An edited conversation between curator/artist Kio Griffith and writer/artist
Jacki Apple about four exhibitions exploring cultural history, memory, materiality,
impermanence, and performance in contemporary Japanese art.
Metamorphosis Of Japan After The War: 1945-1964
West Los Angeles College.
June 12 – July 11, 2015
Arena 1 Gallery, Santa Monica.
June 13 – July 18, 2015
Xinla Bansho: Forest Of Exponentials
Paul Loya Gallery, L.A.
June 20 – July 7, 2015
Hyakka Ryouran: Riot Of Flowers
Eastside International, L.A.
June 27 – July 26, 2015
Kio Griffith as part of Tokyo+Yokohama Projects Exchange/ ARTRA Curatorial,
with support from The Japan Foundation
Why did you decide to organize this month-long event of four exhibitions showing artists from Japan? What inspired you and how did it come about?
I had been thinking about it for a while when I organized the first part of this exchange show that you were also involved in last fall (2014) using nine spaces in Tokyo and Yokohama combined. The publisher at Yokohama Financial Times, Mr. Sugiura, told me that I still had time to apply for the satellite programming for the Yokohama Triennial event launching in early August. … I had to shift into high gear, conceptualize everything and see how it all falls into place. However, it was fortunate that the main theme of Yokohama Triennial was based on L.A.’s own Ray Bradbury and his novel, Fahrenheit 451. Ironically, Bradbury’s former home in Cheviot Hills was recently torn down by urban developers. I thought, ‘what is history anyway?’ The theme carried on the same tone: how can history retain itself through generations? So much of it is lost in translation. And now Bradbury’s home is being demolished!
The erasure of a sense of place. Such a Los Angeles, or is it American, phenomena… So then Ray Bradbury was the inspiration for the Triennial for Japanese artists as well, or only for the Americans?
Yasumasa Morimura was the director for last year’s Triennial. Much like Cindy Sherman, he transposes himself as iconic characters that reside in popular and political cultures. Morimura applied the Bradbury theme of precariously transferable knowledge and data through even more precariously dependable or undependable memory retention of the human brain. The core Triennial programming straddled over several institutions, facilities and communities, encouraging satellite programming to follow suit and activate peripheral communities that I searched for.
Was the emphasis around this Triennial show in Japan science fiction, or political because of Bradbury’s ideas–i.e. book burning and the loss of cultural memory?
It covered every aspect of Bradbury’s theme in 451 throughout the nine gallery spaces in the show. It was set up a bit like reading a book. The sections of the exhibition were portrayed as chapters. The themes of oblivion and literature were examined from various angles, including books that were published during World War II, the words of which were interpreted at the time as encouraging war. Making a statement on the forgotten in another chapter of the exhibition were canvases that looked blank until you got a little closer to them. According to Morimura,“these works are meant to convey the idea of ‘presence,’ which, like air, is something that is always around us even if we can’t see it.” So, there was play with sound/silence, image/absence, existentialist concepts throughout the show.
Now that you’re telling me that Bradbury was the inspiration, I understand why my book from The Library of Disappearance was in that show. Something so small you can barely decipher it.
To complement Morimura’s concept, I chose titles from Bradbury’s short stories and essays. I picked nine titles in total. The show you were in was called Here There Be Tygers, which is a play on the saying “here be dragons.” Old English mapmakers formerly placed the phrase at the edges of their known world—where the wild things are.
To make it a fair exchange of artists and spaces presented, I needed to find the counterbalance in Los Angeles to Japan’s somewhat smaller spaces … Four venues locked in eventually and then an interesting request came from The Japan Foundation when they were in need of finding a venue for their traveling postwar photography show. It wasn’t in the original plan, but being the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, I took this on as something meant to be and placed this exhibit in one of the already slated four spaces, at West LA College.
Let’s talk about that a bit. It’s an historical show, and one of tremendous significance, because it reveals the evolution of postwar photography in Japan and the recovery as well as reemergence of Japan as a cultural and economical power… One of the things that was significant was that the work from the late 1940s-early 1950s not only gave one real insight into the level of destruction but personalized it, as opposed to it being generalized. It revealed it in terms of peoples lives, not just a question of buildings or places, but erasure of a sense of place and the ways in which people gradually rebuilt their cultural identity.
Yes exactly. The exhibit begins with Hiroshi Hamaya’s photograph of the sunrise on August 15th, right after the Emperor’s radio broadcast announcing and acknowledging defeat. The people included in the show are some of the leading photographers in the last half of the 20th century, and very influential in shaping contemporary photography in Japan.
They have been very important to restoring the cultural life of the country by telling their story to the outside world. Which brings me to this thought. Here we have this show organized by The Japan Foundation, … and we would expect a show of this scale … an exhibition of major work, historically and internationally, to be shown at the Getty, or LACMA. But no museum in the country has picked up this show. And then it ends up here in this obscure little gallery in a community college that nobody knows about. And the question that of course comes up is why? What lies behind that? Do you have any thoughts about this?
