On Watching Video Art in Japan

Old_School_JVC_Camcorder

Whenever I went to art galleries in Japan – the hole-in-the-walls, not the epic institutions – I would look at videos or photographs and become immensely bored. It just seemed like a bunch of people goofing off around the house. Little did I know that this was, in fact, a movement.

Kenichi Kondo is a curator at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and recently came to London to share some examples of Japanese video art made since 2000. Kondo has curated exhibitions based on the idea of artists using daily life and domestic space in their work, a tendency he’s called strong motif in Japanese art.

A clear example of this kind of work is Koki Tanaka’s “Everything is Everything,” a video series that shows household objects being used in novel ways in short, seconds-long scenes. A feather-duster dusts an armpit, shave cream is applied to a bucket, a mop is set up and kicked across a kitchen.

I’m tempted to call Tanaka’s work pretty typical, for whatever reason, of almost every video I’ve seen projected on a gallery wall in Japan. Kondo says there’s a reason for this: After the collapse of the bubble in Japan, artists didn’t have many other options, either in financing ambitious projects or for passing the time. If Tanaka’s work seems like small moments in the life of a bored teenager stuck at home, that’s because that’s precisely what he was – and so was an entire generation of artists growing up the 1990s, at a time when domestic life was more or less the only life.

B-to-H

Saki Satom created “From B to H” in 2002, a series of short videos from a camera mounted in the corner of a lift. We watch Saki enter the space, and as the lift door closes, she performs a ballet (music superimposed) until the doors open and a person enters the lift, at which point she immediately stops, or she arrives at her destination. This work suggests another level of domestic, private space – to me, the enchanting notion of what happens behind the closed doors of elevators, rendered comic and plausible through Satom’s rapid change from dancer to “normal person” whenever she’s interrupted, and the footage of her riding along with another passenger who had no idea of what she was doing beforehand.

It seems like a fantasy I had often in Japan – one that gave me a weird desire to constantly revitalize semi-private places into drinking events, with a bottle of wine in a phone booth or empty train car. The idea that these spaces could be transformed into sites where the rigid social order could be abandoned and a real self could emerge was full of potential. (One example is the karaoke booth).

nat-zephyr20Naoki Tsuji’s “Zephyr” is an animated video, but distinct from anime in that it uses an experimental process of drawing and erasing in charcoal for each frame, leaving trails and visual echoes around the image. The film shows a zephyr as it descends from the sky and takes a baby on an adventure in the clouds. The work is gorgeous to look at, but Kondo pointed out something interesting: Animation in Japanese video art is operating, largely for institutional reasons, on a completely different sphere from animation in the rest of Japan.

Part of that is the shortage of video courses being taught in art schools, where traditional fine arts are given priority. Even in the progressive schools that have added video, there’s no interdisciplinary crossover. So if you can draw, you go into drawing courses, but you won’t ever touch a video camera. If you want to make video, you go to film school or into animation classes, where the education is more about technical proficiency – job training – than craft.

The same rigid genres apply to criticism, too, according to Kondo. People look at video art in terms of concept, look for cuteness or story in an animated film, look for acting and directing in a short film. To me, this seems like it’s segregating aspects of a single product – imagine if we only thought about drums in hip-hop music, and only considered melody when listening to indie rock. Isolating what we look for into single genre classifications keeps the culture from learning and integrating, which is critical to pushing art forward.

It also, to some degree, explains why Japanese video art always looks so cheap. Part of it is that nobody collects video art in Japan (though Korean and Chinese collectors are getting into the act, Kondo said) and when it does sell, it can sell for as little as 100,000 yen (about $1,000 USD). As a result, you see a lot of artist’s collectives sharing equipment and exhibition space.

But cheap doesn’t have to be limiting. Kondo points out that a lot of artists in the 1990’s got started in video because of costs (painters and sculptors in Japan usually have to rent studio space, whereas video producers only had to buy a camera and a laptop). Some of the work done with very simple software is still fun to watch, such as Hiraki Sawa’s “Eight Minutes,” which shifts the domestic space of her apartment into a surreal landscape of trees and tiny goats:

And working within the constraints of a budget doesn’t mean you can’t create powerful, emotionally complex work. One of the most interesting was Meiro Koizumi’s 2003 piece, “Mum.” The first portion of the video, visible here, is actually rather comic, but it’s the second half (not online) that transforms the piece as the screen goes blue and we’re left hearing Koizumi’s distorted voice cry out for his mother in a desperate plea. (2003 was the start of the US invasion of Iraq, which marked Japan’s first military foray in a foreign nation since its adoption of a peacetime constitution).

It’s probably no surprise that I had to leave Japan in order to get such a fascinating overview of Japanese video art from a Japanese curator, given the working conditions artists face in Japan and the trend of many of the best artists to go abroad (most of the artists in this post have left Japan). I wish I had this perspective on offer before dismissing so much work as goofballs with a camera shooting themselves doing weird shit in the staircase. Speaks to my own limits, I suppose.

Finally, here’s another video by Koki Tanaka, which makes sense to anyone who has attended a Japanese meeting where a group of people try to get something done: A Haircut by 9 Hairdressers at Once.

This post was inspired by “Re-Framing Their Universe: Japanese Video Art Since 2000,” Kenichi Kondo’s talk to the Japan Foundation in London, Nov. 2013.

When you’re done dusting your armpits, why not “like” This Japanese Life on Facebook? Also, I have a book.

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