Yukinori Yanagi

Hillside Gallery

Yukinori Yanagi is one of the few contemporary Japanese artists whose work can be characterized as primarily conceptual, and one of an even smaller contingent that attempts to address the thorny issues of nationalism, ideology, and politics. Yanagi’s recent projects have all dealt with national flags as emotionally charged but essentially abstract symbols, humorously probing notions of statehood, history, and the myths of national character. This exhibition featured plans and documentation for the ongoing “Wandering Position” project, which involves vehicles of various types operating within the confines of large enclosed wheels, and a small tableau.

Wandering Position: Project—Red, White, and Blue, exhibited at Yale University in March, 1990, featured a blue spangled automobile chassis with white stars, rigged to run inside a large, cagelike wheel emblazoned with red and white stripes. Other projects, similarly reminiscent of and perhaps even inspired by Chris Burden’s The Big Wheel, involved the Hinomaru—Japan’s familiar but legally unapproved rising sun flag—the militarist overtones of which continue to spark protests at home against its ceremonial use. Armored tanks of the nation’s defense forces—the large, de facto armed services, which also have no constitutional basis for existence—also figured in the work. Yanagi is the only artist in Japan now who dares to deal with these taboo images in a critical manner.

The tableau, also part of the “Project Hino-maru,” involved 21 model self-defense force tanks, painted red and bearing the rising sun image, arrayed in a circle around a pile of miniature oil drums. A project with obvious topical associations, this tableau explicitly refers to the Japanese goverment’s plan to deploy a defense force in the Persian Gulf, a plan which has met with vocal opposition both in Japan and throughout Asia. This piece also symbolizes Japan’s extreme economic vulnerability, dependent as it is entirely upon imported energy. The tanks are in effect a shorthand notation for the rays of the rising sun, suggesting that they must consume the very fuel they hope to protect if they are to stay in motion. Displaying the flag, in this context, is doubly hazardous.

While this may strike the Western viewer as criticism of the most mild and oblique sort—far from a John Heartfield or a Hans Haacke—the fact is that presenting even this mild fare is dangerous in present-day Japan. Here the police work hand in hand with right-wing terror squads and yakuza to maintain order, and the media function primarily as a cheerleading unit for the state itself, which struggles to maintain the fiction that all Japanese are satisfied with their present lives. By suggesting that dissent is okay, Yanagi is pointing the way for other young Japanese artists who are beginning to flirt similarly with taboo imagery, without yet exhibiting the willingness to take a critical stand. That Yanagi is able to raise the issues without becoming dogmatic, to utilize a disarming sense of humor to sweeten his barbs, and to produce work of technical excellence and extreme symbolic clarity without having had the benefit of local precedent, speaks well for his talent and promise. Other artists here may soon find their voices as well.

Azby Brown