Same-sex relationships, American bases in Okinawa, globalization, the Olympics, the atomic bomb, national identity, the exploitation of natural resources — the “Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art” exhibition at The National Art Center, Tokyo, does not lack for hot button topics.
The six-person show is not, however, confrontational about social and political issues. Instead these are revealed solicitously through the different narrative strategies of the selected works. The mood of the show, with the exception of some comic satirical moments from Okinawa-based Chikako Yamashiro’s “Chinbin Western: Representation of the Family,” is subdued and rather melancholy.
Don’t expect references to classic literary works. There is a disclaimer in the art center’s exhibition overview that the “literature” in the title refers to the exhibits having poetic or literary qualities, rather than being intertextual. The Japanese exhibition title, “Hanashiteiru no wa Dare?” — which could be translated as “Who’s Doing the Talking?” — gives the viewer quite a different schema for interpreting the works. As all the artists are Japanese, the exhibition seems to be positing that there is a plurality of voices and concerns in this country, despite the received wisdom of Japan being culturally homogenous.
Yuichiro Tamura has created a claustrophobic enclosed studio that glows beautifully with a yellow-green light, a warehouse space filled with New Hampshire number-plates with the state’s motto “Live Free or Die,” and a room filled with wooden oars laid out like dead bodies. A stream-of-consciousness computerized voice connects the muddiness of McDonald’s coffee with drowning in a flood of muddy water.
Futoshi Miyagi’s exhibit comprises low-tech photography, the sound of a Beethoven piano sonata, video and spoken narration that tells of a same-sex relationship between an Okinawan native and an American. The story jumps between different times and places, and from screen to screen in the exhibition hall.
Erika Kobayashi’s space is a darkened room in which text panels, annotated maps, drawings and objects interweave the stories of how Tokyo failed to receive both the Olympic torch from Berlin in 1940 and a shipment of uranium supplied by Nazi Germany in 1945, but did “successfully” receive the atomic bomb.
Yasuko Toyoshima’s picture frames and wooden panels filled with joinery look like signifiers with nothing signified. Rune-like patterns hint at a fictitious writing system without meaning, while the use of the reverse side of display panels seems like an interrogatory “What are you looking at?” In comparison to other artists in the show, who work with varying complexities of narrative, Toyoshima nails it up on the wall and crucifies it.
Yamashiro’s video follows two families in Okinawa — one, a conventional family unit of working father, housewife and kids; the other, a young woman and her grandfather. The father works at a mine and sings opera in the house; the young woman is a bartender/artist. Various oppositions are presented in the 32-minute film: toxic masculinity versus creative femininity, native versus foreign, natural versus artificial, tradition versus technology. It’s not subtle.
In the context of an exhibition about narrative that also asks “who is speaking?,” Keizo Kitajima’s portraits taken in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and his photographs of desolate spaces in Japan, have a poignant wordlessness to them. The utopian narrative of the Soviet Union has been muted by history, the seriousness of black-and-white street photography, used to portray Europeans in the former Eastern Bloc, has been superseded by the selfie. In the lugubrious landscapes, which include man-made structures, but are devoid of people, there seems to be only the sound of the rain and snow.
“Image Narratives: Literature in Japanese Contemporary Art” at The National Art Center, Tokyo, runs through Nov. 11; ¥1,000. For more information, visit www.nact.jp.