Anyone who’s been to Japan has raved about the Japanese’s impeccable manners and how they see every detail through in the things they do — from presentation and art down to substance and function. And while these are qualities I appreciate very much, sometimes through all their perfection, I find myself wishing I knew exactly what they were thinking. When every train ride is dead silent, and your stay is not long enough to break through the high personal walls that Asians tend to have, you start to wonder about the things that get their gut.
Art, it turns out, can give you a really good peek into this, if you happen to walk into the right exhibit. Comprised by 20 artist groups from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the Roppongi Crossing 2016: My Body, Your Voice is a contemporary art exhibition that seeks to explore the “relationships between the world and one’s self.” This is done by “shining a spotlight on individual events and stories… through which alternative histories, images on physical body and gender, as well as alternative landscapes emerge.”
What I particularly liked about this exhibition was the emphasis on narrative. Every work, regardless of the medium, sought to impart a story or a way of thinking — and the artists and curators made sure these contexts clearly translated on a very personal level, taking you on journeys, and having you inhabit different head spaces.
The first collection that struck me upon entering was a series of Okinawan portraits, taken by Ishikawa Ryuichi. Each photograph was taken and edited in such a way that when you looked into each face, it drowned out all the surrounding noise, and all you could see and feel was the presence of the person looking right back at you. They had an immediacy and nakedness that you probably wouldn’t have picked up on in real life.
In the same space, Katayama Mari, an artist who was born with developmental challenges and had both legs amputated at age nine, created dolls modelled after her own body, perhaps in an attempt to objectify her own form, manually assembling, disassembling, and seeing it represented outside of herself.
In Takayama Akira’s The City and its Tower, video clips of overseas workers from Iran, Ghana, Turkey, and Vietnam were shown side by side. Working on the construction for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, they each talked about the myths and legends from their homelands about the building of cities and monuments, such as the Tower of Babel.
The exhibition also held intimate, domestic stories such as The Interview About Grandmothers by Momose Aya, who was intrigued by the fact that everyone has two grandmother figures in their lives. In the short video, she interviewed both of hers separately in the quiet of their homes, unfolding their relationship from the first time the women met (“Well, I don’t dislike this person”) to how they bond today over complaining about their husbands and everything else they have to say (“She loves her son very much. She can learn to be more frank”).
An active walk through history
In The Educational System of An Empire, Fujii Hikaru fused together two videos. One was a 1940’s film (The Educational System of Japan) created by the US military to better understand their then enemy. Fujii alternated this with clips of a 2015 workshop conducted with Korean students in Seoul, wherein they watched footage of war and torture, and reenacted them immediately afterwards. The students’ reactions varied from embarrassment, laughter, to breaking down in tears with no warning (a good suggestion for re-incorporating and reviving Martial Law in our current education system?).
One project that I was definitely surprised to find was (Im) possible Baby by Hasegawa Ai, who is currently a researcher at the MIT Media Lab. A work of both art and science, it used the genetic material of an actual same sex couple to project the appearances, personalities, and traits of their theoretical offspring. While these “impossible babies” are currently beyond reach, scientific research shows that it may not be a fantasy forever. If and when they become possible, society will then have to deal with ethical and moral hurdles.
Advanced discussions in a seemingly sexist world
This particular work surprised me, because on the surface Japan seemed to be very sexist and stubborn about their gender roles. I could barely even shop because girls (and by extension, the clothes at their boutiques) were expected to be really cute and feminine. So it was quite mindblowing to find that they were actually talking about the possibility of same-sex couples having their own children. The first part of the work showed fictional family portraits, with the accompanying scientific research below. And in a separate corner, they had a video stream surrounded by speech bubbles of various opinions the artist had collected on the matter.
“God doesn’t exist, so it’s up to us to make our own opportunities.”
“Treating such an issue as an expression of art disgusts me.”
“Why not? What is so different between IVF and a baby from iPSC?”
“Not getting married or having children was the special privilege of homosexuals like me, so I hate that there would be arguments about whether or not to have offspring. I don’t need choice.” (At first, I found this sentiment stupid, but then I realized that as a straight, cisgender woman who was afforded these privileges, I also had to deal with the societal expectation to make use of them — expectations that I had to fight off, if I didn’t want them.)
There was so much more to be seen, from light show installations that didn’t make outright sense, but nevertheless stirred things inside you, to impossible-to-win games where the real goal was to laugh and consider that maybe it was okay to be incomplete. A bulk of experiencing art that strikes you is being there yourself, and not necessarily being able to articulate everything once you leave. I walked out of the museum and back into the silence outside with so many stories and voices swirling around simultaneously in my head, as if I had read so many books or had a wave of souls suddenly bared to me in the span of only a few hours.
Roppongi Crossing 2016: My Body, Your Voice is ongoing until July 10 at the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, Japan. Visit http://www.mori.art.museum/ for more information.
These photographs are licensed under “Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-NoDerivative Works 2.1 Japan.”
Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (14 May 2016)
Photos by Cate de Leon