The main premise behind “Time of Others” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo (MoT) is that there is no fixed self — “otherness” can be a matter of recognizing that our identities and qualities as people can change. The curatorial team behind the exhibition do not use “otherness” in its more postcolonial sense of constructed narratives of difference, but want visitors to consider it as an issue of alterity and an opportunity to think about selfhood.

According to MoT curator Che Kyongfa, the intellectual background to this is the work of the filmmaker, theorist, and artist Trinh T. Minh-ha.

Two works communicate Kyongfa’s goal very succinctly. These are Motoyuki Shitamachi’s “Dusk/Dawn Tsunagi/Chicago,” a video work of the simultaneous sunrise and sunset recorded on either sides of the planet, and Bruce Quek’s “The Hall of Mirrors,” a minimalist array of clocks whose hands rotate at different speeds determined by averaged annual statistics for the Asia-Pacific region (deaths from stroke and carbon-dioxide emissions, for example).

At one level these works are a general appeal to a sense of shared humanity, despite the exhibition’s overall goal of unravelling us as subjects. Pratchaya Phinthong’s “Give More Than You Take,” a work that combines video of Thai seasonal workers berry picking in Sweden with an installation of material equivalent in weight to the berries collected, and “Monologue,” a search for the final resting place of a loved one killed by the Khmer Rouge, also derive a lot of their power from operating in this way. Other pieces are more immediately political, such as Kiri Dalena’s retouched images of postwar Philippines protests, in which slogans on the banners have been erased, and Saleh Husein’s monotone paintings of the Arab-Indonesian nationalist movement.

The deeper provocation that the curators make, however, is to ask us how we can presume to define ourselves when a peek behind the curtain of daily life reveals how drastically different things can be with just a relatively small change in time, location or perspective. Sound artist Mamoru’s “THE WAY I HEAR, B.S.LYMAN The 5th Movement Polyphony for Collective Imagination,” a jumble of ambient sounds, voice, text and moving image around the theme of a 19th-century American geologist’s discovery of coal in Hokkaido, is an extremely potent work in this respect.

A few of the works may seem trite after reflection — a result of relying too much on a single artistic or creative conceit. An-My Le’s beautiful and unsettling photographs of U.S. military personnel — unified in purpose and appearance, but also considered as individuals — however, are not among these. If only because Japan as a people and nation will soon have to decide whether to change Article 9 of the Constitution. At that point the question of self, and the degree to which otherness can be positively accommodated, will turn from an ontological and creative quandary to a matter of immediate and concrete importance.

“Time of Others” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo runs till June 28; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.mot-art-museum.jp


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