Ei Arakawa: Pt I

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By Andrew Maerkle

Harsh Citation, Harsh Pastoral, Harsh Münster (2017). Music by Christian Naujoks, lyrics by Ei Arakawa and Dan Poston, metal frames by Gela Patashuri. Produced for Skulptur Projekte 2017, Münster. Photo Henning Rogge.

Born in Fukushima in 1977, Ei Arakawa earned his BFA from the School of Visual Arts in New York in 2004 and his MFA from Bard College in 2006. At SVA, Arakawa was recognized as a rising talent before he even graduated, presenting a performance in the group show “The Club in the Shadow,” curated by Jutta Koether and Kim Gordon at the gallery Kenny Schachter Contemporary in 2003. Since then, he has developed a unique practice that combines elements of performance and dance with structural interventions into the existing space, and often includes group participation. Having made projects everywhere from New York and Tokyo to Los Angeles, Berlin and Tbilisi, Arakawa uses his works to triangulate the different trajectories and time scales of the local, international and universal, and the biographical, the canonical and the apocryphal, drawing equally upon his personal background as well as art historical genealogies and local contexts. From the project On Kawara’s Esperanto (2004), presented in the group show “Don’t Think About Me, I’m Alright” at Greene Naftali Gallery in New York in 2004, to his latest solo exhibition at Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo earlier this year, “Tryst,” which featured a musical “performed” by iconic paintings of the Gutai Art Association that were reproduced in LED panels equipped with speakers, the modern and contemporary art history of Japan and its international reception has been another abiding point of investigation for him. These themes are further developed for Arakawa’s project for Skulptur Projekte 2017 in Münster, for which he has created an installation of “singing” LED panels reproducing historical paintings by international artists on a lawn near the Aasee lake, Harsh Citation, Harsh Pastoral, Harsh Münster (2017).

This February, ART iT met with Arakawa before the opening of his exhibition at Taka Ishii Gallery to discuss his work and the development of his practice in further detail.

Tryst” was on view at Taka Ishii Gallery from February 10 to March 11 of this year. Skulptur Projekte 2017 opens to the public in Münster on June 10 and continues to October 1.


"Tryst," installation view at Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo, 2017. Photo Kenji Takahashi, courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery. All images: Unless otherwise noted, courtesy Ei Arakawa and Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.

ART iT: Many of your works start by reimagining moments in art history. How did you get interested in working with history, and what keeps you returning to it as a theme in your practice?

EA: When I was studying at the School of Visual Arts in New York, I was lucky to be taught by Jutta Koether, who came out of the 1990s Cologne context where Martin Kippenberger and other artists were very active in relation and resistance to the art market at the time and events such as Art Cologne. This Cologne context was of course the unreachable past for me, but it was always in my mind, because one of my main galleries, Reena Spaulings, also emerged from that New York-Cologne exchange. Many artists involved with Reena were part of the scene in Cologne, and later worked with Colin de Land's American Fine Arts in New York. At the same time, reading Okwui Enwezor's Documenta 11 catalogue encouraged me to rediscover my own genealogy: in particular performance art from Japan. Maybe the Cologne influence is one strand, but I wanted to offer something of my own, too. I had read Yoshio Shirakawa's Dada in Japan 1920-1970, so I knew about Gutai and felt that the practice of Gutai was relevant to contemporary painting discourse. Being around Jutta, or hanging out at Reena, I became interested in the idea of "painting beyond itself" and how painting pushes itself within the current Internet situation. I felt painting had become more unstable and opened up in this context. Because performance is always about present time, I wanted to work with historicity, or objects whose production time is really different from that of performance. Gutai's practice offered one approach to that.

ART iT: People in Japan often say that there is a disconnect between the Japanese avant-garde and the Japanese context: the history of the Japanese avant-garde only makes sense in the West. Are you playing with that as well?

EA: Yes. Especially in the show at Taka Ishii in February, you experience the Western gaze. It's like you're looking at yourself from overseas. This hypothetical perspective has been reimported back into Japan. The narrative in the musical is neither special nor rare for Japanese scholars - there is already a lot of deep scholarship on Gutai in Japan. It's more about playing with the different contexts. For the Japanese audience, this musical contextualizes Gutai within Art Basel and the Western market outside of Japan. I wanted to use the reference to the fair to reflect the reality of how artists participate in the system through that larger context, whether willingly or not. Performance artists in particular are being increasingly institutionalized, but we are still freer to improvise in the system, with room for skepticism.