This brings me back to your insights on the subject of “erasure.” Perhaps the fading interest for historical exhibits within the newer younger audience combined with lack of funding from major corporate conglomerates shelves these unseen shows.
The politics of the “new boys on the block,” the new generation of artists out of China born well after the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, or even Tiananmen with a lack of cultural memory? It’s the hot, new sexy thing on the street and there’s a lot of money in that market.
Japan has a long and fascinating cultural exchange and conversation with the West that goes back to the 19th century. So the influences of Japan on Western art and also the West on Japan are embedded in the arts on both sides. Its isolation was the vehicle for its phenomenal development of cultural craftsmanship, challenged and achieved at high levels. Especially in the knowledge and technique of expanding the visual notion of perspective.
During my last trip to Japan (May 2015), I visited the National Museum of Art in Ueno Park, in Tokyo. There were these large paintings that were quite abstract and titled Six Perspectives Of A Mountain. And they were dated in the 1700s! They represent six perspectives of the same mountain in one painting—that’s almost 200 years before Cubism–while it was not until the end of the 19th century in the West, first Cezanne with Mt. St. Victoire, and then Braque picking up and expanding on those ideas! That is pretty interesting. So coming back to this dialogue with the West and the exchange that has taken place, and the importance of Metamorphosis Of Japan After The War: 1945-1964 exhibition. The situation of historical erasure along with the rejection of this show here seems misguided, if not a revisionist repression of memory.
At any rate, you decided you’re going to bring a generation or cross section of Japanese artists over here and give them an opportunity to have that exposure and exchange with American artists in Los Angeles. Plus it offers us some insight into how the Japanese artists think about materiality, process and impermanence.
So, to back up and further answer your previous question about how I organized the four shows including the Metamorphosis Of Japan postwar photography show, which I co-presented, it’s actually in a similar neighborhood of the six perspectives way of thought, the painting that you brought up earlier in this conversation. The perspectives in these shows worked best in my thought if they were expanded universes as in Buddhist philosophy. The Japanese have these lexemes, or wise-sayings, “YojiJukugo,” that are constructed of four kanji characters, minimal and immense in depth, and can be interpreted in any direction provided the reader has a balanced mind, not tainted by a value or certain emotion. I saw that the three shows following the postwar photography exhibit could be set as three acts or chapters mirroring the series of shows that happened last October in Japan. The titles of the shows are idiomatic expressions derived from Buddhist literature, reverberations of beauty and aesthetics both in an historical and contemporary context of the Japanese social experience.
FlowerBirdWindMoon (Kacho Fugetsu) came to mind as the fitting title for the opening show of the three acts: All things in nature; all containing a spirit. The show was composed of 37 artists’ works from Japan and local L.A. artists. Forest Of Exponentials (Xinla Bansho) was the second edition, which explored private forests of exponential matters from pure mark making to political issues and manifestos. The third, Riot Of Flowers, was an all woman show, which explored what is seen and unseen in different color spaces … RGB, CMYK and the naked eye. In other words, the range of translatables.
Going back to this question of historical erasure and cultural memory … In Forest Of Exponentials, your piece Revolutions Per Minute plays around with the boundary line of fact and fiction and historical memory by taking all of these titles from various manifestos which are quite famous, and others which are more obscure, and visually relocating them within the graphic style of the time in which they were written, or actually spoken, and then making them into what appear to be 45 rpm records which don’t actually exist. In other words, there are no recordings of these manifestos as performed in that manner, but the record labels appear to be completely authentic and old … They have all the label names, but are not necessarily the record labels that produced records of these texts. But they could’ve been. There’s that moment of ambiguity, and the suspension of disbelief…
—from the Industrial Revolution bringing us convenience with well built analog machines to the Technological Revolution which strips us of jobs and brings us convenience in the guise of ‘ease of use,’ yet without knowledge of the back-ends of these invisible apps all set to the clock of erasure… My work focuses on those themes—physical and philosophical matter that didn’t make it over the 21st century bridge. In this series, it’s the 78rpms and 33rpms and the 45rpms that get replaced by the formats that have rendered record labels and concept albums useless.
There is this sense of loss, this historical amnesia, and it induces this feeling of displacement, like getting caught in a time warp … And the manifestos as texts could be lost, because of the declining interest of reading lengthy material.
And in its availability online it would be a challenge to figure out the context these thoughts originally derived from.
Some of us still try to give (our students) a contextual frame to the manifestos … but it’s very difficult if they have no historical memory or point of reference, and if they don’t know what’s going on in the larger world in which these things were meaningful and powerful and influential or even what they protested against.
So in the Forest Of Exponentials show, the erasure has seeped into the trees themselves and the foliage and the creatures in the forest, so to speak. Chihiro Minato’s installation in the show of cut up books, art catalogs of famous collections overlapping with modernism, pop culture and displaced global locations was excellent.
