It has been a bumper year for chauvinism. Deplorables around the world who feel that their livelihoods, identities and values are under threat from “others” have let it be known that they’re mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. If you don’t think of yourself as being in the same basket as them, you can re-read that last sentence but ignore the last seven words.
In this context, the theme of the show “Body/Play/Politics” at the Yokohama Museum of Art is timely. The work of six artists of various nationalities has been assembled as a general broadside on intolerance, and the curatorial team have not been shy about acknowledging that Japanese society has a particular tendency toward valorizing the “normal” and stigmatizing those who don’t run with the crowd. Racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia, class snobbery and cultural essentialism are all addressed in this show, which is based on the premise that, in the end, these are all processes of manufacturing or promoting “otherness.”
Yinka Shonibare, ambivalent recipient of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, has famously used brightly colored Dutch wax textiles popular in West Africa, to re-dress figures and objects from iconic works of European art and encourage a revision of dominant historical narratives. His work is represented in the exhibition by two installations that mix fantasy, personal memories and Nigerian folklore, and a video piece that uses the aria “Farewell to the Past” from Verdi’s “La Traviata,” reworked with a black women as the lovelorn Violetta. The works are characteristically, and intentionally, flamboyant and theatrical.
All of the artists in “Body/Play/Politics,” in fact, employ strong local references in their work. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video piece of electric fans fitted out with exploding firecrackers aims to be symbolic of the most prototypical form of communally experienced moving image: the fire in the cave. At the same time Weerasethakul wants to fan the flames of dissent in relation to his native Thailand, recalling how flares were used by the military to seek out “communist farmers,” but also acted as an inspiration for local inhabitants to resist.
In the video piece “Imagining Pontianak: I’ve Got Sunshine on a Cloudy Day,” Yee I-Lann references the myth of a lank-haired pontianak female demon who seeks revenge on men after her death in childbirth, or in some versions, through sexual violence. A row of young women, appearing as manifestations of the pontianak, with long black hair covering their faces, chat casually about sex, sexism and abortion while checking their split ends. The tone of the conversations is decidedly banal, opposing the supernatural vilification of women with the ubiquitous everyday oppression, that normalizing gender roles ultimately entail.
In one of Uudam Tran Nguyen’s three works a mock-heroic serpent, composed of mopeds connected by their drivers’ colorful arrangement of rain capes, roams Ho Chi Minh City. The title “March of the Machine Equestrian (No.7)” refers to the legend of Thanh Giong, the Vietnamese warrior who defended his homeland with the aid an iron horse. In “Serpents’ Tails” Tran uses a larger field of references, bringing in Laocoon, the Trojan priest attacked by snakes and Judeo-Christian and Hindu creation myths.
The work of the two Japanese artists in the exhibition, Ryuichi Ishikawa, and Yuichiro Tamura do not delve into folklore or traditional culture. Ishikawa’s group of photographic portraits of people around Japan is strongly reminiscent of August Sander’s typology “Man of the Twentieth Century,” a series banned by the Nazis for showing the physical and social diversity of people who could all rightfully call themselves German. Ishikawa demands to know “what makes living in this country so difficult,” and in his images Japanese of all shapes, sizes and character look out at us with resignation, defiance and curiosity.
Tamura, exploring the postwar fad of body-building in Yokohama, has created a pool hall in the museum. A neon sign cheekily displays “Semen’s Club” [sic], and the baize on one of the pool tables has been overlaid with a U.S. military aerial map of Yokohama, another with images of dissected Greek sculptures rendered as anatomical illustrations.
In conception, the exhibition seems like it should be rousing and provocative; a comfort to afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable, as the saying goes. Unfortunately, it’s just not that inspiring. There is not enough work by each artist for us to engage profoundly with each of their concerns, and the result is a discordant chorus whose members individually compete for our attention.
Another problem is that the appropriation of, and retreat into, local mythologies and folklore in some of the work allows them to be delightful and enchanting at some level, while intimating a suitable degree of post-colonial and postmodern criticality. This strategy can come across as disingenuous, however, when used by urban, educated, cosmopolitan artists who seek freedom from normative identities, and for whom traditional social lore can be as patently oppressive in practice as any form of modern imperialism.
“Body/Play/Politics” at the Yokohama Museum of Art runs until Dec. 14; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. ¥1,500. Closed Mon. yokohama.art.museum
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