is more about voicing than mere tracing; more about becoming than mere copying.

Traversing contemporary Japanese art

The notion of kata certainly points away from the persistent - and limiting - notion that Japan is a 'mix' of the postmodern with the premodern. Such a structural syntactical binary does not allow for issues of modulation, cross-talk and generative feedback: types of production and generation which are independent of processes of binary separation.

While much of the works exhibited in RAPT! could be considered 'post-Super Flat', the interpretation of a binary opposition to Murakami's well-noted internationalist incursion through his Super Flat manifesto equally limits a deeper understanding of contemporary Japanese art. Neither Kitada nor Maeda's papers systematically reject Super Flat, yet they did extend ways of considering Japanese ocularism and formulation in directions that circulated differently from the specific flux of Murakami's friction against Western notions of 'flatness'. This slight distinction is important because current western comprehension of Japanese art history has been deliberately problematised by Super Flat (of course, through Murakami's conscious tactics).

Considering the persistence of Super Flat as the predominant measure for Japan's so-called postmodernism, my reading in the symposium of RAPT!'s 'post-Super Flat' orientation proposed the following distinction. Super Flat work generates a 'posterized' experience. One can encounter the bold and stark impact of Super Flat works' presence at a remove - either from a physical distance or through mediarised reproduction - and still digest the works' phenomenal power. Much of the work exhibited in RAPT! oppositely functions and performs by drawing one ever inward to their flat pictorial plane. Time and time again, I was drawn to a nose-depth away from the actual surface of the works, to discover that only at such a threshold did I become fully immersed in their expansiveness.

From Asako Narahashi's floating seascapes to Hirofumi Katayama's distilled vectorscapes to Nobuya Hoki's dense brushscapes to Yuken Terayama's discreet treescapes to Kazuna Taguchi's disorienting facialscapes to Shiro Takatani's inverted skyscapes, I felt immersed within an 'n_scape' - not a 'landscape' as we know it, but a plane of enviromentalised consciousness which I find unique to Japanese pictorialism. This is not to normalise all these works under one rhetoric, but to feel the distinct vibrations and frequencies of time and space which inform their multifarious constructions.

How Japanese art constructs its 'view through a window' has very little to do with how we in Australia have been hamstrung by European modes of perceiving the land before us. While this is readily perceivable in centuries of traditional paintings from Japan - epochs across which nary a single brushstroke can be related to anyone from Turner to Cezanne - residual sensibilities of such an enviromentalised consciousness imbue even contemporary Japanese art in complex ways. This is the locus of RAPT!'s complexity.

Ghosting contemporary Japanese art

After the symposium, Igarashi spied me holding a copy of Tsutomu Nihei's manga "Blame" (1997) - a work that I find especially evocative of the psychic mindscape of disaffected gamer otaku. Igarashi reminded me that Nihei trained as an architect and was in fact included in the original "Super Flat" exhibition of 1999. Obliquely referencing the existential angst of cyborg ghosting in Masamune Shirow's seminal manga "Ghost In The Machine" (1989), the central character Killy of "Blame" is a physical ghost of sorts, interred in a virtual world impressively rendered by Nihei's mind-boggling pen-work, which I now see has been influenced by architectural draftsmanship.

In the symposium discussion, Igarashi had raised the idea of 'ghostliness' being a unifying quality of much of the artwork he had seen in RAPT!'s Melbourne installations. I actually had felt the same sensations - especially after seeing the 'ectoplasmic narratives' of Reiko Shiga's dreamscapes which profoundly captured her personal interpretations of people's dreams shared with her during her Brisbane residency. From her ectoplasmic remnants of dreams to Tomoko Koike's fantastic shimmering sketches of fictitious journeys into private consciousness to Rei Naito's evocation of absent materials in emptied rooms, 'ghostliness' certainly resonates within much of the RAPT! work. Mr. Maeda also noted the quintessentially ghostly nature of the photographic medium, and that indeed much of the work in RAPT! in some way interpolated the granular recording of the real and its muted transferral into the imaged.

For me, so much of Japan investigates what could be termed an 'optical epidermalism': a form of illusory sheathing, gloving and skinning where things are 'second-skinned' by a tight yet malleable surface which contorts and swells while signifying a range of modalities and tonalities. Thus the symposium wrapped (to use film production parlance), with the lingering suggestion of ways to continue traversing the terrain schematically outlined by RAPT!'s engagement with an impressive range of artists and their equally impressive work.

Written one afternoon in an Italian café, Sydney, November 2006.

Text © Philip Brophy. Image © Rapt!