NEVERENDING NEVERENDING STORIES
By Andrew Maerkle
Dyslympics 2680 (2018), detail, woodcut print in oil ink on Japanese paper, 242.4 x 640.5 cm. Photo Kei Miyajima. All images: Unless otherwise noted, courtesy the artist and MUJIN-TO Production, Tokyo.
Born in Tokyo in 1972, Sachiko Kazama makes woodblock prints that combine graphic, manga-influenced figuration and painterly scale with imagery sourced from historical documents, popular culture, and everyday life to create astute satires of contemporary Japanese society. Characteristically executed in stark monochrome, her works have addressed themes ranging from middle-class consumerism to school bullying, nuclear energy, the legacy of Japanese imperialism, and the Olympic Games.
One of the defining artists of her generation, Kazama has exhibited in important exhibitions including the 2013 Roppongi Crossing, held at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, and the 2017 Yokohama Triennale. In 2019, she was selected along with Motoyuki Shitamichi as one of two inaugural recipients of the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award (TCAA). An initiative of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the award confers a monetary prize of three million yen, a two-million-yen international travel grant, an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT), and the publication of a monograph, with support unfolding over a multiyear period.
In March–June of this year Kazama held her TCAA 2019–2021 exhibition at MOT. Entitled “Magic Mountain,” the exhibition was inspired by the eponymous novel by the German writer Thomas Mann. Presenting both new and recent works, it drew parallels between the fin-de-siècle atmosphere of Mann’s esoteric bildungsroman, the bulk of which takes place in a sanatorium high in the Swiss Alps, and the uncertainty of life during the current Covid-19 pandemic, while also providing an overview of Kazama’s practice.
ART iT met with Kazama while “Magic Mountain” was on view to discuss her career to date.
A solo exhibition by Kazama, “Dyslympian 2021,” will be held at Mujin-to Production, Tokyo, from October 30 to November 20.
Alas! Heisoku-kan (Raging Battleship the Dead End) (2012), woodcut print in sumi ink on Japanese paper mounted on panel, 181 x 418 cm. Photo Kei Miyajima.
ART iT: After the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident of March 11, 2011, many Japanese artists questioned what art could do in the face of the disaster. The works that you subsequently produced connecting the nuclear power industry to developments in Japanese history since the Meiji Restoration provided an answer by offering up a pointed and contextualized critique of Japanese society. Although it hasn’t received as much attention in the media, I can imagine that now, ten years later, many artists are asking themselves the same question again in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. What are your thoughts upon revisiting that question?
Sachiko Kazama: After 3/11 many of the artists who show with me at Mujin-to Production, like Tsubasa Kato and Chim￪Pom, were able to almost instinctively turn the shock of the event into some kind of immediate action. In my case, I don’t want to say that I put it off to the side, but I certainly froze up, and I really agonized about not being able to act immediately.
On the other hand, knowing that I was not that kind of artist to begin with, I spent a good year or so thinking about how someone like me might still respond to this massive calamity involving both man-made aspects and insurmountable natural forces. In fact, I had already taken a great interest in nuclear power some 20 years prior. Whenever I found myself near a nuclear power plant on my travels, I would stop by to check it out. They spend so much money on PR to construct the myth of safety, but I could tell it was all spin—I mean, physically sense it. When all the messaging in the visitor center invests so much energy in insisting that nuclear energy is safe, that it contributes to a peaceful society, you know something is off. And the reality behind the spin was revealed to everyone by the explosions at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant after 3/11. In the aftermath, TEPCO’s only concern was with self-preservation, not the victims. It was all about packing everything back into the established myth of safety. Once I saw that, I realized that was where the discomfort I’d been feeling was coming from. At which point, I was ready to turn the cynicism or sense of absurdity about nuclear energy that had been building up inside me into a work.
ART iT: Are you talking about Alas! Heisoku-kan (Raging Battleship the Dead End) (2012)?
SK: I made three pieces in 2012. Alas! Heisoku-kan (Raging Battleship the Dead End) was the main one. Its imagery is inspired by an incident from the Meiji-era Russo-Japanese War in which the Japanese navy attempted to blockade Port Arthur by scuttling its own ships. This was a grand undertaking that nevertheless ended in failure. And then I turned that into an image of a sinking nuclear power industry vainly trying to cover up the failure of its grand designs. But more than a critique, what I really wanted to do was to objectively compress the whole story into a single picture, from the appalling sight of the hydrogen explosions after 3/11 to the atomic history leading up to that—Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of course, but also the nuclear powered cargo ship Mutsu, which was subsequently converted into an oceanographic research vessel and rechristened Mirai (Future). My idea was to produce a reportage painting that would chronicle Japan’s relationship with nuclear power. I think it’s the same for anybody, but something that starts out as a shocking event will fade from memory over the years. In order to resist that, I wanted to make a reportage painting ghastly enough to immediately recall the terror and foreboding of the time for viewers. The other two works, Mark-I in Dawn and Prison NUKE FISSION 235, drew on all the research I had done on nuclear power to that point.
