Tuesday, 15 January 2002

Big In Japan

Why Japan? Because Japan is the global imagination’s default setting for the future.1

In 1998 I proposed to Catherine Osborne, free lance writer, art critic and co-publisher of the Toronto based art magazine Lola, that she curate an exhibition of contemporary Japanese art for Cambridge Galleries. Osborne had been living and working in Tokyo, from 1989 to 1994, as a visual arts writer for the magazine Tokyo Journal, and for the English language national newspaper The Daily Yomiuri. She had been a witness to a cultural transformation taking place in Japanese culture and society caused by the enormous wealth and prosperity of what is now referred to as the “bubble” economy. During that time new art museums were being built, individuals were making glamorous art purchases, and the growth in private collections exploded. For the first time, Japanese artists were getting attention from the Western world that no generation before had experienced. Cambridge Galleries played its own small part in a renewed Japonisme. In 1993 Cambridge Galleries organized the exhibition “Waves: Contemporary Japanese Fibrework.”2 Waves brought to Canada ten Japanese fibre artists whose work was based in traditional Japanese craft, as well as being influenced by developments in contemporary international art. In the years since “Waves,” new Japanese popular culture had begun to make an impact in Canada. Japanese anime, (animated action movies and science fiction) and manga (comic books for adults) developed underground cult status. Japanese cartoons for children such as Sailor Moon, and Pokemon, and video games such as Nintendo and Play Station became not only wildly popular in Canada and the United States, they also became the subject of journalists and parent groups who discussed the significance of the imagery, its appropriateness for young impressionable minds and the hypnotic hold that it seems to have over them.

Japan had begun to make its presence felt in North America in the 1980's through its industrial and technological mastery. Its companies were dominant in the field of consumer electronics and were challenging the market dominance of the North American and European automobile industries. Japan became identified not only with the production of advanced technology, but also with the wholehearted embrace of the technological life style.3 For many young westerners of the 1980's “New Wave” who were reacting against the roots revivals of the 1960's and 1970's, Japan, as an idea, was embraced as synonymous with an accelerated rhythm of life and a futuristic technological culture at once seductive and menacing.4

Japanese social theorists were also fascinated by the spectacle of their rapid cultural transformation and what it meant. In the late 1970's and early 1980's the term “shinjinrui” (new kind of humans) was coined to describe a hedonistic generation of perpetual adolescents.5 This generation funded its materialistic lifestyle with jobs in advertising, software, networks, video production, TV and games. The affluent consumer society was identified as the cause of a social infantilisation. Media and advertising, it was advanced, appealed to the child in everyone and the rate of technological change forced everyone to adapt and to perpetually learn in order to keep up. In the end, provisional, temporary, rootless beings were created – new humans who lived only in a world of representations. The brand name fetishism and chic consumerism that began to be identified in the west in the mid 1980's (yuppies and terminological variants) may have its precedent in this Japanese lifestyle and fashion trend.

A new lifestyle designation, "otaku," gained currency in the 1990's. Variously compared to the North American “nerd” or “geek,” the Japanese otaku has become the term to refer to young people who may be obsessive collectors of anime, manga, video games and other pop culture ephemera. The otaku’s obsessional behaviour makes them socially awkward – avoiding intimacy and physical contact and preferring mediated communication through electronic networks. As a social phenomenon, the otaku have been called “a product of hyper-capitalism and the hyper-consumption society.”6 Disengaged from traditional cultural affiliations, addicted to the energies of pop culture fantasy and atomized through electronic networks and digital technologies, the otaku may not only be a problematic model of 21st century Japanese culture, they may also be, as William Gibson suggests, part of the globe’s default setting for the future.7

The artists chosen by Catherine Osborne for “Big In Japan” are not otaku, rather they hold a mirror up to the contemporary urban Japanese culture that has given rise to the phenomenon: consumer culture, urban living, instant gratification, speed, crowds, shopping, sex, desire, fame, anonymity, and excess – conditions that are at once all features of the contemporary world yet are exemplified today by Japan and urban Tokyo. Perhaps these artists are, as the artist Takashi Murakami confessed of himself, failed otaku – unable to muster sufficient obsessional enthusiasm or lacking in the ability to memorize volumes of trivia. Perhaps they are more inclined to seek connections with people than to disassociate, more inclined to satirize and critique mass culture than to submit to it.8


