curated by Shihoko Iida and Diego Sileo
The exhibition investigates the Japanese contemporary art of the 2000s, focusing on how bodies and performances are connected to society, environment, materiality and technology. Contextualizing the poetics of the artists invited in the genealogy of the post-war Japanese avant-gardes or in the recent past, the exhibition deals with existential, political and social matters, carrying out multilayered dialogues between the works displayed.
Artists: Makoto Aida, Dumb Type, Mari Katayama, Meiro Koizumi, Yuko Mohri, Saburo Muraoka, Yoko Ono, Lieko Shiga, Chiharu Shiota, Kishio Suga, Finger Pointing Worker/Kota Takeuchi, Yui Usui, Fuyuki Yamakawa, Ami Yamasaki, Chikako Yamashiro, Atsuko Tanaka, Kazuo Shiraga.
Images: Chikako Yamashiro, Mud Man, 2016 in cooperation with Aichi Triennale 2016 © Chikako Yamashiro, Courtesy Yumiko Chiba Associates
PAC continues its exploration of international cultures with an exhibition that investigates the Japanese contemporary art of the 2000s, focusing on trends involving artists’ bodies, elements of performance, dynamics and movements relevant to it. The exhibition highlights the social political situation in Japan today through the medium of the practices of seventeen artists – nine female, seven male and one artist group – some of them for the first time in Milan. The artists’ generations range from b.1924 to b.1987, including members of the historically significant Gutai Art Association.
By critically speculating the relationships between body expressions and the society, environment, materiality and technology, the exhibition gives insight into views of life and death, sense of urgency about identity politics envisaged by contemporary Japanese artists, and how the social political spirit of the age has been revealed through the artistic practices.
Ranging from painting, drawing and sculpture to photography, video, textiles (embroidery), as well as site-specific installation and video installation, JAPAN. BODY_PERFORM_LIVE contextualizes the ongoing practices by artists in the genealogy of avant-garde expressions in the postwar Japan, or in the recent past, by generating multilayered dialogues among the works on display.
Muraoka is part of the first generation of post-war artists whose careers began in the mid-1950s. He is also called an “iron sculptor” or “heat sculptor” because he creates his works using technology, vibration, heat and kinetic energy to work with materials such as iron, salt, sulphur and oxygen. His work evolved in the 1960s and 1970s, when he experimented with all kinds of mediums such as photography and video. The installation Body Temperature of 2010 is exhibited at the PAC for the first time after Muraoka’s death, and like several of his works, it is based on a physical experiment transformed into a conceptual work: the measurement of body temperature and the maintenance of the 36.7 °C measured on 16 July 2010 is brought to the public by touch through a copper tube. The work on the panel Thermal Cutting dates from 2003. It involves a 4 cm diameter iron bar bent with a heat source at 1,380 °C (thermal cutting) until, when it is removed, the iron bar reacts with movements and settling until it bends slightly. This intervention by the artist takes time, and he never had total control over the end result. On the back of the iron bar cut with heat, the trace of the instantaneous movements of the Artist’s arms, heat and the substance (honey) can be seen by the carbonized honey.
Atsuko Tanaka is internationally recognised as one of the leading artists of post-war Japan. She studied in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara, the heart of classical Japanese culture. During her university years, she had already come into contact with the key figures of the artistic movements of the 1950s: Akira Kanayama, whom she later married, and Kazuo Shiraga, one of founders of the Zero Society (Zerokai), a critical workshop or meeting where the members brought their works and critique each other, and Jiro Yoshihara, founder of the Gutai Art Association (Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai), leading figures of art informal movement in Japan. Among Tanaka’s early experiments, which began in 1953 during a long period of illness, is the collage of various everyday materials such as newspapers, light bulbs and fabric scraps. But the work for which she is best remembered is Electric Dress (1956): a dress made of a hundred neon lights and ninety light bulbs covered with nine colours of paint, which was worn on stage, making the body the protagonist. The three paintings presented in the exhibition (two drawings produced in 1957 and one painting made in 1960) are made with pigment marker (and ink), vinyl paint and poster colour on paper or on canvas and reprise the key elements of Electric Dress on flat surfaces: the shape of the light bulbs, the electrical wires that connect them, and the light and movement of the body.
