For fans of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” hearing Johan Strauss II’s “The Blue Danube” coming up through the red-carpeted stairwell of the Shiseido Gallery is a real treat. Kubrick used the 19th-century waltz as an auditory cue to indicate the evolution of homo sapiens but it was also a dig at how we hide our ongoing savagery behind the veil of socialized behavior.
The minimalist elegance of Yu Araki’s exhibition “Le Souvenir Du Japon” at first seems to be an affirmation of civilization and the redemptive possibilities of beauty; however, within the gorgeous setup is a postcolonial ambivalence about the social and historical conditions of “taste.” The first pieces that the viewer comes across after descending the staircase — a mirror and a looping tube light — are a primer for this. In mathematical terminology, the shape of the chandelier is nonorientable; it appears to have two sides, but in fact there is only one. It is reflected in the mirror, but if you stand in front of it your body blocks out the reflection and you can only see yourself. So far, so clever.
The largest piece in the exhibition, “The Last Ball,” references a short story by renowned Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which is itself based on an account of a ball held in Edo/Tokyo, written by French naval officer and writer Pierre Loti (1850-1923). Two large screens show a waltz between two costumed actors playing the roles of Loti and his dance partner Akiko in an environment that is meant to evoke the 1883 Rokumeikan building that was once a venue for numerous social and diplomatic events until its demolition in 1941.
While the design of the video installation is elegant and dignified, the content flirts with the blunt and crass. Also, our attention is drawn to the act of looking. The protagonists waltz holding iPhones on selfie sticks. The cameraman who films them is included in shots documenting the process, along with nonchalant observers sitting around the edge of the dance floor. The movement of the dancers is jarringly melodramatic. There’s also a double projection technique, with the footage from the two iPhones having different color balances that correct each other when overlapped.
Araki doesn’t break the fourth wall here so much as talk it into going on a date, run out of the love hotel without paying and then never bother to return its calls. If there is a suggestion of aesthetic dignity in the overall setting and design of “Le Souvenir Du Japon,” it is undercut by an implicit discussion of who is doing the looking, and in what context. The source text, Loti’s “A Ball in Edo,” is not unsympathetic, overall, to Japanese culture, but Loti trash talks the tackiness of the building, and the out-of-fashion and ill-fitting clothes that the Japanese guests are wearing. The casual assumption of white supremacy comes out in Loti’s comments that the Japanese guests have a “strong resemblance to monkeys” and are “marvelous imitators.” Araki does not directly include these observations in his work, but it’s a fair assumption that he’s leaving bread crumbs for viewers to find these bon mots for themselves.
Loti’s writing is also referenced in a further three video pieces that juxtapose the French author’s descriptions of Kyoto, Nikko and Edo/Tokyo, with present-day video footage of people doing a lot of the same things that Loti observed in his time. In these pieces, too, Araki leaves out more inflammatory comments that Loti might have made and presents a “now” and “then” that meld in an uncanny way, though the rose pink ambient lighting — as in rose-colored spectacles — may be a clue as to Araki’s editing choices.
“Yu Araki: Le Souvenir Du Japon” at Shiseido Gallery runs until June 23; free. For more information, visit www.shiseidogroup.com/gallery.