Risa Sato employs imagery that is “cute” – or “kawaii” as it is called in Japanese – inflatables that are round and hugging (and huggable) or sleeping, kiddie tricycles with bulbous heads, and a performance costume consisting of a plush carpet smock and big round head. All her figures have a single horizontal line for a mouth and two lines or small circles for eyes. “Mewling,” as in “mewling” kittens, is the adjective that comes to mind in trying to describe these quasi-human, almost animal characters. Their faces recall sucklings, creatures that nuzzle and cuddle and tug at the emotional heart. They have their source in the kitsch ephemera – plush toys, key chains, tee-shirts etc. – typically collected by young girls and adolescents as expressions and signifiers of the nurturing feminine. Typically the relationship with the kitsch image is solipsistic. The object is both an expression of affection and affection’s object. In return, the kitsch image expresses its love unconditionally. Risa Sato’s characters are made to work in her performances and interventions, not for her own gratification, rather in the service of making connections between strangers. Her “big head” character in Risa Campaign #10 (fig. 14) goes shopping in the market, talks to farmers and offers rides in her wagon to old people.9 When the artist is dressed in this guise she becomes the perfect Girl Scout. When riding on one of the hybrid trikes in performances of Risa Campaign #8 (fig. 12), the artist draws social affection – “How adorable!” When she brings one of the trikes to San Francisco during a reunion with her estranged mother, it sits at the dinner table as the unnamed “child within,” the child who still suffers the confusion and pain of separation. When she goes on a double-decker tour bus in New York wearing the inflatable piggyback character from Risa Campaign #6, it is an expression of exuberance on vacation.

Consistent with her blurring of the lines of art and popular culture, the artist markets her own line of key chains, paper weights and action figures representing her and her cuddly cast of characters. Risa Sato is not alone in Japan in marketing her work through retail merchandising and licensing.10 Commercial merchandising of imagery by Japanese artists is at once an ironic reference to the relationship of the new art to the pop culture which spawned it, as well as an a strategic economic decision. Through her installations, performances, and merchandising Risa Sato has managed to overcome the onanistic and solipsistic relationships generally associated with manga otaku and kawaii. Her “campaigns” are artworks in the service of elementary human contact and the expression of a range of human emotions. Her work may suggest the problems and the possibilities of communication and human contact in the 21st century world of representations.


Much of Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s work deals with the institutional presentation of art. In his Museum of Soy Sauce he parodied the history of Japanese art as a series of installations modelled on the anthropological museum. The Nasubi Gallery was a parallel gallery or artist-run space in a milk box, installed on trees or lampposts or in stores in the city, where the artist invited colleagues to install miniature exhibitions. The Nasubi Gallery, later became the Ai Ai Gallery, a commercial gallery in a milk box, worn as a back-pack. The Ai Ai Gallery backpack wearer or “dealer,” carried a telephone pager and brought the gallery to the customer when paged. With his Ai Ai Gallery (fig. 10), Ozawa confronts the artist’s dilemma, namely, how to make critical, non-commercial work in a consumer culture. The system of rental galleries in Ginza, the Tokyo commercial art district, with their high rental fees, is out of reach for many artists and places the onus on those who can afford to exhibit their work to produce commercially profitable work for sale. Judy Freya Sibayan sees the miniature gallery as a critique of the modern city, which is monopolized by capitalism through the media, with populations socialized exclusively as consumers, and which squeezes out the spaces and vehicles for experimental and critical cultural activities.11 Moreover, Sibayan sees an “economy of scale” and an “ecology” to the miniature gallery in contrast to the conventional gallery, “Its resources are conservative: viewership is intimate; it is on a one-to-one basis; its infrastructure, the human body. The gallery is not rooted to one place. It is mobile, nomadic . . .”12 Miniature, mobile galleries like the Scapular Gallery Nomad, the Nasubi Gallery and the Ai Ai Gallery are actions by those without substantial economic resources, artists dissatisfied the status quo of consumer culture and those appalled and alienated by the insatiable appetite of affluent consumer societies and the attendant waste and ecological damage. Yet, the Ai Ai Gallery is also an acknowledgement on the part of the artist of the need to generate income from the work, much as Risa Sato has managed to licence and merchandise her images, even though, Ozawa freely admits that, as a commercial venture, the Ai Ai Gallery was a failure.13


