会田 誠 @MAM


Bijutsu Techo today publishes its Jan 2013 special edition on Makoto Aida. I am delighted that it includes a feature article I wrote, my second essay on the Mizuma artist currently enjoying his time on the 53rd floor of the Mori Tower. I am pleased to publish here the English original of the translation. The title of course comes from The Smiths.

Amazingly, my original blog on Aida, written in Jan 2010, is still picking up around 1500 hits a month: there is a school of Aida out there for sure. I include a link to my original text at the bottom of the new essay. どうぞ楽しんでください !

Aida Makoto: The World Won't Listen?

Aida Makoto's difficult international career poses the question of whether any contemporary Japanese artist can pass into the Japanese pantheon of world class artists without the affirmation of gaisen kouen: the triumphant "return performance" after success and recognition abroad. In one way or another, with minor variation, it's the same story for Ono Yoko, Kusama Yayoi, Kawara On, Sugimoto Hiroshi, Morimura Yasumasa, Mori Mariko, Yanagi Miwa, or Nara Yoshitomo. All grew bigger via international affirmation. Even the recognisably home grown genius of Gutai or Hi Red Centre, has required sanctification by international museums, curators and academics before it was taken truly seriously in Japan. It was a route to stardom systematised, of course, by Murakami Takashi in his frankly cynical Art Entrepreneurship Theory.

Is Japan able to choose its own heroes? Aida is, uniquely perhaps, a recent Japanese contemporary artist of world stature whose fame lies solely in processes internal to the nation. During the 1990s and 2000s his reputation has risen steadily in Japan. It has been a long wait for a big retrospective, and the corporate sponsors are still too uncomfortable to back his vision, but there is little doubt in the minds of leading art writers and curators that he is an important artist of the post-war period, and perhaps the greatest artist (of several) to emerge during the 1990s. But internationally there is very little to say about Aida's career. He has had a few small shows here and there in the US and Europe; some respectable academic attention among specialist Japanese studies scholars; and made a minor splash as a manga artist (for Mutant Hanako) in France. He had, essentially, a miserable time -- as an artist -- during his fated stay in New York on the ACC program in 2000. Your Pronunciation is Wrong! (2000), the performance of Aida protesting against the English language in the streets of New York with his ex-pat Japanese friends, is funny but also a little sad. His works are frequently anthologised in cultural studies books about Japan, but there is practically no place for Aida in any of the serious mainstream global curatorial discourse.

His biggest moment was the showing in 2003 of A Picture of an Air Raid on New York City at the Whitney show The American Effect about anti-Americanism, which created a minor controversy, as well as some discomfort for the curator, Lawrence Rinder. New Yorkers, two years after 9/11, were just a little too sensitive about the idea of an angry Japanese painting glorifying an imaginary bombing of the Manhattan skyline; though few seemed to note that the importance of the work really lay in its uncanny date of production (1995-6). Aida's ironic nationalism, both stylistically and thematically, is easily lost on self-styled "cosmopolitan" Western audiences unless they have a very high degree of specialisation in Japanese history and culture. It is also often thought his over-the-line representations of Japanese male fantasies and "otaku" obsessions are a little too weird.

We need to examine these assumptions a little. Aida is a conceptual artist and his entire career has been a long dialogue with international conceptualism as much as his Japanese sources. In spanning all kinds of media -- with technical brilliance -- from nihonga and oil painting to video, performance and outrageous installations, as well as his effects as a teacher and art intellectual, he is the consummate all-rounder contemporary artist. Can it all be a fault of Japanese provincialism that the world won't listen? Are there aspects of his work too far behind or too far ahead of global fashions?

It is worth remembering that the Young British Artists (YBAs) were every bit as nation-specific as the young Geidai artists of the 1990s (which included Aida, his Showa 40 nen kai partner, Ozawa Tsuyoshi, as well as Murakami, Nakamura Masato and Sone Yutaka). The two art movements moved in parallel, producing two global superstar artist-curators very similar in the roles they occupied, if not their style -- Murakami and Hirst -- as well as equally vibrant scenes.

Aida is often compared to the Chapman Brothers, who used shock tactics, raucous humour and historical referencing in a similar way. When Dinos and Jake were paired with Aida at Lonely Planet at Mito by curator Kubota Kenji in 2004, not surprisingly, they all got on like a house on fire. Unlike Aida, though, the Chapmans grace the Saatchi and Pinault collections. But is Aida's War Picture Returns series (1995-9) any more shocking or confrontational than the Chapmans' dioramas of Nazi monstrosities in Hell (2000/2008)? Or are Aida's Edible Artificial Girls (1999-2001), his very Japanese solution to future food shortages, more toxic to good parental taste than the Chapmans' mannequins of young children with genitalia on their faces in Tragic Anatomies (1996)? If it were all a matter of taste, Aida's caustic irony should have easily found a smart and radical left field audience by now in the West, alongside Gilbert and George and Maurizio Cattelan.