He selected art catalogs from very specific periods in art—one of which was Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. And the influence of Japanese art at the turn of the century period is only partially acknowledged historically. It’s acknowledged in a very particular way but the scale of influence especially in the area of Art Nouveau—how much of it was taken from Japanese art and design—is not part of the Western Art historical discourse.
Each artists’ pieces worked at different levels of concept, physicality and impact.
Let’s take Miyuki Yokomizo’s colored grid paintings. They are kind of a translation, almost like a musical score of a performance …The paintings are actually a form of documentation of the process, where the performative aspect is crucial. It makes me think of Gutai without the theatrics. It might have been good to have had the performative aspect on a video to go with the paintings.
What about the three large paintings … in which you did have a sense of the process…
Those are by Junichi Seki who is curator at the Yokohama Musuem of Art. The three selected paintings work seamlessly as in a time-lapse exposure of the same mindscape from dark to light to slightly dark again.
So in a way they are also time-based paintings, and performative paintings that are the result of an immediate response to his environment … They feel like you’re entering into a fluctuating space, as if you can actually see what string theory proposes the universe looks like, all vibrating strings …
Which is an interesting transition to the FlowerBirdWindMoon show, All things in nature; all containing a spirit. … and the site-specific work by Chiaki Saito of hand made paper activated by crystals poured over filigrees of paper fibers. They spread out into the space like a tree sprouting branches.
Her family is four generations of fireworks makers in Ibaragi prefecture, north of Tokyo.
That explains a lot. Her piece is like an aftermath of an explosion. It is rather wonderful, very lacy and all white, like a burst of light, a beautiful firework in the sky made tangible … there’s the sense of ephemerality and fragility because of the medium, as if you can blow on it and it will dissolve. How fascinating that she comes from a family of firework makers. Once the show is over, there’s nothing left afterwards. Her pieces are gone. And you can’t really sell them because they are made for that location, time and place. So that brings us back to this question of impermanence. The idea of impermanence that is so embedded in Japanese aesthetics and philosophy runs throughout all the exhibitions.
Opening the doors to that gallery made me very careful in the sense that I could easily destroy the installation with a little gust of wind sending some of the crystals flying about in space.
Let’s talk about another piece that I found very ephemeral and beautiful and kind of magical—Tomoaki Sato’s piece with the butterflies on the wall. But not just butterflies. There were these little boxes below and some kind of light projection coming from them, as if the actual materiality of the butterflies were merely structural vehicles for the reflections and shadows that seemed to come from these little boxes. You had no sense of the source of all the fluttering patterns and light around these very delicate paper shapes.
It’s sort like a aquarium without water—clear acrylic cubes with butterflies trapped in them, held in place and free flowing at the same time. The physical life forms are in the cubes and the ghost spirits are hanging out with the paper structures …
To paraphrase a Zen master, Here, not here. Same thing. And it certainly captures the essence of the show’s title, All things in nature; all containing a spirit.
To switch gears completely—what about this work in the show … I don’t how to describe it other than it was like a bunch of strange plumbing tubes that were flexible but not plumbing tubes. They came in a rainbow series of colors and they protruded out of the walls like some kind of alien worm, some snake-like thing in a bad dream. But friendly and not sinister, more like strange seductive toys … plumbing gone amuck, as if they’ve taken on some kind of rebellion against the house. Destructive and humorous at the same time. Like anime creatures … completely synthetic and fictive yet containing implied sentience. Post-minimalist pop culture hybrids.
These are Satoshi Saegusa’s works. His medium is vinyl. This is a lifetime obsession of his since childhood in which he discovered elasticity and the breaking limits of stretching the material.
So he was a little scientist.
More like a bondage/fetish/scientist! … A slightly science fiction approach to sculpture! But he’s also very influenced by Gutai. He flirts with the avant-garde but has a fondness for structure in the traditional sense of arrangement as in ikebana. Only his is a “worm” garden sprouting out of the walls.
Another person is Minako Kumagai whose works look like brass, bronze, marble, and gold but all are made out of paper. Again there is this disparity, this fault line between perceptual and actual realities …
They are non-functional vessels, not hollow, ambiguous, … Relic-like. They all look very heavy—
—and simultaneously ancient and contemporary, beautifully crafted abstract artifacts to be discovered in the future and puzzled over. Except, they are made of paper and might easily succumb to the elements.
There was one more show, Riot Of Flowers, and it featured all women. How did they feel about that? Was there a “feminist” contradiction there in referring to all these women as flowers and flowers being thought of as “feminine?”
No actually, not that I sensed. The artists seemed to improvise on the theme and retune the bandwidth of feminism …
What do you hope or anticipate the outcome of this kind of exchange can be and where can it go?
The initial idea was to go beyond a once in a few years novelty show, and build a community-driven exchange where works are transported and/or made on site. … What transpires is the intuitive sense that observes art’s place in nature: its appearance, meaning and value set in contemporary world affairs in which the un-seeable is viewed from a third eye, the inaudible is imagined through living colors, and the unspeakable can be understood through telepathic means.
For more descriptions of the artworks, see Fabrik’s continuation of this story online at www.fabrik.la.