Among the exponents of the post-war art movements in the Kansai region, as well as Atsuko Tanaka, there is Kazuo Shiraga, who in around 1952-1954 founded the Zero Society (Zerokai) with Akira Kanayama, Saburo Murakami and other artists. In 1955, he became a member and central figure of the Gutai Art Association (Gutai Bijutsu Kyokai). In his work, he experimented with a new painting technique called foot-painting. He used his feet to make strokes by clinging to a rope, and sliding and trailing the paint across large canvases stretched out on the floor. These very powerful works completely involved the body in the act of painting, and in performances, he would dip his whole body in paint and move across the canvas to leave his stroke. The work exhibited here, Chishinsei Shutsudoko of 1960, created by sliding on oil paint abundantly applied to the canvas, is part of a series begun in 1960 and completed in 2001, dedicated to each of the 108 famous Chinese heroes of the novel Suikoden (Water Margin) to whom, from the 19th century, many Japanese artists of the floating world (ukiyo-e) such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi dedicated polychrome prints. Chishinsei is the Japanese name of the Chinese hero Tong Wei, “Star that points the way”, also known as the “Dragon that comes out of the cave” (Shutsudoko).
Yoko Ono is, internationally, one of the best-known Japanese-born artist, not only for her performances that began in the 1960s, but also as a musician and songwriter. During her formative years in Tokyo, she pursued classical studies in poetry, music and philosophy. In 1953, she moved to New York, and from 1955, in her Manhattan apartment, she began to organise experimental art performances, providing poetic and musical texts with instructions for the participants and involving them in the performance. In 1961, she joined the art collective Fluxus made up of about fifty musicians, poets, and painters, including the composer and artist John Cage, who was heavily influenced by Zen thought. They worked with gestures and improvisations at events (happenings) using everyday materials to try to challenge the classic concepts of art by surprising viewers and stimulating change. When she returned to Japan in 1962, after ten years, Ono visited the Gutai Pinacoteca (Art Gallery) and was confronted with the Japanese avant-garde painting of the time. She took a different route, however, combining painting with video installations, projections and screens. In the video of the performance Cut Piece of 1964, we can see how she asks the audience to take part by cutting off pieces of her dress with scissors, while, showing no expression, she kneels on the stage.
Chiharu Shiota’s name has become particularly well known in Italy since 2015 for her installation The Key in the Hand at the Japan Pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale 2015. In this installation, she wrapped the entire space in an intricate web of red woollen thread from which hundreds of keys hung above the wreck of a small boat. A reflection on the theme of immigration and the many dreams that cross the sea, often dying in it, evoked by so many rusty keys, symbolising each life. Her installations often embrace the visitor like a cocoon but, at the same time, also convey the universal value of the experience of life and death through the use of black and red threads. In Empty Body, the new work presented in this exhibition, Shiota again uses a mass of black thread and a white dress, a symbolic object that evokes the human presence, albeit absent. A work imbued with feminine sensitivity influenced by her training with major contemporary female artists who use their bodies as instruments of art. This influence is evident in the video Bathroom, documenting the origin of the artist’s poetics.
Dumb Type is the name of the Japanese art collective founded in Kyoto in 1984 by Teiji Furuhashi (1960-1995) and Shiro Takatani (1963) with other several artists from various departments of Kyoto City University of Arts. Dumb Type has been an influential group in Japanese art since 1980s, and is known for its technological performances and experimentation in many fields of art. Their name expresses their desire to break with the forms and hierarchies of a standardised society. In fact, not only does the number of group members change, multiply or shrink depending on the project, but their installations and performances are created democratically, with long nights spent discussing ideas in which the various artistic and scientific specialities are integrated. They are featured in the Japan Pavilion of the Venice Art Biennale 2022 with a sound installation created in collaboration with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and other artists, accompanied by red laser projections along the walls. The video work presented in this exhibition from 2018 reproduces the installation LOVE/SEX/DEATH/MONEY/LIFE created in 1994 for an exhibition in Tokyo titled “Of the Human Condition: Hope and Despair at the End of the Century”. The key words flow in black and white on an LED wall, touching on what were hot topics for Japan, such as sexuality and HIV, which marked Furuhashi’s life.
Lieko Shiga uses her photography to investigate our society, human frailties, the relationship between man and nature, and life and death. After studying in London, in 2008, she moved to Kitahama, on the north-east coast of Tohoku, which was destroyed by the Great Earthquake and Tsunami on 11 March 2011. Her studio was demolished and around fifty-four people from the small village died in the earthquake. This event deeply affected the artist, who says that she lives with many ghosts and is one herself, to the extent that she decided to stay in the area and create the photographic series Rasen kaigan between 2008 and 2012, dedicated to that area and its people. The photographic installation Human Spring, exhibited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in 2019 and partly presented here with a different form, completes that work. Lieko returned to the village seven years after the earthquake, and through impressionist, digitally manipulated photos in bold, harsh colours, she showed the wounds that the living inhabitants still bear, reflecting on how, in general, the environment, the cycle of the seasons and natural events have a psychological and physical impact on the people after experiencing the tsunami. In this case too, like Kota Takeuchi, the artist is personally and physically involved in the experience, which she then bears witness to through her art.