In a world where identity resides within representations, each image can be measured for its proximity to the viewer – “That person is like me,” or “I want to be like that person,” or “I detest that person.” Images variously give credibility to our existence, become models of self-improvement or scapegoats. The power of the image, moreover, is such that existence itself may come into question if there is no representation of it. Such is the pathological desire for “fame” or “glamour,” where one achieves true existence only when existing within a public representation. Hiroyuki Matsukage is, in addition to being an artist, a graphic designer, journalist, photographer and musician. Together with Muneteru Ujino, he plays in the Industrial rock band Gorgerous. Matsukage’s activities overlap and complement one another. His exhibition activity is often documented in catalogues of his own design, which are often complemented by performances by Gorgerous, whose CD recordings he also designs. In magazines he reviews current cinema and popular culture. Matsukage is the model of the post-modern individual – active within a field exclusively composed of representations – producing, packaging, interpreting and critiquing images. In many of Matuskage’s photographs he includes himself as actor and subject. In the work Man’s Back and Woman’s Face (1999), he recreates the coital scene from the Alain Renais movie Hiroshima Mon Amour, casting himself in the character of the Japanese architect Lui. Matuskage, the cinephile, lover of women and of French New Wave cinema, expresses his enthusiasm for the foreign genre and at the same time affirms his Japanese identity in this homage. While we might look for precedents to this in Western photo-based art, it is also possible to see this as an extension of album art or music videos, where the artist is often depicted acting out the fantasies or passion of the music.

Matuskages’s interactive installation Star (figs. 8 & 9) continues the artist’s interest in fame and identity. Star makes reference to that most famous of Japanese popular culture contributions, karaoke, where the participants sing popular songs, with the aid of videotext and image prompts, to the accompaniment of recorded back-up music. Karaoke participants get to stand in the shoes of their pop idols, become for a time the stars that they admire, and express the same sentiments in front of an audience. Matuskage’s installation on the other hand, provides no text or image prompts other than the panoramic photograph of an audience of cheering women. Here would-be pop idols need not know popular songs or melodies and don’t need the help of videotexts. Merely vocalizing into the microphone generates applause, and the louder the vocalizing the louder the applause. Star demands no talent or memory or technique – simply barking into the microphone is sufficient to generate an adoring response. It is the closest thing to an intravenous drip of love and positive reinforcement. Star instantly and freely delivers the gratification of applause proposing, “You want adoration? Here, it is yours.” Star says, “Love me for being. Love me for nothing.”


Like Risa Sato’s “campaigns” and Matsukage’s Star, Fujiwara Takahiro’s vinyl sculpture also promises unconditional love. Fujiwara’s work emerged from an interest in adult toys, vibrators and inflatable dolls – products of Tokyo’s famous sex industry – and his work has been compared to “the sort that hangs from the ceiling of a Love Hotel.”14 Inflatable sex toys, however, may be seen as contemporary culture’s most successful application of figurative sculpture. Fujiwara’s interest lies in the real and imagined interaction with the objects – he imagines sculptures that, like sex toys, are really penetrable, and not only metaphorically so. But more profoundly, the artist speculates that the onanistic experience goes deeper than elementary titillation, back to the womb: Our cells may retain their experience of “homo aquarius,” a life in a liquid capsule, the womb. The agreeable feeling you have by releasing your body in the water may probably be the first and best pleasure in your life.15

Fuijiwara is not only interested in the experience of pleasure, he is also interested in our consciousness of our desire for pleasure. An important component of many of his works is a connection between spectators, where for example, gallery visitors riding his vibrating sculpture can watch themselves in mirrors, or where one gallery visitor can control the vibrations on the inflatable bean on which another visitor is mounted. He has also constructed peepholes where visitors can watch other gallery visitors enjoying his interactive work. Voyeurism, in these works is turned on itself – reflecting the true face of a culture of instant gratification. Fujiwara’s reflections and peepholes show people in acts of self-stimulation and self-gratification and ask the question, “Do you recognize yourself? Do you like what you see?” Fuijiwara’s two-piece installation Beans - BALLOONS (figs. 1 - 3), are two enormous pink and blue balloons in the shape of jelly beans. These vinyl balloons have an outer membrane, and a smaller inner membrane with an aperture that allows access to the interior of the balloon while the outer membrane remains inflated. Inspired by the construction of inflatable sex toys, which have simulated orifices, the Beans - BALLOONS have orifices large enough for an adult to enter with their entire body. Clearly the intention and experience recalls the immersive womb experience, or a return to that “first and best pleasure in your life,” as Fujiwara calls it – a sex toy for the whole body. Shaped like giant jelly beans, the Beans - BALLOONS seem like big sugar pills, suggesting a possible future where “the first and best pleasure” may come as a pill – another consumable item, even better than a wide screen, high definition TV – a true “home entertainment centre.”


