New York

“New Video: Japan”

This exhibition of 23 recent video works by Japanese artists opened with Video Letter, 1982–83, a visual and aural correspondence between the poet Shuntaro Tanikawa and the filmmaker Shuji Terayama. This feature-length work begins with the sound of a music box being wound, then the sound of a childhood lullaby. A roll of film is slowly unwound, frame by frame: the image of two young men in intimate, laughing togetherness . Then a number of blank frames of film, and the grayish photograph of a young boy. Tanikawa says, “I found old photographs of you from the 1960s.” A poem is read. The first simple letter is over, and it has affirmed an elementary interpersonality, between the correspondents themselves and between them and the eavesdropping audience. One’s critical esthetic eye has been effectively disarmed.

In Terayama’s reply, the pages of a book slowly turn, setting up one of Video Letter’s major themes: the tension between word and image, the spoken and the unspeakable-between, in Japan, two kinds of glyph. Tanikawa attempts to make aural and visual perception directly metaphysical through the excruciatingly slow accumulation of drops of water and the repetition of set expressions of speech, indicating how the oily fluidity of language passes over the water of being, never mixing with it. The personal reasserts itself in the next letter from Terayama, who begins by saying, as he takes one Chinese box out of another, “Thank you for a lot of words but the question is that the word is not a letter or a voice but it is a meaning. . . . Nothing but the meaning can resurrect that which is breaking down. . . . ” The letter continues, becoming a complex poetic dialogue of increasingly demonstrative images and increasingly remote ideas.

Video Letter is an eloquent articulation of the Japanese ability to deal with abstract metaphysical issues without losing a sense of their profound bearing on immediate interpersonal experience. just as it affirms the simultaneous discreteness and inseparability of word and image, it affords Tanikawa and Terayama the impersonal distance necessary for them to explore the depths of their personal relationship while maintain in gits transcendent quality as an end in itself. It is a brilliant demonstration of what video can achieve: extract the extraordinary subliminal moment from the ordinary flow of immediate events without destroying the sense of the plasticity of either. The ambivalence inherent in the immediate—its seeming meaninglessness yet meditative potential—is manipulated to the full in Video Letter, and made to seem an innate quality of the medium.

Two less-elaborate yet faster-paced works—Maitreya, 1984, by Masabi Fujihata, and Hard Scratch, 1984–85, by Daizaburo Harada and Haruhiko Sha no—also illustrate the irony that pervades the japanese experience of intimacy, but by radically different mean s. In them the robotic and the organic integrate, in the first quite literally, through computer animation, and in the second through the mechanism of rock rhythm. Their insistent contemporaneity only lightly conceals the endemic tension between obligatory interpersonality and defensive impersonality made explicit in Video Letter. Japanese tact is evident: the ability to maintain detachment—Zen “no mind”—while locked in the embrace of inescapable intimacy with the other. In japan , otherness is respected yet denied by being turned into a metaphysical symbol. Of the entire exhibition, these three works seemed to capture this ambivalence most completely.

Donald Kuspit