Above: Ei Arakawa and Mari Mukai - Mid-Yuming as Reconstruction Mood (2004), courtesy the artists and Reena Spaulings Fine Art, New York. Below: On Kawara's Esperanto (2004), in the exhibition "Don't Think About Me, I'm Alright" at Greene Naftali, New York, 2004.

ART iT: Were you ever interested in using Japanese art history to challenge the canon of Western art?

EA: I think more than divisions between East and West, the work questions how the balance of art history is suddenly shifted by the market, often through the so-called "rediscovery" of forgotten or dead artists. For example, works by the first generation of Gutai artists are much more expensive than the second or third generation, but maybe the spirit of pre-1958 Gutai is also lost in the process of these market shifts. The market situation is sometimes confused with Gutai's parallel revival in museums. Once the art world discovers something, it capitalizes it and makes it seem as if it's the only thing. Yayoi Kusama was rediscovered in the 1990s, and that built momentum for the popularization of Japanese modern art history outside Japan. But since then, we have seen so many Kusama shows - correct me if I am wrong.

ART iT: Are you more trying to challenge the way these histories circulate?

EA: To a certain extent, yes, but I am not a historian. I just wish for there to be more appreciation of lesser known Japanese artists and art collectives. As with performance artists, many parts of the history are ephemeral and less archival, so there is a politics of the archive at play as well. As an artist, I can move faster to point this out.

ART iT: But your work is not meant to revise the canonical history?

EA: The real revision is done by the art historians. My engagement with the historical material comes from a perspective that is not really possible for a historian. In one of my early works, On Kawara's Esperanto (2004), I researched about On Kawara's use of Esperanto. It was important for me to understand the difference between Kawara's generation and my own. I saw Kawara not as a universal artist but as someone who was specifically tied to the post-1945 democratic education in Japan. Our time is different. I take pleasure in that kind of articulation.
In terms of Gutai, I read mostly from the English-language material. I've made several Gutai-related projects and the knowledge has accumulated with experience, but if you did a fact check on the lyrics in my musical, it's not exactly accurate all the time. For instance, when the Shiraga/Motonaga character sings about displaying animal guts in the exhibition, I couldn't confirm what kind of animal was actually proposed to Jiro Yoshihara, so I just put "pig." Maybe it was a cow. It's not a historical essay or theoretical text, but more like a subjective examination of how collectivity and the production of paintings were organized within Gutai. Although the songs comment ironically on their success in the market, I do believe that in their earlier activities Gutai had a well-balanced relationship between performance and painting. I have some kind of identification with what they did, and that's why I keep going back to it - as long as it is relevant to me.

Above: "Tryst" at Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo, 2017. Below: See Weeds (2011), performance view at Les Abattoirs, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Toulouse, 2011. Produced for "Les Printemps de Septembre." Photo Marc Boyer.

ART iT: Then for you is the identification with Gutai more about their use of performance rather than their Japaneseness?

EA: I think it's a mixture. There are Japanese artists who are based outside of Japan and make work that has nothing to do with Japan, but maybe since I'm a performance artist I cannot escape the presence of my body. But when I did my project for the Gwangju Biennale in 2014 I was able to connect with the context of Gwangju through the help of the Korean theater producer I worked with, Inza Lim. Without her I wouldn't have been able to engage with the specific Gwangju context, and I would never have known how the biennale emerged out of the democratization process in South Korea. With Inza as a liaison, I tried to establish bridges between different contexts.
I am now developing a project with the artists Sergei and Stefan Tcherepnin in Shanghai for later this year. Sergei and Stefan's grandfather had a specific relationship with the Chinese and Japanese music scenes of the 1930s, which was interrupted by Japanese imperialism. I visited Shanghai for the first time recently and I'm not sure how relevant the Sino-Japanese War is for Chinese people today, but if I develop a project about the 1930s, then I cannot ignore that history. Together with the curator Biljana Ciric, I have to find some connection for developing this project.
The more offers I get to do projects in Asia, the more I am interested in dealing with the local context through a research-based approach. I want to offer something that is useful for both sides. I cannot do this at just any location around the world, because doing that kind of research is very tricky. It has to be specific.
In terms of Gutai, my work might not explicitly address it, but often in the West Gutai is presented as a tabula rasa moment for Japanese art history. I think that this amnesia is unfortunate, so I want to reconnect it to the art history of the 1920s, '30s and '40s.

