A Restatement: The Art of ‘Ground Zero’ (Part 24)
Sion Sono and Hiso hiso boshi (The Whispering Star) (2)
Installation view of The Bridge of “the Verge of the Verge of Death” (2016) at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Tadashi Okakura, courtesy the Museum.
Towards the end of the movie The Whispering Star there is an extremely memorable scene. It is the scene where the interplanetary feminine android – travelling from planet to planet, delivering items full of memories to the remaining human population who live separately after being scattered across the universe – enters a space resembling a corridor (see the previous installment of this series). This scene was completely different from the previous scenes, which had all been shot in the evacuation zone in Fukushima, in that it was shot on a constructed set. Both sides of the winding passageway are lined with shoji screens with slightly larger than normal grids onto which strong light is directed from behind so that the scenes of families going about their lives on the other side appear as vivid shadow pictures. These scenes vary, from families sitting around a table together eating or enjoying each other’s company to a mother cradling her newborn child while conversing with her own mother, and a birthday party in which close friends and relatives have gathered to celebrate noisily. Perhaps what they all have in common is that they are archetypal scenes of “living together” that have been played out by humankind since time immemorial. However, in the film, because the respective families are not separated from each other and seem so close they are almost rubbing shoulders, the appearance is of a collection of rooms rather than a collection of houses, and the result somehow calls to mind a cross section of events linked together horizontally inside a temporary shelter.
It is this place the interplanetary feminine android – dressed in overalls and expressionless, almost looking as if she has lost her way – enters as part of her delivery job. Inside the yellow box she carries is “someone’s precious memories.” She studies the circumstances of the families as if checking addresses, and when she eventually finds the address she is after, she quietly opens the sliding doors. As before, the faces of the family members cannot be seen. After receipt of the box has been acknowledged, the siding doors are closed again and a woman, still just a shadow, quietly opens the box and looks at the contents and is rendered speechless, covering her face with both hands as she bursts into tears. So what was in the box?
Foreground: Delivery Packages (2016). Walls: Storyboards of The Whispering Star (1991). Photo: Tadashi Okakura
As mentioned last time, the boxes contain fragments of the lives the people led in their real homes that they lost due to continued disasters and debacles. And so they are very likely to be trivial things. Perhaps a single, wrinkled photo, or a cigarette butt left behind by a loved one who died in a tsunami, an earthquake or a fire. We simply do not know. But we do not need to know. What is clear is that as a result of the power invested in that genuine “thing,” it is revealed in an instant to the recipients that the “shadow” they are now enjoying is a fabrication. Certainly, it appears as if behind the shoji they have resumed something like the lives they once had. But in the final analysis they are nothing but shadows, imitations of the former homes they lost. Or perhaps they are nothing but performances depicting the “playing at being happy” that no longer exists in the here and now. Indeed, it even raises the possibility that the entirety of the vast, corridor-like space that makes up this place is a mechanical set constructed all on her own by the woman who received the delivery due to her incredible loneliness.
The main exhibit at Sono’s “The Whispering Star” exhibition at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (1) is a three-dimensional recreation of this space occupying the entirety of the lightwell that extends between the second and third floors of the museum. By the time I viewed this exhibition I had already seen the film itself at a preview screening, which is why I had already imagined something like the mechanical set constructed by a person left all on their own mentioned above, but when I stepped inside the venue I was convinced that this was not a hasty conclusion. Because behind the set producing the “archetypal scenes of living together” was a collection of literally mechanical, rattling devices completely devoid of any human touch. Where, though, is the woman receiving the box whose loneliness could not be alleviated without this set’s construction? Perhaps she is each one of us who visits the venue. Looking around ourselves as we walk through this corridor, if we were to put ourselves in the corresponding scene in the movie, it is not impossible to imagine ourselves in the role of the interplanetary android. But we are not androids. We are the only flesh-and-blood humans within the entire set. In which case we should probably say that it is we who are that woman, the person responsible for building these sets, after all.
Why can we say this? Though the extent certainly varies, all of us lost “something” in that disaster in Tohoku, and each of us in our own way – even though it may not seem so on the surface – has done our utmost to make up for this loss. And so long as we are making up, none of us is going to compensate with “bad elements.” It is only natural that we refer to things we feel are “good” for ourselves. And so the criteria for making this judgment can only be within ourselves. This means it can only be in the past. To use the example of the woman mentioned above, everything, including both her happiness and her sadness, can only be in the time that has already passed. No matter how faithfully it is recreated, the result can only ever be an imitation of something, or, in other words, it is nothing but a mechanism.
In this way, without us realizing it, this installation transforms us from people viewing and judging a film or exhibit as an audience into actual participants. However, it is not in fact the film or exhibit itself that is making such an inner inversion possible. Through such fabrications, we are reminded that in each one of us there is undoubtedly “something” that leads us to realize in an instant – like that woman who broke down crying – that the life in front of our eyes now is a fabrication. That’s right; it is in this very act of mercilessly making us look back that this power lies. For us, there is nothing as precious as this “something.” It is something we cannot buy no matter how much money we accumulate. Once lost, we can ever regain it. However, precisely because of this we try to entrust everything to those “things” that can be bought with money. And by doing so we try to forget that in fact this “something” once truly underpinned our own happiness, and that despite this we can never regain it.
The Stand (2016). Photo: Tadashi Okakura
The antithesis of this kind of attitude is perhaps represented by the work on the theme of Hachiko, the faithful dog, installed in the gallery on the third floor in a position overlooking this grand, diversionary set conjured by the lonely. Here Sono has created replicas of the statue of Hachiko that stands in the “meeting” spot in Shibuya also known as “in front of Hachiko,” except in this case Hachiko, the dog that has now become a cold, hard, bronze statue and is unable to move even an inch from that spot simply due to the fact that he continued waiting for his master oblivious to the fact that the man was dead, is brought down from his pedestal and taken on a journey to various places including the evacuation zone in Fukushima, transforming him from “a dog that simply waits” to “a dog that actively waits.” Yet despite actively waiting, his master still won’t return, and Hachiko still has no way of knowing this. And yet, however, is this not the attitude of the last hope, a hope that is absurd and for that very reason just possible, as outlined in Maurice Blanchot’s novel L’Attente, l’oubli (Awaiting oblivion, 1962)? Hachiko is oblivious to the fact that his master is no longer present. And yet he still retains hope. To put it another way, our expectations are only revealed by means of such oblivion. Anticipation without oblivion can only ever become something like a bachelor machine based on capital that is naturally dependent on the past and can only be projected into the future. That being so, with Sono’s exhibit perhaps we should be looking closely not at Hachiko as he travels here and there but rather at the statue’s now vacant pedestal. Why? For the sole reason that because it is there that the “awaiting oblivion” of “eternal absence,” which has been chipped away so much that if any more were removed it would have disappeared presents itself.
“Sion Sono: The Whispering Star” is showing at Watari-um (The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art) from April 3 through July 10, 2016. http://www.watarium.co.jp
The film, The Whispering Star, has been screening around Japan since May 15, 2016. http://hisohisoboshi.jp/
- Separate from this “Whispering Star” exhibition, in 2015 an exhibition by Sono with the same title was held at Garter, the space in Koenji run by Chim↑Pom and others. The installation using the “Tokyo Ga Ga Ga” banner and the
- video installation suggest that they represent two sides of the same coin, while the Hachiko Project is presented in such a way that it could also be interpreted as linking the two.
Photos courtesy Chim↑Pom, Sion production