I made those works almost 10 years ago now, and I’m still not 100-percent satisfied that my delayed response was right, or that those works were really the best I could do. The pandemic is a completely different kind of disaster because it is occurring at a global scale, and I don’t think I can come up with a simple answer for what I should do about it as an artist while we are right in the middle of it. I need time to size up the reality. I think it might instead be possible to turn this period of extended isolation at home into a positive. Like instead of confronting society, I can take it as an opportunity to confront myself.
So I decided to make that an important theme of the new works I produced for the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award. I personally dislike it when art is treated as a palliative, like when people casually say it has an actual role in improving society or it can show everybody what’s right through some heightened sense of justice. I’m more about being true to my own sensibility, and it’s fine as long as there’s someone else out there who can share it. There may come a time for examining the social problems that have arisen out of the pandemic, but at this moment, I’m not in the mood to turn it into a work and shout about how we can overcome this situation by sharing art together.
Above:“BOTSURAKU THIRD FIRE,” installation view, MUJIN-TO Production, Tokyo, 2012. Photo Kei Miyajima. Below: “Magic Mountain,” Tokyo Contemporary Art Award 2019–2021 exhibition, installation view, Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, 2021. Photo Kenji Takahashi, courtesy Tokyo Arts and Space.
ART iT: Whereas 3/11 was a spectacle, with defining visual images, the pandemic is an antispectacle—a weird, in-between situation where half the experience of the event is just staying inside watching Netflix.
SK: That inward turn suits me, since I’m originally someone who is introspective and content to be left in their own world. But I don’t think that’s necessarily the best for everybody, and if you can’t go outside then it’s hard to do business and you can’t make a living. So it’s a difficult situation. The pandemic is complicated even when we leave art out of the equation. Many people’s livelihoods have been affected by the emergency measures, leading to gaps between rich and poor—and then there are others like me, who are more or less fine because our lives are based on being shut in a room all day anyways. There’s this creeping sense of inequality. The main effect the pandemic has had on me was that I was forced to cancel my international research trip for the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award. I was planning to go to Germany. It’s not such a big deal, though, as my stance all along was that if I couldn’t go, then I’d just come up with another topic.
ART iT: But certainly the pandemic raises questions about the necessity of art.
SK: Sure. Everyone’s thinking about things very rationally these days, making judgments based on how useful things are. And art clearly tends to get categorized as being unessential. But I don’t think we should then go out and make art with the intent of it being useful for society either. In fact, it’s the opposite—we need art precisely because it is irrational and useless. I know it’s tricky, but the idea that something deserves to exist because it has no use is what culture is all about.
It’s just that there’s not so much understanding for culture at the moment. That really hit me the other day when I was looking at user comments about the Aichi Triennale 2019 on Yahoo! News. People were saying things like they had no idea how all that taxpayer money could be spent on something as useless as art. They have this anti-intellectual conviction that art is only justified insofar as it makes sense to them, and whatever they don’t get is a waste of time and money. In which case, the only thing you can show is work with a confirmed reputation by a famous artist that is worth a lot of money. And then once museums see that’s the only way to attract crowds, they won’t want to show anything difficult that could put them in the red.
ART iT: Being a recipient of the Tokyo Contemporary Art Award must be a big burden for you then!
SK: Indeed! I have a strong sense of responsibility, so I didn’t want to screw this exhibition up—especially since Motoyuki Shitamichi and I are the inaugural recipients. I was really conscious that if we screwed up then people would complain about the waste of public money and it could put the prize in jeopardy. Like, What have I gotten myself into? So then my service mentality kicked in and I thought about what I could do to make people happy, which led me to the idea of including more works in the show.
This contradicts what I said earlier, but I do end up thinking about the viewers. So even as I say that my ideal is that useless things are wonderful and that’s what culture is about, when it comes to actually doing an exhibition, some part of me does want to satisfy people.
Above: “PUCHI-BURU,” installation view, MUJIN-TO Production, Tokyo, 2014. Photo Kei Miyajima. Below: “Dyslympia2680,” installation view, Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, Saitama Prefecture, 2018. Photo Kei Miyajima.