ART iT: Isn't the amnesia partly the responsibility of Japanese historians and curators themselves?

EA: I'm not sure about the historians. Curators, maybe. I see many good historical museum shows in Japan, but maybe artists are not good at connecting those historical shows to current issues?

ART iT: Do you think the amnesia in the art history of Japan is related to the problem of remembering the war in Japanese society?

EA: Maybe it has to do only with the art world in Japan. The larger society is better about remembering - through things like NGOs, films, novels, manga. Nationalist populism is on the rise now everywhere, but we have to be aware of these shifts in politics. In New York, the art community is on high alert because of the big shift rightward caused by Donald Trump. Even Obama coming to Hiroshima and Abe going to Hawaii in the past year – it was very theatrical. I guess it was all symbolic and more about promoting the economy. I don't want to ignore what is going on in this new context when I make art in China or in Korea.
Because I reference Gutai heavily in this show, some people might think it's self-consciously Japanese material, but Gutai is actually a fascinating narrative of globalization. And if I found the right person to collaborate with, I could do a similar story about Korea's Dansaekhwa movement. In any case, Gutai is highly relevant in terms of the relationship between painting and performance.

ART iT: We started talking about art history and then wandered into discussing social history, but I find your works already have this tendency. For example, the early pieces about Yuming and On Kawara also addressed the immigration system in the US. You did interviews with the participants about their experiences living in the US and created documents and texts that ran parallel to the work. Have you continued to develop that dimension in your recent work as well?

EA: I got a green card in 2013, and since then my work has moved on a bit. Also, immigration politics is much harsher now. My position as a Japanese immigrant is nothing compared to the people from the countries targeted by Trump's proposed immigration ban. However, something like the Gwangju project is a continuation of that collaborative attempt to build relationships outside my own subjectivity and produce work from those conversations. I'm not interested in the cult of personality or being alone on the stage. I always want to deal with other people. And because I don't make paintings, I always have to use someone else's art production, which leads to a doubling of the artist within my work.

Above: Ei Arakawa and Inza Lim - The Unheroed Theatre (Character Studies with Gwangdae, Shinmyoung, Tobaki, the Fictitious Aseupalteu) (2014), installation view at the 10th Gwangju Biennale, 2014. Photo Stefan Altenburger. Below: Ei Arakawa with Dan Poston and Stefan Tcherepnin - Paris & Wizard: The Musical (2013), at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

ART iT: Why are you so specifically interested in painting in the context of performance?

EA: I think there is a lot of pressure on performance to adapt to the museum structure, and people are thinking about how performance can be repeated within that structure – something like Tino Sehgal's work, for example. I see a lot of dance performance being institutionalized in the visual art world too, mostly for the good. In these cases, the work has a choreographer and you can train the actors or dancers to repeat it exactly the same way every time. But there are other approaches to performance which are not so repeatable and are therefore less institutionalized. Even though museums now incorporate more events into their programs, they still want to have something reproducible and collectible; the current art system is still highly dependent on objects or products. So engaging with paintings allows me to insert performance into this object oriented structure.
I don't make paintings myself, but I do feel that over time painting consistently reveals the individual artist's attitude or approach to life, and when I integrate something like that into my work it's like I can escape from the limits of my own subjectivity. Maybe that sounds a bit negative, but it's like performance offers a way to productively defer the packaging of my subjectivity. It creates a situation for other contexts and attitudes to enter and exit. I'm really interested in considering this situation of transforming myself through engaging with others as "performance art practice" - much more so than articulating what defines me and asserting that I am "this" or "that." It's like a currency whose value changes over time.

I | II

Ei Arakawa: Pastoral Hide and Seek
2017/06/09 10:00