“Zones of Love”

Curator Judy Annear’s survey of contemporary Japanese art, “Zones of Love,” is hybrid territory. The nine artists and two collaborative groups (Dumb Type and Complesso Plastico) exhibiting their works here are self-consciously “world” artists. Since the ’70s, contemporary Japanese life has been constructed by the West as the ultimate experience of modernization. This implies that the post-Modern Japanese artist is influenced by the artificial, the fake, and an ambivalent reverence for the idea of art. “Zones of Love” shared this revisionist character, unlike earlier surveys, which simply reified the myth of Japanese access to an unmediated experience of nature.

“Zones of Love” assumed our prior recognition of its appropriated sources, which were—with the exception of Toshikatsu Endo’s shaman’s boat, Allegory III—Wooden Boat, 1988—second- or third-degree art. Yasumasa Morimura’s Daughters of Art History: Theater B, 1989, exploits photography’s ability to create false resemblances. He restages Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergères, 1881–82, substituting himself for the girl at the bar. The daughter is not only Morimura but Japanese culture—the ironic heir to Modernism. In Criticism and the Lover A, 1990, Morimura substitutes his features for the expected surfaces of Cézanne’s fruit. The picture is a perverse forgery. The artist uses computer scanning and laser printing to effect a seamless montage of his face onto the apples. Morimura, as the exhibition’s curator says, employs technology to create a whole new history of art. He rewrites the master texts of European art, encasing his new “masterpieces” in ornate carved gold frames ready for the museum. Morimura’s reappearing electronic body is immaterial and infinitely reproducible.

Complesso Plastico is a collaboration between two Osaka artists, Jiro Hirano and Hiroyuki Matsukage. Everybody Knows New Life, 1990, was a complex installation incorporating video projection, flashing lights, and illuminated photographs of the two artists. Posing as rock-star noble savages, their iconic self-aggrandizements borrow from Gilbert & George or Yukio Mishima. When Matsukage says in interviews that “new” and “life” are “international words,” he identifies Western assumptions about what Japanese society and artists are supposed to be. Complesso Plastico acts out our fantasies about the new life of post-Modern Japan by mimicking the hermeticism of commercial advertising. Their installation was like listening to loud music through industrial earmuffs.

Tatsuo Miyajima’s large installation, Time Bar, 1990, was an unstable, disruptive presence that dramatized and dematerialized the viewer’s space—a long, double-sided strip of numerals flickering away across the space of a darkened room. Miyajima alluded to three themes: “Keep Changing, Connect With Everything and Continue Forever.” There was no end to Time Bar’s calculations, which referred to the infinite time of Mahayana Buddhism and the electronic toylands of Tokyo.

In “Zones of Love,” media technologies were interwoven so that the represented body became a text: words were incorporated and images could be recognized as having been reproduced from other sources. The universe looked like the realization of human desires: it was a long way from the stereotype of traditional Japanese art as nature-worshipping. Mitsuko Miwa, as if to play off this image of Japanese art, paints picture-postcard landscapes of snowy mountain peaks, but she sidesteps the Sublime in favor of the personal copy. In At the Top of the Mountain, 1990, Miwa quotes, neutralizes, and reduces her subject.

The impact of Morimura, Miwa, Ara, and Kasahara lies in their intense feeling for the contemporary while, paradoxically, their sources are often aged objects from museums. The co-option of museum culture embodies many widely shared notions of dislocation; Complesso Plastico and Morimura dramatize this to the point of parody. A literal identification with cross-cultural antecedents suggests that, in mimicking their style, one could become the other. These Japanese artists are aware of Western expectations, and create the illusion of power in order to face the demands of an overinflated Other.

Charles Green