Even before the shut down of “After ‘Freedom of Expression?'” — the Aichi Triennale exhibit that included the “Statue of Peace,” a work symbolizing “comfort women” that has stirred debate over what can be publicly displayed — artist Bontaro Dokuyama had a solution to its removal. At his 2018 exhibition “Public Archive,” he presented, along with video interviews of Korean women speaking about the controversial issue, scanned digital data of comfort women statues in Seoul that could be shared and reproduced. Memory isn’t so easily buried, he seemed to assert.
If the 35-year-old’s work is about the resilience of memory within cultural narratives, it is also about the mutability of it. I sat down with Dokuyama at the Aichi Triennale press preview to discuss his work and his new project for the festival.
“I am interested in the little changes within the big changes,” he says.
Dokuyama’s latest installation, “Synchronized Cherry Blossom,” which can currently be seen in Nagoya’s Endoji Hommachi Shopping Arcade, speaks to this point. In the most literal sense the work is an ode to the uirō, a Japanese rice jelly sweet that has become a symbol of Nagoya. Sparked by his own taste for uirō, Dokuyama and his assistant created some 30,000 identical pieces of the sticky candy by hand, molding them into pinkish-white cherry blossoms festooning the branches of a real cherry tree. He also researched the history of the confectionery and found its story to be interwoven with that of the Aichi Prefecture capital.
“Uirō existed across Japan,”he says. “But they started representing Nagoya when the 1964 Olympics brought the shinkansen to the city and they needed an official snack to sell on the train.”
Accompanying the tree is a video of interviews with Nagoya locals, officials from a Nagoya uirō manufacturer, city officials keen on urban redevelopment, and people in Russian and Chinese cities once occupied by the Japanese. The architecture of these places on the screen has an eerie similarity, mirroring how Somei-Yoshino cherry trees are cultivated as clones. All together, the works highlight cultural change and continuity and how history is in some parts fabrication.
Visitors can also see two previous works by Dokuyama at the same venue. In a powerful testament to a segment of history on the verge of being lost, “Time Goes By” (2017) shows elderly Taiwanese who grew up under Japanese colonial rule recounting memories and singing songs such as the Japanese national anthem and “Hotaru no Hikari” (“Auld Lang Syne”). In a rebuke of excessive labor demands, “Dreaming Future” (2016) documents Dokuyama covering exhausted Japanese office workers passed out in the street with flags bearing corporate logos. Like many of his best works, the films blend sharpness and tenderness, humor and pathos.
When asked why he became an artist and how he settled on this particular style, Dokuyama, a native of Fukushima Prefecture, says he was working for an architectural office when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck and he became resolved to pursue a creative career.
“I had wanted to be an artist since college, but after the earthquake and nuclear accident I didn’t hear many voices from Fukushima,” he says, explaining that adding his own voice to the narrative has been a process of striking the right tone. “I want to make works people won’t get tired of, that I won’t get tired of. So I try to make them humorous. If the audience enjoys having their thoughts provoked, that is enjoyable for me as an artist.”
Dokuyama’s art reflects the themes of the Aichi Triennale, which in its motto sets out to explore the multiple meanings of the Japanese term “jō,” in the senses of emotion, information and compassion. There is a large degree of human sympathy at the heart of the social critique and the absurdity in his work
“I’m interested in people’s stories,” he says. “I want to hear about their experiences, their sadness and pain, and I want to take that seriously. I’m interested in observing how circumstances change.”
When asked if he considers his work “protest art,” he replies, “It’s really more to spark debate and raise questions I can’t answer myself. If it’s to protest anything, it’s a lack of awareness.”
He adds after some thought, “There are things that happen that not widely covered in mainstream media … issues related to Fukushima, ‘comfort women,’ whaling, etc.
“It’s important to go out and talk to people. It’s important to hear about history from multiple perspectives.”
This desire to seek and encourage a diversity of expression seems to found the essence of his art. “It would be unfortunate if this ability to express ourselves is repressed,” he says. “I work to exercise this expression, to make what is impossible possible, to think about what makes it possible.”
The Aichi Triennale runs until Oct. 14. For more information, visit aichitriennale.jp/en.