Symbolic olives trace the journey of Catholics in Japan

by Mio Coxon

Special To The Japan Times

Japanese-born artist Yu Araki is currently presenting his site-specific video installation “Angelo Lives,” (2014) at Nakameguro’s quirky The Container art space.

Literally a shipping container housed inside a hair salon, the small gallery is known for giving artists free rein to reinterpret the unique space, and Araki’s video piece is no exception. Under the curatorial eye of Shai Ohayon, the exhibition, “Wrong Translation,” is the artist’s first solo show in Japan.

The 15-minute video piece begins as a journey across the seas, with the audience huddled inside the darkness of the shipping container — a set up that emphasizes Araki’s recurring motif of the voyeur. Throughout “Angelo Lives,” Araki intersperses imagery taken from a video-camera held in his mouth. Sometimes viewers are locked inside, looking outward from within, moving with the artist in his travels. Sometimes the mouth is duplicated, turning into a pair of lonely eyes, echoing Araki’s fascination with the artist’s marginalized viewpoint.

Araki’s explorations take us on a non-linear journey, delving as far back as the 16th century to the time of Portuguese missionaries and to ancient Japanese shrines. The video piece was inspired by the artist’s residency in Santander, Spain, in the summer of 2013, and is a surreal montage of filmed footage from Spain, Italy, and Japan, as well as historical images, paintings and maps.

Araki’s religious and historical references enhance his labyrinthine video piece, meandering between fact and fiction, history and the present, and deep cultural connections. He makes allusions to Casper David Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” (1818), as well as Shusaku Endo’s novel “Silence” (1966), which retells the story of a Portuguese missionary who was sent to Japan in the 17th century during the persecution of Christians in Edo Period (1603-1867) Japan.

A distinctly visceral approach is used to subtly build the rich layers of symbolism. The classic image of a message in a bottle shifts to the viewpoint of a jar of olives bobbing in the sea, making one feel submerged in the water. The symbolism of the olives becomes the strongest motif: You can almost taste their saltiness as echoed in the salt of the ocean. Locals in a Mediterranean market sell their olives, echoing the wider geopolitical motives of religion along with the spread of olive oil throughout the “new world.”

It is interesting to note that Araki chooses to depict iconic cultural imagery — the frenetic repetition of Christ; monks and Spanish cafe-revelers — yet juxtaposes these against the stories of outsiders. The narration is of Anjiro, the convicted Japanese murderer who fled to the Malaysian state Malacca in the 16th century, later returning to Japan with Saint Francis Xavier and two Jesuits, in what is considered the first Jesuit mission to Japan. And then the references to the author Endo who, as a Roman Catholic, was highly ostracized by his fellow Japanese.

Even for those not familiar with the religious, cultural and literary references here, Araki’s work speaks immediately to audiences, challenging one to navigate through the intricate visual tropes and the journey across the sea.

“Wrong Translation: Yu Araki” at The Container runs till May 19; open 11 a.m.- 9 p.m. (Sat, Sun, holidays 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Closed Tues). www.the-container.com.