Yuki Kimura’s large triptych Tobacco #3: Enemies Big and Small (fig. 7) resembles a billboard advertisement for an American brand of cigarettes. Two cigarette packages are superimposed over the back of the head of young woman in pigtails – the pigtails signalling perhaps a young, sexually desirable girl. There is little to differentiate this image from what might issue from an advertising agency, and perhaps this is just another blatant example of product placement. The image’s proximity to billboard advertising poses questions about identity, authenticity and desire in the environment of publicity and consumption: What are the possibilities of imagining contemporary representations of women and sexuality apart from the iconography of the modern advertising industry? Will we be able to identify sex and desire apart from the products associated with it, or as an experience separate from the next lifestyle enthusiasm? Kimura’s photographs are both charged with sexuality and at the same time mysteriously enigmatic. In the diptych, Girl Sitting Left and Right (fig. 4), two seemingly identical photographs of a girl with bandaged feet sitting on an office chair, hands folded on her lap, are taken from a position close to the floor, looking up. The distortions caused by the “snail’s eye” perspective give us the strange image of a young woman with big damaged feet, no visible arms and a small head with only vague features. By distorting the proportions, exaggerating the size of the feet and minimizing the size of the head, Kimura suggests a body that is primarily sentient – all feeling and no thinking. Subtly, however, the photographs are distinguished from each other by the slightest parting of the legs at the knees. The change in position is so slight as to be recognizable only after closer examination. Cognition, this photograph seems to suggest, exists after all.

In contrast, the photograph in Uniform (fig. 5) depicts a young woman in a school girl’s sailor suit sitting with her back to the camera with her legs spread indiscreetly wide apart – an enactment of the male school girl fantasy. B&B Nao (fig. 6) is a diptych that contrasts an image of young woman, apparently pregnant, lying on a bed, with another image of the same young woman in the same position, except this time holding a basketball in the place of a distended, pregnant belly. The look on the girl’s face is provocative and knowing, recalling the sexual challenge of Manet’s Olympia. Subtly, blatantly, humourously, Yuki Kimura plays with the conventional images and expectations of women – as limited partners in the initiation and the expression of sexual desire, as objects of a paedophilic male fetish, as playmates ready and available, who carry their athletic equipment under their dresses.


Saki Satom records herself in group situations where her participation, plus the adjustment of the tape speed, direction or continuity, causes us to reflect on the social experience. M. Station Run and M. Station Backward (fig. 15) are two videos made in the famously busy Tokyo subway. In M. Station Run, the artist, carrying a “no passing” sign, joins commuters in the frantic run to make connections between trains. She runs one way with a group of commuters, then back the other way with another group. The video is looped to make this run continuous and unending, rhythmically repetitive and absurd. M. Station Backward is a video that depicts the artist, carrying the same “no passing” sign, walking through a subway station where all of the other commuters appear to be walking backwards. It doesn’t take long to discern that it is in fact the artist who is walking backwards, and it is the direction of the videotape that has been reversed. Yet even when this simple illusion has been exposed, the image continues to fascinate. Commuters bound up flights of stairs backwards, people magically turn corners looking in the opposite direction and manage not to crash into each other. We admire the artist’s concentrated and slightly awkward walk and imagine how difficult it must be to create this illusion. We watch the commuters and their brief sideways glances at the artist in the midst of their hurried commute. But more, we all identify with the artist, who for a time, is walking against the traffic of the entire city. Who has not experienced similar feelings of being out of step, of going one way when the rest of the world is going the other way?


The artists selected by Catherine Osborne for this exhibition draw us a picture of urban Japan – the modern city, and, the city of the future. The city of the future is a single city, linked across the globe by digital networks, with increasingly tenuous ties to history and geography – an international virtual city with a hybridized, visual culture of commodified lifestyle signifiers and spectacular entertainments. With each delight these artists bring us – the graphic brilliance of Yuki Kimura’s photographs, the colourful buoyancy of Fujiwara’s Beans - BALLOONS, the charm of Risa Sato’s Campaigns, Ozawa’s tiny perfect gallery in a back-pack, the mesmerizing magic of Saki Satom’s videos, or the sheer fun of Matsukage’s Star – there is also the unsettling awareness of how love, desire and pleasure can be tracked, commodified and serviced. Are we still active citizens, participants in the debate about the public good, or we are being turned into consumers, who only compare the prices and quality of our pleasures. Our belief in personal autonomy looks slightly pathetic in Saki Satom’s videos, and after that, what’s left over of our individuality – the authentic “me” – could fit into Ozawa’s Ai Ai Gallery with plenty of room to spare. Will we wander, like Risa Sato’s sad character, away from our keyboards, searching for human contact, or will we retreat back into an amniotic bubble of self-gratification? Will our effective capacity for personal expression go beyond the choice of songs on the karaoke play-list, or will it ultimately be reduced to the opening and closing of our legs?

