Since September, Tokyo has hosted a number of video and media art exhibitions, including Wang Bing at the Take Ninagawa Gallery, Ryoji Ikeda at Taro Nasu, and a Dumb Type retrospective at MOT (Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo). We can also mention the Okayama Art Summit in the west of Japan. This year’s edition, entitled If the Snake, was under the artistic direction of Pierre Huyghe, with works by Matthew Barney, Iino Seghal, Tarek Atsui, Pamela Rosenkranz, etc. Most of them were dispersed inside locations across the city, old warehouses, various museums, but the exhibition apparatus in place at the former Uchisange elementary school was in itself well worth the trip.
Taro Nasu is among those key figures in Japan attempting to forge a legitimate contemporary art scene. Among the artists his gallery represents (located in the center of Tokyo in Roppongi, a stone’s throw from Perrotin), we mostly find those from Japan, including Ryoji Ikeda, but there are also a few notable international figures, such as Ryan Gander, Omer Fast, and Pierre Huyghe… Nasu is also the executive director of the Okayama Art Summit, held each year since 2016. As the 2019 edition, If the Snake, came to an end, Nasu was showing an exhibition of recent works by Ikeda, from his Test Patterns series. France holds a particular proximity with this artist and his mathematical precision, his use of black and white, the monumentality of his installations et the elegance of his musical output, his compositions which audiences had discovered during his participation within the Kyoto collective Dumb Type. The space made available to him in Tokyo offered a new challenge, producing smaller works, more intimate, as well as introducing paintings in his output. The purpose appears to make his work more readily available to private collectors rather than only to institutions. The paintings themselves, in a more minimal manner, share similarities with those of French artist Tania Mouraud. They also entertain a playful sense of lines, moving from Bauhaus to Peter Saville. A ‘chamber music’ exercise for the artist. Which is not to say that this proximity would lead to a new found warmth. Ikeda maintains his clinical sense of asceticism.
This was again in the foreground over the course of a variation on the Pompidou Metz 2018 Dumb Type retrospective. Along with Shiro Takatani, who became its directions after the passing of its founder Teiji Furuhashi (Takatani has also been collaborating for years with Ryuichi Sakamoto), Ryoji Ikeda represented the other side of the collective’s art & technology pole. Japan had produced various collective art groups after the war, combining painting, performance, installation, experimental film… But there has never been, in Japan and elsewhere, something akin to Dumb Type, who not only knew how to grasp the social struggles that were dear and urgent to the nineties, but to also invent a practice in which the body and the technology were telling the same story. Tales about the defense of sex workers, the coming of Aids, and the presence of death that would haunt their work.
Dumb Type’s scenographic revolutions made a considerable impact in France, the post-Furuhashi years revealed in Creteil, just outside Paris, and to this day, besides Ikeda and Takatani, other former members of the group still perform in Europe, such as the dancer-performer Norico Sunayama, and the remarkable Takao Kawaguchi who has embarked on a choreographic exploration of Kazuo Ohno’s legacy.
The Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art showed a selection of works conceived as installations, including the most famous piece, Furuhashi’s The Lovers, as well as sublime artefacts of performances from the turn of the century, O/R, Memorandum, Voyage. The exhibition also displays a number of old monitors offering excerpts from their masterpieces, PH and S/N But the actual bodies and their brilliance are strikingly absent, and the works are transformed into refined and lifeless monuments. Ryoji Ikeda plays a part in this. The show is smooth, mastered, precise, and inevitably moving and nostalgic. Japanese. Teiji Furuhashi had opened a door to somewhere else. More recently, the group Chim Pom, without choreography or theatricality, seemed to have developed a multidisciplinary strategy leading to something political. Then lost its way. The moment that produced something like Dumb Type in Japan has since been erased.
Nonetheless, Taro Nasu found a way, in Okayama, to recall a more serene Japan with a piece by one his gallery’s artists, Force Touch (Corporis) by Mika Tajima, using algorithms to suggest the moving of a koi fish in a dark liquid pool. One would be tempted to contemplate this for hours were it not for the other part of her installation: a constellation of small Jacuzzi air blowers incased in the three large walls, producing such noise as to annihilate any notion of quietude. Masterful.