Chikako Yamashiro is a multimedia video artist whose works exude all the spiritual power of her homeland, Okinawa. While teaching in Tokyo, she trained and still works in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa, an archipelago that extends as a southern offshoot of Japan from the island of Kyushu to Taiwan, known as the Kingdom of Ryukyu until 1879, when the islands were annexed to Japan.
It is known for its subtropical climate and crystal-clear seas, and the seasonal typhoons that sweep through it. As attractive to tourists as it is considered dangerous by the natives, Okinawa is a conflict-ridden land. On the one hand, it feels the heavy American military presence with bases occupying much of the coast and inland territories, and the many monuments to the fallen during World War II scattered among the dense vegetation. On the other hand, there is a very strong spiritual, animistic belief that all nature is divine and man is only a small part of it. The video work presented in this exhibition by Yamashiro titled Mud Man from 2016, filmed between Okinawa and the Korean island of Jeju, expresses the sentiment of a people anchored to nature, rituals and traditions handed down through generations. It uses the archaic local dialects, which they decided not to translate but to leave as the universal sound of human expression.
Yuko Mohri, a mid-career artist who made her name in the 2000s, creates her works, which are mainly sculptures and sculptural installation, employing physics. She constructs them on subtle balances dictated by magnetism, gravity, air and light. Her installations also make extensive use of sound, continuously connecting to their surroundings and transforming them into works of art.
The inspiration for the installation exhibited here, which is one of the variants of the work Moré Moré (Leaky) created between 2017 and 2022, came to Mohri as early as 2009 from the Tokyo underground, where she took photographs of everyday objects used by the service staff to divert leaks and water infiltration inside the stations. Based on the concrete experience of reusing objects such as umbrellas, plastic sheeting, bins and buckets, hoses, rubber gloves, sponges and dustpans, Mohri makes creative pathways, almost like mechanical gears, through points of attachment to walls and ceilings on which wires cling to support and connect the various materials. These structures are effective and elegant, with a lightness in their weights and balances of colour in space, connecting man and his will to the uncontrolled natural flow of the environment. And in this personal reuse of materials, the artist’s work is interesting when viewed alongside that of Kishio Suga, a leading figure of the Mono-ha (School of Things).
Kishio Suga is an internationally renowned artist and member of the Mono-ha movement which flourished between 1968 and the 1970s. The artist and the movement are well represented in Italy, also due to his work’s affinity to the Italian concept of Arte Povera: in addition to various exhibitions in galleries, in 2016, he had a solo exhibition at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, and in 1978, represented the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale. Mono in Japanese generally means “things, objects, materials”, while ha is the suffix for “school”. Literally, it translates as “School of Things”. In fact, the artists of this movement make use of objects and materials of all sorts – wood, stone, metal, paper, cement and plastic – using them in rough and semi-finished forms, assembled or repositioned in space and placed in relation to one another to the point of changing their meaning and questioning the obvious nature of any situation.
Nothing is taken for granted and everything must be concretely reassessed. The installation Jou-en/Edges of Site presented here, made of a black rope stretched between the walls and mirrored in the similar movement of the black line drawn on the strips of paper lying on the floor, raises questions about the limits of space and therefore also the relationship between the present space, place, objects and people.
Through video works and photographic installations, accompanied by archive research and field interviews, Kota Takeuchi’s work makes us reflect on current major events in Japan, the destructive use of technology and how the uncontrolled and anonymous distribution of images on the web can be actively used. Before a project that explored the bombs dropped by Japan on the North American Continent during World War II using flying balloons, Takeuchi has paid his attention to the Fukushima disaster with a video showing nuclear base No. 1, Dai-ichi, after the accident following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of 11 March 2011. The title of the work Pointing at Fukuichi Live Cam (2011) refers to the video recording of a fixed public live streaming camera installed in the plant yard. There, six months after the accident, on 28 August 2011, a worker in a protective suit pointed his finger at the camera. The video went viral around the world. Takeuchi acted as a substitute for that worker, as if he were his representative, showing the video repeatedly while maintaining the anonymity of the man, attending the press conference of Tepco, the Tokyo power company that runs the nuclear power plant, working there for a period and keeping a blog about the conditions of the workers in the quarantined area.
Makoto Aida may be one of the most trenchant and controversial voices in Japanese contemporary art. His works, whether paintings or photographs, performances or installations, always touch on topical social, economic and political issues in an ironic, and sometimes satirical and provocative way.
