Dark mirrors from Japan at De Appel, Amsterdam (2000)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 25 February 2011
This review was previously published in Sculpture, 19(10), December 2000, pp. 78-9.

Dark mirrors from Japan at De Appel

Dark Mirrors is indeed dark. With participation by some internationally known names and some not so well known, this group show included Yukinori Yanagi, Yoshiko Shimada, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Momoyo Torimitsu, Tam Ochiai, and Yoshitomo Nara. Coinciding with the 400th anniversary of relations between the Netherlands and Japan, Dark Mirrors occurred amid several cultural exchanges— and some Asian protests concerning Japan’s role in World War II and its activity in the former Dutch colony of Indonesia.

Within this context, artworks by Yukinori Yanagi and Yoshiko Shimada continued to have immediate relevance. Yanagi included Pacific K100B (1997), exemplifying his interests in nationalism and Japanese society and exploring the events, psychology, symbols, and objects of the war. Consisting of models of several ships active in the Pacific, his installation reflects his fascination with rusted warship wrecks discovered on the ocean floor. The two-dimensional work Pacific shattered blue, employing map imagery, recalls Yanagi’s previous ant farm flag pieces and continues his statements about the myths and problems of nationalism. Yoshiko Shimada’s installation, Look at me, look at you (1995), pitted Japanese bride purity against the soiled attire of a Korean “comfort woman,” a term referring to sex slaves forced to service the World War II Imperial Army. Separated by glass and mirror manipulations, the Korean vantage point looks right through to the Japanese, while the bride simply reflects upon herself.

Drawing on more contemporary and domestic subject matter, Yoshitomo Nara pitted the Japanese cult of cute against its psycho-kids. On pieces of scrap paper and invitation cards, Nara illustrated his signature style with language like “Fuckin’ Politics” amidst sinister, doodle-like images— one child burns the Japanese flag while another drops a missile. These violent, psychological landscapes sharply contrast with a space of cuteness. Five toy- and Pop-like Little pilgrims (1999) stand in a circle, recalling a children’s sing-song, while their Pilgrim heads (1999) are mounted on the wall like prized game trophies. Meanwhile, an exaggeratedly innocent-looking, doll-like portrait painting stands opposite the drawings depicting the children’s revenge. This work led into Tam Ochiai’s homage to Andy Warhol, Death film (1995), a collage of death scenes from film classics. In a second space, Ochiai’s nine-work installation continued the dark side. Set above menacing clay balls, the works depicted growing concern about Japanese youth. A blown-up photocopy includes the following words in English— poison, gun, bomb, beat, knife— magnified and repeated.

However, Dark Mirrors wasn’t all gloom and doom. Momoyo Torimitsu’s installation lightened the atmosphere with three video monitors documenting performances of her crawling, robotic salaryman Miyata Jiro, submissively attended to by the artist, in nurse costume. She also presented performance excerpts from New York’s Wall Street (1997), London (1999), and in front of Amsterdam’s Centraal Station (2000). These are good media flash points, but what results is the artist set up as attention-grabbing, street-performing focal point— with a predictable range of onlooker responses. The conflicts of gender, labor, and generational and social-economic power are applicable to most situations, yet the content gets murky when imported into exotic Western locations.

Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s Museum of Soy Sauce Art (1999), arranged into four period rooms— Ancient, Middle Ages, Modern, and Present—looks like a miniature history of art and design. Many of the “museum’s” works tell the story of Japanese art, made in soy sauce, a quintessential Japanese product. Merging Koonsian kitsch and Japanese art, “Present” consists of a maquette for a Soy Sauce Art Museum shadowed by the Tower of Pisa turned hot-sheets hotel, which is painted an appropriately glowing pink. Overall, the installation raises questions about cultural borrowing of forms and constructions of originality, selection of historical material and museum design, and those artists designated for History and inclusion in national-oriented art shows.

Out of their cultural context, all too often Asian artists shown in the West are selected for the sexy stories generated by their work. The framing of the show runs the risk of being perceived as nationally “typical,” at the expense of other artists interested in subtle depictions and explorations of form. There are indeed many of them back in Asian capitals. Unfortunately, however, their work may not be particularly palatable for “export” to Western powers.