‘What We See’ is not always what you get

by Matthew Larking

Special To The Japan Times

Rendered as “What We See” in English, the title of this show should perhaps more accurately follow the Japanese one, which would be: “Dream, Reality, Illusion?”

“Video” art is now mostly moribund because technology has changed, leaving that form of expression as largely digitized and stored on hard disc. Subsequent names for the new form such as “moving image” and “time-based” art have appeared, but those terms are divorced from the artist’s medium. It is as if we are being asked to take into account special characteristics of an art of movement that is being described as unfolding time. How this kind of visual artwork is significantly differentiated from cinema or YouTube, however, goes without explanation. A conventional expectation might be that the art form has a shorter duration, but there are about seven and a half hours of footage to see by 10 artists at “What We See,” and, unfortunately, little of it truly excites.

On the opening day, the catalog was unavailable and so little context was apparent, except a brief write-up on the museum’s website announcing banalities about our so-called era of technological revolution and unprecedented hyperbolic daily change. Technologically inundated, the line between truth and fiction, it alleges, is blurred, and the artists in the exhibition are to make us wonder about the “whereabouts of truth.”

With truth as our guiding concept, we are then given several propositions, such as “Does truth exist in something that was created as fiction? Is reality truth? When reality becomes fiction, does truth begin to fluctuate?”

With edgy questions formulated, however, no answers are given. Instead, the exhibition dissolves into mostly culturally relative sociological and political concerns that reveal more about individual societies and particular artistic predispositions. What the exhibition organizers seem to fail to acknowledge is that if the claim that “truth is relative” is true, then that very statement itself is relative and therefore it can also be false. Less concerned with objective, atemporal narratives, what are on display are the usual subjective ones.

Chia-En Jao’s “REM Sleep” (2011) is a documentary about the mostly shattered dreams of Filipino, Thai and Vietnamese on short-term migrant labor visas in Taiwan. In 1994, the country enacted the “Go South” policy to prevent overinvestment in mainland China, and as of October 2011 there were more than 420,000 immigrant workers in Taiwan — poor, estranged and often rejected by family members when they returned home.

Three large screens show individuals, two of which, at any given time, are asleep. As a narrator reaches the culmination of a tale, the awake individual goes back to sleep and another rises to tell a story of hardship in which realities, dreams and nightmares merge. The larger “truth” extracted is that rich countries often exploit the people of poor ones and that families can do nasty things to one another.

In “The Visible Story” (2012), Pei-Shih Tu makes animations by collaging clippings from magazines and other pop culture sources, creating brightly colored worlds of singing birds, bountiful agriculture, smiling people and figures that rock back and forth awkwardly. The artist’s work usually directs attention to political atrocities that lie beneath such superficial worlds, though with no contextual documentation on hand it is impossible to delve deep into the unfortunately “invisible story.”

Steve McQueen’s “Once Upon a Time” (2002) collapses into a kind of anarchy because without contextualization it is almost impossible to extract its larger purpose. He takes up the NASA Golden Record that was sent into space in 1977 on Voyagers 1 and 2. That disc was supposed to convey to extraterrestrials the story of human life on earth. McQueen digitized the imagery from that disc, but made his own audio track. His version included spoken greetings in 50-odd languages amalgamated with that most personal of communications with the divine — “speaking in tongues.” The result is the listener’s incomprehension due to the Babel, and this, apparently, is to convey to us humans what it would be like for an alien civilization to encounter ours.

Cyprien Gaillard’s “Artefacts” (2011) presents Iraqi imagery captured on that most pedestrian of technologies, the iphone, set to a repetitive sample from the song “Babylon” by David Grey, which becomes nauseating to listen to. You see some Iraqi architecture, ancient and modern, a graveyard, an eviscerated dog, and a montage of seizure-provoking swirling colors. Soldiers pick up the shattered remains of the ruins of millennial-old cultures while sporting high-tech guns. At best, this is a mildly exotic visual souvenir.

Other works in the show include “Souvenir 3″ (2012) by Hiraki Sawa, which is groan-provoking for its attenuated magical realism, though his “Lineament” (2012) is far more successful for its formal and psychological abstractions. Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s “Marian Ilmestys — The Annunciation” (2012) has nonprofessional actors stage the Annunciation with a guest appearance by Santa Claus. Johan Grimonprez’s “Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y” (1997) is a montage revolving around plane hijackings, no doubt included here because of the events of 9/11. Shino Yanai plays with familiar Japanese cultural stereotypes.

While occasionally touted as a postmodern medium par excellence, video art, it seems, has yet to produce anything tantamount to a conventional art masterpiece.

“What We See” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs till March 24; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. till 7 p.m.). ¥850. Closed Mon. www.nmao.go.jp.