Zones of love

Contemporary art from Japan
Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney

Zones of love are slippery zones of unmeasurable intensity. Zones where unalike things touch, and find resonances in each other that neither can name. So it is with Zones of Love: Contemporary Art From Japan, a remarkable show curated by Judy Annear.

The critics seem mostly to have preferred the works by the older artists represented in this show over the younger ones. It is not difficult to see why. Toshikatsu Endo's sculptures in burnt wood speak of an era in Japanese art when one could still have faith in the mystical role of the artist as shaman, conjuring up out of nothingness deeply veiled signs of being. His burnt wooden boat filled with water is so simple yet so laden with significance as to be almost unbearable. Endo's work can be taken as flowing either from some ineffably Japanese philosophical aesthetic, or from a recognisable variant of European modernism. Either way it valorises the artist's apartness from the everyday and draws the spectator into a parallel realm of experience. The paradox is that this work can be read at one and the same time as familiarly and reassuringly modern art and as familiarly and reassuringly Japanese and hence unintelligible. Besides, the burnt wood smells nice.

The rest of the work in the show departs from the notion of the artist as embodied in Endo's work. Zones of Love brings together artists mostly in their early thirties, who grew up in the dense, fleeting information landscape of the contemporary first world which Japan struggled so cheerfully to join in the 1960s. The materialist prejudices of the '60s new left, and the reflexive questioning of identity and signification of the postmodern, separate their work from Endo's, who nevertheless functions as one of the axes along which the viewer is invited to interpret the show.

The catalogue offers plenty of resources for mapping the work along the twin axes of Japanese and Western modern art movements, so I won't duplicate that here. An alternative is to put the works in the context of the contemporary information landscape, and the zones of love created in memory and sensibility by the media vector. The inclusion of a room containing pop magazines, manga and a monitor showing Dentsu's TV advertising was a brilliant idea. Unfortunately, a close attention to the media surfaces which frame the work shows that the strategies pursued by the artists are also at work in popular culture itself.

The function of the artist in this contemporary sense might be to arrest and interrogate techniques which otherwise speed by all too quickly. Kohdai Nakahara's Lego sculptures and electric cars and Complesso Plastico 's New Life promotional campaign appear as fragments of everyday life lovingly elaborated into art. Atsuko Ara's impressionist portraits of Mickey Mouse appear neither as parody or critique but as landscapes. When the artists take the contemporary information landscape as the shared image repertoire between themselves and the audience, a communication and a meditation is possible across the national-cultural divide. No longer the high priest of a secret knowledge, the artist becomes a mediator between the spectator and the spectacle, inserting a third term in the dance of simulacra. As I have argued elsewhere, Japanese culture is quite intelligible in these terms, for the abstract logics of capital and the vector know only zones of variation, not essential differences between cultures.1

Some of the zones of love these works were created within are zones that some of the viewers who went to see it may share. These are the zones of the information landscape which intersect the lives of practically anybody who has the sensitivity to tune into them. These zones of sensibility can help us get a little closer to some of these works, but we still come up against the ineffable difference that the distinct national matrices of media culture create. One way to finesse this difference is to look for the patterns of interference between the work's apparent frame of reference and one's own. This static appears as a constant reminder that one is producing what I have called perverse readings, consciously mistaken in their mapping of the work.2

Perverse readings inevitably enter into one's view of works like Emiko Kasahara's, based on the motif of a pink marble rose. This image seems so overdetermined as a symbol that it cancels itself out. One is left with a series of very cool, calculated works which resist all of the usual tendencies one might expect. They are not kitsch, even if the pink marble looks like a fifties' bathroom. They are not ironic, even if they seem to be a deliberate iconic displacement.

Something similar happens with Mitsuko Miwa's mountain paintings . These second degree reproductions of the landscape nevertheless seem to steer one away from conventional critical trimmings. As James Roberts suggests in the catalogue, it is not the image but the viewpoint that these paintings seem to stress. Viewing the image becomes an heroic effort rather than a casual, pleasurable gaze.
It is strange to see Tatsuo Miajima's LED displays framed simply as contemporary art rather than as electronic art, but then I guess if one grew up in Tokyo in the '60s, electronic circuits could quite easily form the everyday material for an art practice. Something similar occurs with Dumb Type's performance work pH, in which a complex combination of industrial design, electronics and everyday objects was arranged according to a rigid and very confident logic. By reducing everyday life to a minimalist discipline, Dumb Type exposed the elementary patterns of bodies and spaces, movements and images which make up the present repertoire of life. The performers seemed to achieve a state of grace through a principled and energetic motion. It is as if they were running an obstacle race over objects that are not of their making but which they choose to surmount. The three female performers seemed to be covered in bruises, yet achieved dignity through the will to dominate the environment which forces their actions. A very striking and memorable performance. There is still stunningly little available in English on contemporary Japanese culture and art.3 The Museum of Contemporary Art and Judy Annear deserve our thanks for adding this excellent show and catalogue to the list.

McKENZIE WARK

notes: 

1. "The Tokyo Nice Life", New Statesman, Vol. 4, No. 169, 20 September 1991, pp. 32-33

2. "From Fordism to Sonyism : Perverse Readings of the New World Order ", New Formations, No. 15, Winter 1991, pp. 43-54

3. Although see Masao Miyoshi and H. D. Harootunian (eds), Postmodernism and Japan, Duke University Press, Durham 1989 and Alfred Birnbaum (ed), Monkey Brain Sushi: New Tastes in Japanese Fiction , Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1991