Gordon Hatt, 2002


1. William Gibson, The Observer, Sunday April 1, 2001. <http://www.observer.co.uk/life/story/0,6903,466391,00.html>
2. “Waves: Contemporary Japanese Fibrework,” curated by Alan Elder and Kiyoji Tsuji, May 2 - June 12, The Library & Gallery: Cambridge, 1993.
3. “Japan has become synonymous with the technologies of the future ш with screens, networks, cybernetics, robotics, artificial intelligence, simulation. (...) If the future is technological, and if technology has become 'Japanised', then the syllogism would suggest that the future is now Japanese too.” D. Moreley, & K. Robins, Spaces of Identity, Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries. Routledge: London, 1995, p. 168, quoted in Volker Grassmuck, Man, Nation & Machine, The Otaku Answer to Pressing Problems of the Media Society, translated text of lecture presented for Jan van Eijk Akademie, Maastricht, 2000.
4. Some examples of Japonisme in eighties’ British and American pop music are I think I’m turning Japanese by the Vapours, the album Japanese Whispers by The Cure, the songs Mr. Roboto by Styx and Big In Japan, by Alphaville and the bands Japan and Big In Japan.
5. See Volker Grassmuck, "I'm alone, but not lonely," Japanese Otaku-Kids colonize the Realm of Information and Media, Mediamatic: Amsterdam, 1990,
<http://waste.informatik.hu-berlin.de/Grassmuck/Texts/otaku.e.html> and Grassmuck, Man, Nation & Machine. 6. Grassmuck, "I'm alone, but not lonely," quoting Nakamori Akio, "Manga Burikko," Tokyo Otona kurabu, 1984. entertainments. With each delight these artists bring us – the graphic brilliance of Yuki Kimura’s photographs, the colourful buoyancy of Fujiwara’s Beans - BALLOONS, the charm of Risa Sato’s Campaigns, Ozawa’s tiny perfect gallery in a back-pack, the mesmerizing magic of Saki Satom’s videos, or the sheer fun of Matsukage’s Star – there is also the unsettling awareness of how love,desire and pleasure can be tracked, commodified and serviced. Are we still active citizens, participants in the debate about the public good, or we are being turned into consumers, who only compare the prices and quality of our pleasures. Our belief in personal autonomy looks slightly pathetic in Saki Satom’s videos, and after that, what’s left over of our individuality – the authentic “me” – could fit into Ozawa’s Ai Ai Gallery with plenty of room to spare. Will we wander, like Risa Sato’s sad character, away from our keyboards, searching for human contact, or will we retreat back into an amniotic bubble of self gratification? Will our effective capacity for personal expression go beyond the choice of songs on the karaoke play-list, or will it ultimately be reduced to the opening and closing of our legs?
7. William Gibson, ibid.
8. Journal of Contemporary Art, Interview at Takashi Murakami’s studio in Brooklyn, New York, February 24th, 2000, Translated by Mako Wakasa and Naomi Ginoza <http://www.jca-online.com/murakami.html>.
9. The “big head” character may be based on the character “Kogepan” or “burnt bread,” a popular character created for a Japanese children’s picture book. According to the story, Kogepan was left
in the oven too long and is sad because no one wants to eat him.
10. Cf. Takahashi Murakami whose merchandise can be found on the Internet at <http://www.narakami.com/data/index_shop.html>.
11. Judy Freya Sibayan, is the curator and owner of the Scapular Gallery Nomad, a wearable gallery, consisting of scapular-like pouches containing the works of a number of artists.
12. Judy Freya Sibayan, “The Museum of Soy Sauce Art, Scapular Gallery Nomad, and the Nasubi Gallery,”A Guidebook to Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s World, pp. 24-25, Isshi Press, Tokyo: 2001.
13. Tsuyoshi Ozawa, “Ai Ai Gallery,” A Guidebook to Tsuyoshi Ozawa'a World, p. 48.
14. Kengo Nakamura and Tom Vincent, Interview with the artist, Network Museum & Magazine Project, 1998. <http://www.dnp.co.jp/museum/nmp/nmp_i/interview/fujiwara/fujiintro.html>
15. Ibid.

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