It must be more a question of understanding. Simple touristic knowledge of Japan never includes awareness of its raucous popular humour: the stand-up comic slapstick and older traditions of warai that Aida mines. Still, the immense humour of his A Video of a Man Calling Himself Bin Laden Staying in Japan (2005) does not require much more than subtitles; nor, really does the acute social pathos of his frequent reflections on homelessness. The parts of Aida that have been refined, energised and further developed by the art group Chim ↑ Pom -- whom he has influenced decisively -- can easily make sense internationally.

On the other hand, there is a perverseness in Aida regarding translation which ensures a certain distance. His notorious refusal to communicate in English reached a peak during the Yokohama Festival in 2001, when he provided a dictionary in the exhibition in case foreigners needed help. Meanwhile, when his pornographic wartime manga, Mutant Hanako -- so powerful and disturbing on many levels to Japanese viewers -- was shown in San Francisco in 1995, it was translated with a comically rough soundtrack by actors. This complex gambit pointed to a real problem in the very concept of global art, which Aida has consistently highlighted in his work: translation is not the artist's responsibility.

It matters when we look at early work like Azemichi (A Path Between Rice Fields (1991) to know that it is not just a near-obscene piece of schoolgirl fetishism, as well as a peaceful evocation of satoyama in a Japanese rural landscape. We need to know it is a quotation of the nihonga classic by Higashiyama Kaii (1950) which symbolised the way forward for Japanese art against Western (i.e. American) hegemony in the post-war period. His recent video work, Art and Philosophy II, shown to great effect at the Showa 40 nen kai show in Düsseldorf in 2011, further comments on the dilemma with razor sharp sarcasm.

In a closed room, on three simultaneous video screens, Aida performs, in costume, a live painting on glass by three “typical” German, French and English artists. As they paint, a typical “national” style work appears, while each of Aida’s characters mouth philosophical and art theoretical statements in the appropriate language -- each with a terrible Japanese accent. The German artist, intense and erratic, seemed to be some kind of Anselm Kiefer figure, filling the screen with heavy and lumpy brown paint. The French artist, romantic and fey, dabs impressionistically at the screen, while smoking a Gaulloise. The Anglo-American “English” artist, meanwhile, starts out as an Oxbridge gentleman quoting Wittgenstein and painting geometric abstractions. By the end he has turned into an angry postmodern theorist, painting obscenities, and we are thinking of Damien Hirst.

There is a message here for young Japanese art students. Just look how meaningless all those Western art theory references have become. Why are you reading Hal Foster et al and their empty philosophy? Perhaps a better association for Aida among the YBAs would be Tracey Emin; difficult, perverse, emotional, funny, impenetrably British. At least Aida gets to look a little like her in his transvestite photographic work, Self Portrait: A Girl of Sea Breezes (1989).

The reference in the video work, as in many others, is to Kant: the 18th century Prussian philosopher who laid out for all time the universal sources of beauty in human judgement. The 20th century, starting with Freud and Nietzsche, ending with Foucault and Said, was supposed to have made this kind of naïve belief in the transcendental sublime impossible. Yet global curators marched all over the planet during the 1990s and 2000s, armed with their clever post-colonial theories, but in practice assuming a facile universalism, in which they could recognise, select and put value on works in every country, after a just few interviews with key art world figures. They showed how Empire could miraculously be married with Multitude to make one great global art Commonwealth: here today, tomorrow China, the day after tomorrow, India, and the day after that, Switzerland. Thankfully, Aida has never been understood by these curators; he has not been colonised. He is not so much a nationalist, as obdurately resistant to such global processing. He always speaks of this as a kind of self-defeating mechanism: the last laugh of an apathetic continent; the monument for nothing.

The 135 days at the Mori Art Museum may not make a huge difference to his international reputation. The foreign visitors will come in and be amused, or puzzled; they might recoil in distaste. But, for once, Mori Art Museum has put on a show that has not required benediction from New York, Berlin or London. And, meanwhile the world is changing. The global era of the 1990s and 2000s is over; nations and their perverse, peculiar cultures and misunderstandings will just not go away. Aida paid little attention to the fashions of the global era, and so now stands as a much better guide to what has happened in and to Japan since 1990. We can now see his work clearly. He is perhaps Japan's first great post-global artist.

My essay (Jan 2010): "When Will Aida Be Famous?"

Adrian Favell is Professor of Sociology at Sciences Po, Paris, and is the author of Before and After Superflat: A Short History of Japanese Contemporary Art 1990-2011.





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