His great solo exhibition at the Mori Museum in Tokyo in 2012, Monument for Nothing, focused on the accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant after the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011. Several of his paintings are a reflection on Japan’s controversial relationship with America, but also on the extreme consumerism of Japanese society, which can also be interpreted in the many ways that women are exploited. The two video works presented together here, from 2005 and 2014, show Aida personally involved as a performer. In the first case, he plays a man who claims to be Bin Laden, in hiding in Japan, babbling messages in an altered state of drunkenness; in the second, he claims to be the Prime Minister, and evidently resembles former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as, gesturing theatrically, he delivers a speech to an international assembly, calling for borders to be closed. In both works, we can clearly see the artist’s strong ties to his culture of origin, on the one hand, and on the other, his criticism of the homogeneity of the Japanese way of thinking, which allows little room for satire.
Koizumi’s work is based on performance in which he mixes reality, fiction and theatrics to create video installations such as the one on display, or experiences in VR (virtual reality). He has always explored issues related to nationalism and ideologies, the individual versus the nation, emphasising how the mind and therefore behaviours act and react to power and traumas such as those related to war memories. We Mourn the Dead of the Future, on exhibit at the PAC, is a 2019 colour video work projected onto five screens with alienating images of fear and annihilation, expressed through a mass of young, clothed bodies lying neatly on the ground or piled on top of each other, and surrounded by figures dressed in white jumpsuits who appear to be engaged in a crime scene survey. Koizumi produced it in a two-day workshop in collaboration with Theatre Commons Tokyo and twenty young Japanese people. The theme of the first day was self-sacrifice, conveyed through the testimony of a soldier of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces. On the second day, however, he asked the young people to stage the mourning, a ceremony that took place in front of the public, in person, in the rain on a former American military base. In the work, Koizumi wants to make us think about the relationship between the mass and the individual, between the state and the citizen, and the power and control exercised by society over each of us.
While the artist Usui is still relatively unknown abroad, she has already participated in major art biennials and group exhibitions in Japan. She works mainly with craft techniques from the textile tradition, such as patchwork, embroidery and decoration on textiles. Her works are either two-dimensional on woven fabrics such as cloths, blankets, handkerchiefs, knits, or installations that occupy space. In any case, her message is clear and aimed at drawing attention to rarely discussed social and political issues using what is considered to be a typically feminine and lesser language, choosing to move away from painting that is more closely linked to the official and masculine art world. Through subtle embroideries on transparent and illuminated gauze, she brings to the surface the whole world of unacknowledged and often unpaid female domestic work on which society bases much of its prosperity while silently accepting a condition of gender inequality. Here she presents her installation, in vitro, composed of large circles of organza finely embroidered with motifs related to new born babies and parents, goods for infants and extracted chromosomes in Petri dish, stretched across coin-shaped acrylic frames, referring to reproduction-related technologies such as prenatal diagnosis. An awareness that became all the stronger after she became a mothe
Mari Katayama, who took part in the Venice Art Biennale 2019, is known for her extraordinary photographs that also feature her as the absolute protagonist. This is clear from the photos on exhibit here, chosen from a variety of series. The self-portraits show her body with a frankness and elegance that bind the viewer to reality. At the age of nine she had her lower legs amputated, and she shows herself without filters or shame. Initially using her small tatami room. Katayama poses as a model amongst meticulously created sets composed of objects she creates, fabrics, lace, embroidery and natural light. She appears in lingerie sitting on the bed, sometimes casual, sometimes sexy, other times engaged in everyday activities, posing with braces, elastic stockings and prostheses. These images are disturbing because they show the “imperfect” body in all its fragility, a body which people would usually avoid looking at.
What immediately strikes the viewer is the artist’s beauty and her freedom of expression. It forces them to reflect on their own embarrassment and prejudice towards the female body and diversity in general. Other images on display here are taken from the series featuring the Ashio copper mine, site of one of the first devastating environmental disasters in history that contaminated the Watarase river in Katayama’s native Gunma prefecture.
Ami Yamasaki’s work as an artist is multifaceted. To call her a vocalist would be reductive, she should rather be called as a voice artist, given that she also associates the infinite sound vibrations she makes with her vocal cords with the movement of her entire body, as well as performances and multimedia installations that overlap into the fields of science, technology and cinematography. Yamasaki manages to emit highly refined, intimate and mysterious sounds, hoarse, high-pitched or shrill, that visibly run through and affect her entire body, from her neck to her face and hands, sometimes barely perceptible, before expanding into the air. Through her voice she conveys a powerful awareness of the interaction between the deeper self, enclosed in the physical body, and all that lies outside of it. The body is both a boundary and an instrument. The work presented by the artist at the PAC is a wall installation made of feathers, made from three-dimensional compositions of paper tore and folded, until they cover large areas of space in the form of wings and waves. The feathers not only absorb and modulate the ambient sound emitted depending on their number and how they are positioned, but they also make the listener realise the importance of space and the presence of others in relation to her performance. The listener continuously transforms the sound received and puts it back into the space.