The subtitle of the Mori Art Museum’s triennial “Roppongi Crossing” exhibition three years ago was “Out of Doubt.” This year it’s “My Body, Your Voice.” In 2013, the group show was inflected by the destruction caused by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, and scepticism about the handling of the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima. This year, the central theme is ostensibly an exploration of identity, histories and the body, though it would probably be fair to say that it is also strongly overshadowed by last year’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.
A video piece by Hikaru Fujii, “The Educational System of Empire,” situated approximately midway through the exhibition, provides useful insight into many of the issues that are at play in “My Body, Your Voice”. The work is an amalgamation of a 1940s-era U.S. War Department video that vilifies the ideological rigidity of the Japanese education system at the time, and documentary footage of a 2015 workshop directed by the artist. The workshop features South Korean students re-enacting portions of an archive propaganda film that appears to feature torture, marching and a national liberation; though we, as viewers of the art work, only know this from seeing how the students discuss and act out what they see.
With its core material being propaganda and its lack of authorial voice, the piece can be interpreted in wildly different ways, and Fujii uses the language-learning technique of the “information gap,” in which students must share different sets of information to complete a task, to highlight the difference between history, national narratives and knowledge. Unfortunately, any potential for radical criticality in the piece is blunted by the text that accompanies it, which mistakenly, and egregiously, tries to lay the blame for Japanese imperialism at the feet of education systems “imported from the West.”
This work is bracketed by several other video pieces that also rely on engaging the brain, rather than supplying immediate or spectacular gratification for the eye. This makes the central part of the show fairly heavy going if you are hoping to watch all the videos in their entirety.
Aya Momose’s “The Interview About Grandmothers” is another work in which the sources of narrative are brought into question, as the voice-over does not match the speaker in the artist’s video documentation of her paternal and maternal grandmothers. Shun Sasa’s 2016 video “Where The Flags Are” looks at the experience of women who grew up in postwar Japan and hinges on the magazine Kurashi no Techo (“Notebook for Living”), which was widely read by housewives during the country’s reconstruction. A patchwork flag made out of scraps of material that survived the war is displayed opposite the video.
With this clustering of time-based works in the middle of the exhibition, the flow of the show feels uneven, but if the effect is to give the audience pause, take time and be still, then so be it. In the context of Mori Art Museum exhibitions often going out of their way to engage and entertain us, “My Body, Your Voice” tends more toward the pensive in overall tone, though spectacle and emotiveness are present too.
The most theatrical of the works could be described as dark child’s play. Paraplegic artist Mari Katayama’s self-portraits and installations are deliberately kitschy and ornamental. Daisuke Yamashiro’s installation of anthropomorphized cultural artifacts recovered from anonymity has a musical soundtrack featuring young female voices that will be sweetly melancholic to some, but twee to others. Erika Kobayashi’s countdown and simulation of an atomic flash is juxtaposed with some of her mother’s memories and Glenn Miller’s “Sunrise Serenade.” It’s both thrilling and frightening.
The final exhibit in the show, “(Im)possible Baby” by Ai Hasegawa, a researcher at MIT Media Lab, is pretty dreary from an installation point of view. It documents — through diagrams, composite images and speech bubbles — the proposition of same-sex couples generating children through induced pluripotent stem cell research. The layout is limited in its visual appeal, as it follows the format of a straightforward student presentation, but in the context of the show, it is fitting and canny to end with an exhibit whose power lies in indicating a way forward, and a way out of, normative gender and social roles. Providing closure with something more aesthetically resolved and self-contained would have been a safer and less intellectually provocative option.
In one way or another, the work in “My Body, Your Voice” and the exhibition as a whole, is about splintering and splicing. Differences, real and imagined, that come out of gaps in generation, gender, sexuality, nationality and perspective are all discussed, sometimes with the underlying desire to connect and reconcile, sometimes to promote and pursue doubt as a positive exercise in itself.
It’s not a great show; greatness is not its goal. As a ‘snapshot’ of cultural activity in Japan it seems to be saying that the incipient generation view identity as something to be discussed rather than defined.
“Roppongi Crossing 2016: My Body, Your Voice” at the Mori Art Museum runs until July 10; open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tue. until 5 p.m., except May 3 when it closes at 10 p.m.). ¥1,800. www.mori.art.museum/eng
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