The number of young Japanese artists today who engage in political dissent but also have exposure in major festivals and museums, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In Japan you can count up to 10, as opposed to Europe or the U.S., where you’d only get to five — either way, that’s pretty slim pickings.
Sachiko Kazama is a good candidate for being the raised middle finger in this small number of artists. Her epic black-and-white compositions in the jagged style of early to mid-20th-century German expressionist woodcut prints scratch at the history of Japanese fascism, refusing to let it hide behind prevarication and bad text books. In her solo show at the Gallery αM, Kazama also gamely takes a jab at the hubris of Kenzo Tange’s architecture and the vulgarity of the Olympics.
The centerpiece of Kazama’s “Plans for Tokyo 2019” exhibition, is a 6.4- by 2.4-meter woodcut print “Dyslympics 2680.” It’s an orgy of propagandistic iconography that imagines the opening ceremony of Tokyo 2020 (which would be 2680 if you are using the Japanese imperial calendar system), and is as visually satisfying as a still from Leni Riefenstahl’s 1938 “Olympia,” or a double-page spread from Japan’s wartime Nippon magazine.
On the left of the composition is a row of Japanese archers shooting down a black bird trying to fly away with a flock of white doves. Below them, ranks of uniformed figures goose step in formation with shovels on their shoulders. On the right, bodies are pushed off an unfinished motorway by a bulldozer, a reminder that building the Shuto Expressway and “cleaning up” Tokyo in advance of the 1964 Olympics entailed the eradication of working-class neighborhoods and the rounding up of homeless people to get them out of sight of foreign visitors.
“Dyslympics 2680” is a huge and impressive work, perfectly showing off Kazama’s manual skills and sense of composition. The fact that it is made up of many separate sheets pasted together, rather than one single piece, is appropriate. The woodcut was favored by the expressionists because of its simplicity, and being able to see the practicality of working with manageable parts seems in keeping with this.
On the opposite wall, “Story of Blue Ball,” a series of blueprint sketches using technical drawing paper, satirizes architect Kenzo Tange’s Fuji TV building in Tokyo’s Odaiba district. Though Tange is celebrated as a master of modern architecture, his large public projects, such as the intimidating Tokyo Metropolitan Government building in Shinjuku, are unsettling in the context that his career would have started with an imperialist Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere Memorial Hall had World War II developed more to Japan’s advantage.
To counter Tange’s monumentalism Kazama spins a fairy tale of how part of a UFO crashes into Tokyo Bay, is discovered by fisherman, and then becomes part of the futuristic television company headquarters. The unfinished quality of the images and open-endedness of the story are a great foil to the imposition of Tange’s brutal grandiosity.
In the work “Babel,” Kazama uses collage to destabilize the rectitude of modernism. A jumble of apartment blocks, all with different vanishing points, forces the eye to climb and fall as it switches between different perspectives. It is very clearly reminiscent of Paul Citroen’s (1896-1983) Bauhaus-era photomontage “Metropolis (City of my Birth),” but where Citroen was experimenting with different viewpoints in space, Kazama is also talking about viewpoints in time.
You want to get stuck in the past? Sure, she says, but let’s make it the 1920s, not the ’30s.
“Plans for Tokyo 2019: vol.2 Sachiko Kazama” at Gallery αM runs until July 13; free. For more information, visit www.gallery-alpham.com.