Things Worth Remembering 2011: Erimi Fujihara

Erimi Fujihara is an art critic, writer and translator based in Tokyo. What follows are her Things Worth Remembering of 2011:

Asked about my Things Worth Remembering of 2011, above all else there is the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. In this island nation at the far edge of the Far East, the reality that modern thinking has exploded past criticality constantly repeats itself. The days of groping in agony continue even now. Persistently concerned about what to say, or whether there is even anything that can be said, I have decided in recalling my experiences to proceed first from those Things Worth Remembering that occurred in the wake of the catastrophe.

Naoya Hatakeyama, ‘Natural Stories’

A photographer who has researched the almost stifling relations between nature and humanity through an unflinching gaze, Naoya Hatakeyama was forced to confront the horrific sight of his hometown, Rikuzentakata [destroyed by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami]. What Hatakeyama captured in his early series “Limeworks” were the traces of how humanity relates to nature through a process of intrusion, destruction and exploitation. However, with this catastrophe, what Hatakayema had to confront was the unrelenting fact that nature, in its existence as such, never yields to man. Given this reality, just what photographer could even worry about the coherence of his expressive concept? In fact, it should be said that Hatakeyama’s concept has been consistent throughout.
Among the works on display at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, what was most profound was Twenty-four Blasts 2011, which seems to have been produced prior to the earthquake. A video made by linking together frame-by-frame still images of explosions, the work was projected across an entire wall. Because they were not filmed in video, each image impressed itself onto the retinas with each successive moment. While looking at the work, images of the tsunami that had spewed forth from the media arose in my head. Both are phenomena that command a force so excessive it can rip apart the balanced state of material normalcy (on the one hand you have the man-made energy of the dynamite explosion, and on the other the destructive natural energy – at least for humanity – of the shifting tectonic plates).
Whatever Hatakeyama’s original intents, it could be said that this is an example of how viewers’ sensitivities can be altered by the experience of catastrophe. Hatakeyama has said that the blast technicians deeply understand the “nature” of rocks. Even now the natural world challenges us with the impassive force of that “nature.” Displayed across from the photographs of Rikuzentakata, images of pastoral landscapes from along the nearby Kesengawa river, taken prior to the earthquake, led me to reconsider what had supported our modest routines to that point. I join my hands in remembrance of the many who lost their lives.
Details: October 1 to December 4, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Image credit: Installation view of Twenty-four Blasts 2011 (2011), photo ART iT.

Shunji Iwai, Friends after 3.11


First aired October 1 on Sky PerfecTV, this documentary by the filmmaker and Sendai native Shunji Iwai centers around the director himself, along with his navigator, the actress Miyuki Matsuda, as they interview public figures including researchers, critics and filmmakers who had spoken out about nuclear energy issues even before 3.11, as well as celebrities who began to comment on such issues in the wake of the catastrophe. These include (producer and musician) Takeshi Kobayashi; (actor and anti-nuclear activist) Taro Yamamoto; (free journalist and critic) Takashi Uesugi; (scriptwriter) Eriko Kitagawa; (nuclear engineer) Hiroaki Koide; (teenage idol and entertainer) Cocoro Fujinami; (free journalist and writer) Yasumi Iwakami; (material resources engineer) Kunihiko Takeda; (technical designer) Masashi Goto; (former baseball player) Tetsuya Iida; (anti-nuclear writer) Yu Tanaka; (filmmaker and actress) Hitomi Kamanaka; (president of Johnan Shinkin Bank) Tsuyoshi Yoshiwara; and (founder of the suicide prevention NPO Lifelink) Yasuyuki Shimizu. However, in the film there is not a single explanation about the director himself or the backgrounds of the interview subjects. It communicates all angles of the catastrophe in a detached way.
Ultimately, is it actually possible the figures who appear in the film could be everybody’s “real friends”? Even harboring such doubts, it is worth praising Iwai’s form here, the director doggedly tracking down those people to obtain their commentary (they are simple interviews, yet it is for this reason that the manner of speech and narrative viewpoints of “those people” inevitably includes a reflection of their dignity). As one who was moved by the harshly critical anti-nuclear message Cocoro Fujinami posted to her blog just days after the catastrophe, I must simply note that I felt uneasy with the image of the young model, wearing a sailor suit and standing in the disaster zone, that concludes the film (maybe she wears sailor suits everyday, but I felt that in this case it was a performance of the cult of adolescent pathos that defines Iwai’s movies).

