Visions of art in an alternative key

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In its own quiet way, Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions was one of the standout art events of 2009.

Organized by the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (SYABI), that inaugural edition of the festival — also known as Yebizo (an amalgam of Yebisu and eizo, the Japanese word for image or video) — included rare works of pioneering media art, including Andy Warhol’s black-and-white screen tests of members of his coterie, an installation by the Canadian collective General Idea, and live performances by young Japanese artists such as Tetsuya Umeda. During the event’s 10-day run, an estimated 27,000 people visited SYABI, which is tucked away in a corner of the Garden Place complex in Ebisu.

Supported by the metropolitan government’s Tokyo Culture Creation Project, Yebizo will return for a second edition on Feb. 19. Directed by SYABI curator Keiko Okamura, who oversaw the previous edition, this year’s festival takes “Searching Songs” as its theme and will feature works and projects by more than 80 artists, filmmakers and performers.

The festival combines three main components: a free-admission exhibition, a daily screening program and special live events. As with last year, “Searching Songs” will include both historically significant and new works. This year will also feature the Japan premiere of Iran-born, New York-based artist Shirin Neshat’s award-winning feature film, “Women Without Men” (2009), about life and politics in 1953 Iran.

Unsurprisingly, given its title, music plays a role in many of the works Okamura and her curatorial team have selected for the festival. For example, short films by the Danish artist Jesper Just, included in the screening program, juxtapose the high production values and moody settings of music videos with groups of men singing a cappella arrangements of forgotten pop songs.

In addition, photographer Kyoichi Tsuzuki will be presenting an archive of videos made for laserdisc karaoke, the now obsolete but formerly popular karaoke format.

Meanwhile, for his two-channel 2007 video titled “The Goldberg Variations, Aria, BWV 988, 1741, Johann Sebastian Bach (Glenn Gould, 1981),” the Vancouver-based conceptual artist Tim Lee filmed his left and right hands playing Glenn Gould’s 1981 interpretation of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” and then edited the footage to make it appear as if he were a proficient pianist. His video is part of a group of works that address the idea of the “cover band.”

In that vein, Los Angeles-based artists Paul McCarthy and Mike Kelley teamed up to produce “Fresh Acconci” (1995), for which they hired local film-industry staff and actors to remake several of Vito Acconci’s low-fi black-and-white performance videos from the early days of media art. One of those source videos, 1973’s “Theme Song,” which shows Acconci lying on his side before the camera, enticing viewers to join him on the other side of the screen, will also be shown.

Similarly, the Singaporean artist Ming Wong’s “Four Malay Stories” recreates scenes from movies by the iconic Malaysian filmmaker P. Ramlee, active from the 1950s to the ’70s, in the stilted style of language-instruction videos. The work was included in Wong’s solo presentation at the Singapore Pavilion in the 2009 Venice Biennale, which was awarded a Special Mention by the biennale’s jury.

Differing from last year, the festival will also include newly commissioned works and expand beyond the confines of the modestly scaled museum with a large-scale installation by artist Takayuki Fujimoto in the center of Garden Place.

Speaking with The Japan Times prior to the festival opening, its director, Okamura, compared last year’s edition, with its “Alternative Visions” theme, to a bento box of savory dishes arranged in neat compartments. “We chose works, such as extremely long videos or extremely short videos, that could somewhat objectively be considered ‘alternative,’ ” she said. “But it was more like an assembly of ingredients rather than a cooked dish.”

This year’s theme of “Searching Songs” is driven more by Okamura’s own personal vision and her wish to address how individuals relate to society and identity with it in the age of mass media. “Songs shape us and we carry them with us throughout our lives,” she said. “In some cases we don’t get to choose those songs and in other cases they reflect one’s own values.

“I’m not out to critique the mass market, which has its own logic for determining what is of value and what is not, but art can address issues that are not feasible in the commercial media,” she added. “So while ‘Songs’ is an important part of the theme, I also want to emphasize the idea of ‘Searching’ — it’s about people taking an active role in their experiences.”

Okamura cited a special presentation by Okinawan artist Chikako Yamashiro on seven jumbo screens in the neighboring Shibuya area as an example of how her ideas translate into the festival. Yamashiro has edited a 2008 work, “Seaweed Woman,” into a two-minute clip that will be played once a day on the screens, which usually bombard pedestrians with ad campaigns. The work features a woman floating in an ocean on a bed of green seaweed.

About the work, Okamura said, “Without being overtly political, it reflects deeply on the Japanese situation, the Okinawan situation, Yamashiro’s own situation and history.” She acknowledged that the work could easily be overwhelmed by the visual commotion of one of Tokyo’s busiest shopping and nightlife districts, but felt that it also offers its own dynamism.

“If you put art on the same platform as advertising, the money behind it simply doesn’t compare,” she said. “But in that one moment when the video plays we will be able to link the commotion of Shibuya to an aspect of the reality of Okinawa.”

However, such ambitious projects would not be possible without corporate sponsorship. The management of the Shibuya jumbo screens is providing their use for free, as is the management of Garden Place for the installation project there. Tokyo Metropolitan Government is also playing an important role. Funding for Yebizo comes directly from the Tokyo Culture Creation Project, which launched in 2008. Many had speculated that the project was connected to the city’s 2016 Olympics bid, but Okamura says there has been no drop off in the Yebizo budget since the games were awarded to Rio de Janeiro in late 2009.

Yebizo has been given a three-year allotment by the project, guaranteeing its return for at least another year. Nevertheless, Okamura is aware that alternative and mainstream events alike share some common measures of success. Hopeful that the festival might continue into perpetuity, she said, “I hope a lot of people come to see it. If they don’t, we won’t be around much longer.”

Yebisu International Festival for Art & Alternative Visions, at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and Yebisu Garden Place Central Square, runs Feb. 19-28. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.yebizo.com