From Sep 7 to Oct 19, two works, 15 Hours and Man with No Name, by the documentary director Wang Bing were shown as video installations at Take Ninagawa gallery in Tokyo. Titled after its actual length, 15 Hours depicts a full working day at a garment factory in eastern China. Ironically, it takes the gallery two days to screen it for once, due to the limitation of the opening hours.
Wang Bing’s first documentary, the groundbreaking Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks (2003), is 551 minutes long and was shot in DV. Since then, the usual notion of film length and the structurally overarching role it plays have never imposed any restriction on Wang Bing’s filmmaking, nor has the medium. To him, once the shooting starts, it’s more of a spontaneous flow for the narrative to bring an end to itself. This provides the premise for him to move from cinema to the contemporary art scene, where the idea or aesthetic of a work enjoys a synergy with the time span, with the unwritten rule that it is unnecessary to actually sit through every single video work in an exhibition which was perfectly exemplified at documenta X.
The presence in the art scene has positioned Wang Bing in the same historical lineage with earlier filmmakers who explored the realm of video installation like Agnes Varda and Chantal Akerman. But instead of acknowledging the transformation of identity from filmmaker to artist as they do, he dismisses any possible boundary between the two by keeping the same format, same language and same focus in his practice. No matter whether it’s on the cinema screen or in the galleries and museums, his work always presents the stories of insignificant people living in the forgotten places of China, using single channel, hours long.
With such consistency, his work presents an alternative China unfamiliar to both film and art audience in and abroad. As broad and multi-ethnic as China, especially under the centralized authority, the grand narrative easily becomes the only narrative, with too many absences in the scene. Wang Bing follows those that are left out, spends time with them and sheds light on them. He maps out the larger China across thousands of kilometers not only through the various landscapes, but also with the typical dialects, jobs, and lifestyles in different regions. His cartography is both obstinate and fruitful.
Okayama Art Summit
Incorporating 18 artists based outside Japan, the “International exhibition of contemporary art” Okayama Art Summit 2019 themed “if the snake” aims to “offer visitors the opportunity not only to see exciting exhibits, but also to experience the thought processes of the artists, enabling a unique interaction with art that transcends time and space from the historic city of Okayama” during the two months from Set 27 to Nov 24. About 40 works are blended into the central area of the city. It welcomed about 200,000 visitors, almost the same as its first edition 3 years ago, when the theme “development” focused more on the local.
Despite the decent number, one might argue that it is debatable whether the interaction transcending time and space has been effectively achieved. It did attract many local people to participate in the “exciting” art scene, but did not avoid confusion. After all, none of the invited artists are based in Japan or discussing specifically Japanese issues; some video works have only English subtitles; the link between the artwork and its location is not always clear; some works are more site-specific than others… As Internationally renowned as some of works are, it is nonetheless challenging to introduce them to the central area of Japan, where there is still little contemporary art. To be able to invite a local audience to jump into the International art scene, long-term education seems more urgent than the triennial art celebrations. Unfortunately, the closest education there might be are the art projects on the neighboring Setouchi islands which began two decades ago and are locally oriented, more decorative in general thus relatable for the domestic audience.
As artistic director, Pierre Huyghe brought his own video piece while collaborating with Matthew Barney on an installation, and with Tino Sehgal on the animated figure Ann Lee. At the Hayashibara Museum of Art, which houses a private collection of Japanese traditional arts and crafts, a Japanese performance artist plays Ann Lee (supposedly directed by Sehgal) after the screening of Huyghe’s well-known 2000 video piece Two Minutes out of Time. As Ann Lee, she tells the audience about her “life” experience and gently questions about her own identity, while her arms move stiffly like a robot. She would repeat the same set of lines in each round of the performance, ending with her asking questions to the audience in a soliloquizing tone. When someone answers, she’d engage a conversation limited to why; if no one answers, the performance sort of fades away in the silence. With such limited interaction, the performer functions as a programed human body, rather than embodying a humanized AI who claims to be eager to learn about the human world and get in touch with more people. Fundamentally, she is still a program reciting the same lines and making the same movements, with no surprise, no accident. In other words, she does the job of a robot. What’s interesting is that in the industrial discourse, robots are made to replace human beings for a number of tasks, since they are more efficient, safer and cheaper. However, here we have a human being taking the place of a robot, not unlikely due to budget issues.