Details: Premiered October 1, 12-2am, Sky PerfecTV; rebroadcast November 12, 7:30-9:30pm; Four-hour version scheduled for broadcast on CS Asahi Newstar from December 30.

Toshi Fujiwara, No Man’s Zone


In making this documentary, Fujiwara entered the 20-kilometer-radius no-entry zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor just before it went into effect, and continued interviewing people living in the affected areas even after it was enforced. With narration in English by the Canadian actress Arsinée Khanjian, the film depicts the Fukushima landscape in early spring; the local victims of the tsunami who now reside in temporary shelters; those in the farming industry who, without ever benefitting from the reactor, were forced to move after the evacuation order; and masterless stray cattle and dogs. Despite its detached portrayal, through its exquisite camerawork by Takanobu Kato and score by Barre Phillips, the film communicates connotations that go beyond the words of its narration and interview subjects, a tacit message hidden within the restrained tone of its production.
It’s just that. . .doesn’t Fujiwara go a bit too far in portraying the beauty of the nature around Fukushima and the people who lived there? The film falls into the trap of discourse that connects agricultural society to Japan’s primal landscape, the theories of Japanese exceptionalism (Japanese ethnology and Japanese nationality) that were fabricated following the Meiji Revolution. To what extent did the director extend his zone of interest to the dark sources of history? (On this point I wrote him directly, but I don’t dare to relate the details of that exchange here. For the record, despite our common surname the director is no relation of mine). Perhaps due to his overly aggressive character, Fujiwara has no few enemies in Japan, but nevertheless this is one film that “the Japanese people” should see.

Details: Premiered November 25, Tokyo FilmEx international film festival; international premiere at the 2012 Berlin International Film Festival.

Taro Igarashi, Hisaichi o arukinagara kangaeta koto
(Thoughts from walking the disaster zone)

Taro Igarashi is a professor in the Graduate School of Engineering at Tohoku University, which was severely damaged in the earthquake. Alongside photographs of that damage as well as those that he took over several months of tirelessly walking other disaster areas, this book collects texts by Igarashi that were published across various media channels. Writing from the position of architecture history and architectural critique, Igarashi exactingly deliberates issues like the problems affecting the different disaster areas and the possible approaches to administrating reconstruction.
In particular, the third chapter on Iwate prefecture’s Taro area, “Memory,” is fascinating. At Taro, even the triple shield of a double surge barrier more than 10 meters above sea level and an additional barrier on the inland side was unable to bear up under the tsunami. Igarashi writes: “One is reminded of Hajime Isayama’s popular manga series Shingeki no kyojin (Attack on Titan, 2009- ) [in which humans are barricaded in giant walled cities due to attacks by gigantic, man-eating humanoids called Titans]…At first I read it as an allegory of Japan and the Self-Defense Forces during the Cold War, but after the Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami occurred my understanding of the manga was completely changed.” Protected from the attacks of the Titans by a triple barrier, and enjoying 100 years of tranquil living, humanity faces a threat to its continued existence after the appearance of an even more gigantic Titan, which crosses the barrier.
The limits of civil engineering lie somewhere between fiction and reality. Igarashi’s photographs of the remains of the destroyed surge barriers along the seashore and the countless seagulls flying in the area depict a landscape that evokes the end-time of a world produced by the limits of modern technology. On March 11, I was attending the Tokyo press conference for this year’s Yokohama Triennale at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Yurakucho. The tremors started just before the press conference was set to begin. Attendees were restricted from exiting the building for almost two hours; the three TV monitors installed above the reception continuously relayed new images from the disaster area. Birds fluttering in the air above the coast struck by the tsunami. Never before have I felt so envious of those glorious avians, free from the bounds of gravity. This memory vividly haunts me.

