The trashy art of Asian diplomacy

by Edan Corkill

When curator Mizuki Takahashi was selecting artists for the Japan Foundation-sponsored exhibition “Kita! Japanese Artists Meet Indonesia,” held earlier this year in Indonesia, she deliberately chose ones “capable of involving local people and working in local environments.”

So, when six-person artist group Chim ↑ Pom went to Bali, rented a helicopter and dropped rubbish from the sky onto a “garbage mountain” where a community of locals usually make a living scavenging trash, technically speaking, they were doing exactly what was expected of them.

Takahashi’s recollection of the stunt — which the artists videotaped for a work displayed in the exhibition — was tinged less with shock or regret than with awe.

Yes, they were playing the parts of rich Japanese dropping rubbish onto less well- to-do Indonesians. And yes, depending on your interpretation of the term “Japan Foundation-sponsored,” the government- bankrolled pranksters were diplomats representing their country abroad.

But this was no ordinary diplomacy and they are no ordinary art collective. Besides, if anything more was needed to justify the potentially controversial work of Chim ↑ Pom — a group whose name itself is a sly reference to a childish word for penis in Japanese — there was the uniformly positive reactions of the locals.

Creating showcases of Japanese art and taking them abroad has been part of the Japan Foundation’s mandate since its inception in 1972. Over the past decade or so, a large number of shows have been taken to other locations in Asia. Last year, one went to China and another to India. This year, Indonesia was chosen to commemorate the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations with the country.

Takahashi, a full-time curator with the Contemporary Art Center at Art Tower Mito in Ibaraki Prefecture, was selected along with Hideki Toyoshima, of the artist collective Graf (known in particular for their collaborations with Yoshitomo Nara) to curate the exhibition.

“Our main concern was that we didn’t want to convey a stereotypical impression of Japanese culture,” Takahashi said in mid-May, fresh from the exhibition’s opening festivities at its three venues in Jakarta, Bandung and Yogyakarta. (The shows at all venues wound up on May 18.)

“Also, we didn’t want to present a best-of show of Japan’s most famous artists,” she said. “Such a show would have pleased the critics and art professionals in Indonesia, but we wanted something that would connect more directly with the local people, many of whom would have had little experience of contemporary art.”

For Takahashi, that meant not only choosing a total of 24 artists (and groups of artists), but actually taking them to Indonesia and getting them to make their work on the ground there.

In most other countries, of course, such an approach would be financially inconceivable. But in Indonesia, where the artists could be put up for around ¥2,000 per night, it was an option. The trick was to assemble a group willing to live in Indonesia for up to a couple of months. And that meant going young.

About half of the artists included in “Kita!” are in their 20s and very few are represented by galleries.

It was the focus on youth that lead to the event’s most spontaneous and hilarious situations — Chim ↑ Pom’s helicopter joyride being an example — but it also made the initial selection process difficult. How did they find all these little-known artists?

“Well, that’s what a curator does. We go out and look at a lot of exhibitions — including small shows in small galleries, and also one-off projects in alternative spaces, too,” she said.

That means gambling on artists who might be untested. Takahashi reported that one of the most successful works was a performance by Chanchiki Tornade, musicians who have delved into the fine arts. With the help of locals they organized a parade through the streets of Yogyakarta in which the players were carried through the streets on rickshaws.

Along the way, Takahashi explained, they were joined by a group of local transvestite performers with whom they danced the afternoon away to the delight of onlookers.

W hile the locals in Yogyakarta — which Takahashi described as the “Kyoto of Indonesia” for its focus on traditional craft and performance — enjoyed such musical forays, the crowds in the more technically-minded Bandung (home of a university of technology) appreciated art selected for its incorporation of mechanical components.

Takahashi explained that Sonton, another group of artists in their 20s, was one of the standouts there, producing sculptures that combined kitschy souvenirs and toys from Japan and Indonesia into all manner of creations.

“The works were electronic, in that you would push a button and a light flashes and things like that,” explained Takahashi.

Then there was Chim ↑ Pom. With most members still in their 20s, but with a reputation ascending more like a rocket than a helicopter, the group has the surprisingly rare ability to incorporate overt and fiendishly clever political messages into their art.

In one of their earliest videos, they took aim at the anorexia problem, with one of their members, Eri, drinking a bright pink fluid before vomiting it back up again. Last year, they headed off for Cambodia, where they did a project detonating unexploded land mines and blowing up vegetation, turning the tragedy of a population tormented by the lethal remnants of war into an adolescent celebration of explosions.

The garbage-dropping project in Bali, titled “Saya Mau Pergi TPA (Take Me to the Garbage Disposal Plant)” was as much a comment on Japanese society as on Indonesian. Up in the helicopter was the unknowing, uncaring Japanese consumer cocooned in her capsule of first-world affluence, while underneath, grabbing at her junk (plastic shopping bags, etc.) were the people of the developing world (along with a few plants from Chim ↑ Pom).

The group possesses the slacker humor of Makoto Aida (with whom they were all assistants or drinking buddies), but with less of the “Huh?” eccentricity — and with sharper political teeth. In a society where “shock value” hasn’t been properly explored in art since the ’70s, it is the very audacity of these projects that make them compelling. Whether they’re puking pink goo, blowing up foliage or throwing trash out of a chopper, the initial surprise is enough to catch anyone and everyone, while the profundity of the message ensures they go away changed.

And that was what made them suitable for “Kita!” As Takahashi explained, the secret to making a successful exhibition in Indonesia was to get the attention of a public who, for the most part, knew little about Tokyo, little about Japan, and, most importantly, so little about contemporary art that they likely wouldn’t have attended such a show like this otherwise. You can rest assured things have changed now.