ART iT: Returning to the post–3/11 context, I was able to see most of the solo shows you held at Mujin-to Production over the past decade, from 2012’s “Botsuraku Third Fire” to 2014’s “Puchi-Buru (Petit Bourgeois),” and 2016’s “Blitz! School of Luddite,” as well as your 2018 exhibition at the Maruki Gallery for the Hiroshima Panels, “Dyslympia 2680.” One thing that unites these exhibitions is that in all of them you combined selections of older works with new works. I think that helps viewers focus on the critical awareness that you consistently bring to your works.
SK: That critical awareness was there way before 3/11. My first solo show was in 1998 at Gallery Yamaguchi in Tokyo. I like to have a single theme for each exhibition I do, and the theme of that very first exhibition was “Middle-Class Consciousness.” So I address social issues but at the same time use my prints to expand the world that I envision from encountering the horrors of reality. I delight in seeing a world where fact and fiction collide take shape on a blank piece of paper, and that’s what keeps me doing what I do.
ART iT: What was it that triggered your social awareness?
SK: Since childhood I’ve always had trouble fitting in. I was always the kid standing by myself on the edges observing “normal society.” So I spent most of my time reading books at home. Then I got into modern poetry, which led to me making lyrical works resembling the jacket illustrations for prewar poetry collections. But I realized that my early attempts at printmaking were just an exercise in self-satisfaction and not very good.
At art school there was an older student who was really into contemporary art. I had a lot of respect for him and thought he was cool. He was worried that we younger students were getting stuck in our own worlds and decided he’d better introduce us to contemporary art. One day after class he invited us to check out galleries in Ginza with him, and five or six of us went along.
It was a shock to enter those white cube spaces and encounter things that made no sense to me. I had no idea whether it was good or bad. But since the cool older student said it was interesting, I figured it had to be interesting, and that’s what got me turned on to contemporary art. And I realized that one of the primary roles of contemporary art is to hold a mirror to society. Although I’d been hung up on making pretty things, I sensed that it might be more fulfilling to make works about things that I thought were a bit off in society or, say, my apprehensions about society.
ART iT: Your use of printmaking of course also recalls the woodcut movements of the early 20th century, when prints were a form of mass media. But now that we live in an age that is utterly dominated by digital images and technology, printmaking is, ironically, no longer a mass medium. If we’re thinking about the political lineage of printmaking, then in a sense there’s something contradictory about your project. Does contemporary art enable you to work with and through that contradiction?
SK: Using photographs and news images to capture the reality of events happening in real time is something that is very direct and relatable for people today, because that’s what is actually going on. But I think there’s always another side, and a history, to events that are happening right before our eyes. And of course some of those events also have an effect on the future. Although it’s certainly possible to encompass those three aspects of past, present and future when you write a report or news story, it’s really hard to show that visually. I am able to create that, make it—or, sure, fabricate it—in the worlds of my prints, although I do try to be careful with the facts. In any case, I think I can make pictures from a perspective that vertically integrates past, present and future. I’m just fortunate to have contemporary art as an arena for presenting that vision.
Nonhuman Crossing (2013), woodcut print in oil ink on Japanese paper mounted on panel, 182 x 360 cm. Photo ©Sachiko Kazama, courtesy Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.
ART iT: Were you ever interested in Reportage Painting?
SK: I’m a big fan of Hiroshi Nakamura. I was so excited when I found out I would be exhibiting in the same room as him and Genpei Akasegawa in the 2013 Roppongi Crossing at the Mori Art Museum. But what I like most are his post-Reportage fetishistic works, with girls in sailor dresses and stuff like that. So more than the context of the woodcut movement, I think visual style is a bigger issue for me—things like form and texture. That’s what I like best. I wasn’t really influenced by political prints from China or Korea.
ART iT: But when you make a work, you clearly follow a process of referencing different elements and arranging them into a composition that essentially reads as a pictorial essay or polemic. With a big work like Nonhuman Crossing (2013), for example, you take a bit from Nazi propaganda or Japanese wartime propaganda, and then you mix it with contemporary imagery from landmarks such as Shibuya crossing. It’s not all just graphic or visual play.
SK: With Nonhuman Crossing I tried to combine topics from the news and historical events to depict the world of our current surveillance society. So I drew on wartime hearings and anti-espionage propaganda as well as contemporary social media controversies and that kind of thing. I chose each element based on its context and then squeezed them all together in the same world.
The main thing for me is to do what I like. I may start out being upset or even angry about an issue, but once I begin the work my curiosity gets going and I discover that the reality is different from what I expected, or there’s some kind of secret behind the history, which is really thrilling for me. In preparing a work, I buy all kinds of old books and study them, and when all those references come together in a composition it’s like I’m a spy reporting on my findings. I want to show everyone in exact detail all that I was able to dig up from the underside of history and have them appreciate all the research that went into it.
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