Details: Misuzu Shobo, Tokyo, 2011. Image credit: Misuzu Shobo.

Miwa Yanagi Theatre Project 1924: Tokyo-Berlin & Battleship


Japan’s representative at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Miwa Yanagi has now turned to theatre in her planned drama trilogy 1924. Focusing on the historic Tsukiji Shogekijo theatre and the activities of the artist group MAVO, this ambitious work investigates the trajectory of the reception in Japan of modernism in the form of avant-garde theatre and art brought from Europe.
Entitled Tokyo-Berlin, the first part departed from the Moholy-Nagy exhibition held July-September at the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, where a room in the museum’s collection galleries was turned into a theatre venue. Led by a group of uniformed “usherettes,” the performance began with a guided tour of the Moholy-Nagy exhibition and continued with a sideshow-type prologue making fun of Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm (in the museum collection), done just outside the theatre room.
The plot of the play proper starts with a visit by the artist Tomoyoshi Murayama to the dramaturg Yoshi Hijikata as he is preparing to establish the Tsukiji Shogekijyo theatre. Turning on the fictional setup that Hijikata had been entrusted with a letter from Moholy-Nagy commissioning a new work by Murayama, the plot depicts Murayama as he strives to fulfill his dream of a new art. Based on the presumption that Moholy-Nagy actually did order artistic commissions, there is also a scene in which Murayama instructs the placement of colors in a work over the telephone. The person on the other end of the line is. . .the painter Ryusei Kishida (naturally this is also fictional – a scenario resulting in large laughs from the audience).
The Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami struck when Yanagi was drafting the scenario for the second part of the project, Battleship, causing her to momentarily pause from her work. The Tsukiji Shogekijo was opened in 1924 the year after the devastating Great Kanto Earthquake. The key players behind the process of creating a new art space in this ruined city were Yoshi Hijikata, known as “The Red Count” [in reference to his aristocratic title], and Kaoru Osanai, who participated in the establishment of the theatre. Yanagi’s play recreates the stage design for Reinhardt Gehring’s Battleship – the Tsukiji Shogekijo’s inaugural production – and shows how Hijikata’s plans to transform society through avant-garde theatre wildly fluctuated amid the parallel development in art of the avant-garde and proletarian movements, and the growing suppression of the proletarian movement by the nation, hinting at the eventual breakup of the theatre and Hijikata’s fate.
In Tokyo-Berlin Moholy-Nagy’s letter for Murayama is read aloud in German, and in Battleship there is a scene in which the avant-garde theatre producer Vsevolod Meyerhold addresses the tormented Hijikata in Russian. These may be imaginary dialogues between Berlin and Tokyo and Moscow and Tokyo, but they bring into relief the boundless distance between Europe and Japan / Ideals and Reality / Aspiration and Despair. In Battleship, the curtains close on the figure of Hijikata projecting from a paper cutting a silhouette of Tatlin’s Monument for the Third International, angled on its side. Bearing in mind Hijikata’s life after the events depicted in the play, the significance of this apparition of the unrealized idealistic structure of the Russian Revolution is complex. Indeed, it remains to be seen whether European modernism ever actually arrived in Japan.
Yanagi’s 1924 project will conclude with a third part to be held in 2012 concurrent to the Tomoyoshi Murayama exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama, and the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. This will complete the cycle linking the Moholy-Nagy exhibition, the Tsukiji Shogekijyo and Murayama. It’s hard to say how Yanagi’s project is received in theatre circles, but how this transition from the field of contemporary art to theatre will affect Yanagi’s practice going forward is among the developments that is worth scrutinizing in this last segment.

Details: Tokyo-Berlin, July 29-31, National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto; Battleship, November 3-6, Kanagawa Arts Theatre, Yokohama. Image credit: Production still from Battleship (2011), courtesy Miwa Yanagi.

Ahmed Basiony: ’30 Days of Running in the Space’

The Venice Biennale offers the excitement and thrill of encountering new artists. As happens every time, at this year’s 54th edition I rushed about from work to work, all the while reflecting on the different approaches they employed and the themes they addressed. At such international exhibitions there are usually works with strong political messages, but this time I felt it was a particularly remarkable tendency.
However, upon stepping into the Egypt Pavilion, all those platitudes about “politics in art” were completely blown away. Ahmed Basiony. This was the first time I had ever come across him (he used digital media to produce interactive and sound art installations). Projected across a long wall, there was video documentation of a performance by the artist from 2010 interspersed with footage of the crowds gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the demonstrations of 2011. As suggested by its title, Thirty Days of Running in the Space, the performance involved the artist running for one hour each day for 30 days inside a transparent plastic cube. During the performance the artist wore a plastic suit covered with sensors that recorded perspiration and footspeed, with the data converted into images that were projected on the walls of the cube. The footage of people standing up to topple the Mubarak regime was filmed by Basiony himself, and had remained as unedited files on his computer. Participating in the demonstrations from January 25 and recording the events in Tahrir Square, Basiony was shot and killed on January 28.
On a wall at the entrance of the Egypt Pavilion was presented the artist’s final entry to his Facebook account: “If they want war, we want peace, and I will practice proper restraint until the end, to regain my nation’s dignity.” During the Biennale preview period, each pavilion’s organizers usually hire staff to man the entrances of the exhibits and distribute press kits, catalogues and documents regarding the exhibiting artists, actively seeking publicity. But at the Egypt Pavilion it was different. There was nothing. When I asked for a press release, the man there silently reached beneath the table for a stack of paper filled only with text. He did not smile at all. 
It seems possible to question whether an exhibition of only documentary footage can really be considered an art exhibition. However, what was clearly evident is that the Egypt Pavilion is irreconcilable with the political works of art that circulate as commodities in the art market. After leaving the exhibit my mind went momentarily blank. What I remember is that thoughts related to the phrase “Revolution and Art” spun wildly in my head. However this phrase is neither a vestige of the Russian Revolution, nor can it be so easily tied into new terms like “SNSrevolution and Art.”

Details: June 4 to November 27, Egypt Pavilion at the 54th Venice Biennale. Image credit: Installation view, photo ART iT.

‘A Fateful Journey: Africa in the Works of El Anatsui’

I first saw El Anatsui’s works in the director’s exhibition at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007. Wondering from afar what this large, glittering and shining structure could be, I was surprised once I approached and stood before it. It was a gigantic, metalwork tapestry woven together from innumerable bottle caps and foil seals. Concurrently, another work was on display covering the façade of the Palazzo Fortuny, allowing me to encounter Anatsui’s work for the first time twice. Thus, I was excited when I heard that the artist would be holding a major solo exhibition in Japan.
Because Anatui’s works respond to the differing dimensions of the different exhibition spaces, I at first planned on seeing the exhibition at all its venues. It is a lasting regret that I was only able to make it to see the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Hayama. There, the wood carvings with their minimal structural sense, and the gigantic sack-like works made with newspaper printing plates, and the metalworks made with pull-top rings and bottle caps were displayed alongside the traditional kente cloth textiles and totems from Anatsui’s native Ghana, as well as toys made of salvaged tin, providing a thorough introduction to the context of the artist’s production.
However, it also seems that Anatsui, who received a colonial British education and studied European art history through to modernism, is strongly opposed to being categorized as an African folk artist. He states, “Because my interest in traditional forms developed quite late, I have never conceived my works as textile, and always think of them as sculpture.” Even if such a statement comes across as a denigration of craft, Anatsui’s problem is hardly foreign to Japanese artists working today. The European canon is relentless. Even as works and artists freely circulate and critical frameworks multiply across the world, the works of Japanese artists overwhelmingly seem to be discussed in terms of simple constructs like “Zen,” or “Shinto,” or “otaku.” Anatsui is another artist who exists in the space between Western and Non-Western. In this context, another of Anatsui’s statements leaves a strong impression: “Bottled liquors were brought to Africa from Europe; I am sending them back to Europe as artworks.”

Details: Originated February 5 to March 27 at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama; toured April 23 to May 22 at Tsuruoka Art Forum, and July 2 to August 28 at the Museum of Modern Art, Saitama. Image credit: Installation view at Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura & Hayama, photo ART iT.

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