Yoshiko Shimada: No more sumimasen (1997)

R. J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 20 October 2011
This article was previously published in World Sculpture News, 3(1), pp. 20-2 in 1997 with the title "No more ’I’m sorry’".

Yoshiko Shimada

At a recent gallery-opening talk, Yoshiko Shimada presented her latest installation, The Labor of Love, to a mixed crowd of art people and social activists. Set in the background was a white cloth enclosure with a glowing light symbolizing the woman’s role as a mother: a pure, warm, devotional light, protector of family virtue— a sanctuary in a difficult world. During her chat, Shimada chose a spicier nest to sit on: a circular, red silk futon, reminiscent of “love” hotels that strategically dot Japan. Sharing the nest with performance artist / prostitute BuBu, the art conversation quickly moved to two social issues the work raises in Japan: expectations of women, as either idealized mother pitted against sexual woman as whore— the latter often commercialized like take-out-service.

She isn’t one to pull any punches. At the talk, an esteemed art critic, one who can affect access to Japan’s art market system of critics, curators, and collectors, took offense at all this talk about social issues— and not about art— and threatened to leave if it did not stop. An art-fight ensued, resulting in the critic storming out of the gallery, or off the set. The gossip and effects continue today.

Yoshiko Shimada doesn’t seem to hold anything back. Consider the following subjects: “comfort” women (a euphemism for women tricked or forced into becoming multi-service prostitutes for Japanese soldiers); dutiful Masochists (1993) bowing for forgiveness at the Imperial Palace as Tokyo is obliterated at the end of World War II juxtaposed against their contemporary sexual equivalent; the role of Japanese women as active collaborators in the war effort; Japanese women caught in a system defining them as either idealized mother or whore; the commercialization of female sexuality in Japan, and, most recently, a scathing critique of Japan’s role as colonizer of Korea. Stripping away sumimasen (a word in Japanese, loosely translated as I’m sorry, [a phrase both used genuinely and insincerely]), Shimada takes these subjects— these controversies— and serves them for lunch.

Yet, Yoshiko Shimada has not always approached subject matter that would rattle Japan as a system. As a student on a scholarship at Scripps College, Claremont, California, she developed an interest in printmaking. “I liked the idea of making art a tool of communication— not some precious, exclusive ‘art for art’s sake’ stuff.” When she returned to Japan, she concentrated on creating what she calls “expressionistic mindscapes” and became disillusioned with art, and in particular content, and stopped altogether. “I became more and more dissatisfied with what I was doing. I just couldn’t see any necessity in my art.”

It wasn’t until about two years later, when her work, as she puts it, really began. “In 1988, Emperor Showa got ill, and Japan was suddenly in such a strange, nationalistic state. I physically felt ill the years 1988-1989 because of this. I was thinking about the meaning of being Japanese in relation to our past history, and then being a woman in this society. I was not thinking of this in terms of artistic expression, but the more I thought about it, the stronger my urge to express it in some way developed. I thought I would burst if I couldn’t express my thoughts. It was the first time art became necessary.

This initiated a strong purpose and a body of work comprised of largely installations and prints examining historical and contemporary Japan. Overall, the outcome has examined the effects of cultural and sexual dominance and submission. In Comfort Women— Women of Conformity (1994), several spunk tissues surround a well-worn futon and soiled kimono and allude to a different kind of “fast-food” service. Yet upon reading the title, we realize that this is a symbolic portrayal of perhaps one of the [biggest] victims: that of the sex-servicing slave, coerced and, even kidnapped, to supply the Japanese troops. Adding insult to injury, the Japanese government’s consistent denial of such acts, infuriating other Asians, makes the installation only more graphic in its cultural context.

In Look at Me, Look at You (1995), a Western bridal gown, like the ones which can be seen in any bridal shop in Japan, hangs in front of a mirror and we can imagine a young bride admiring her reflection on her idyllic day amongst family and friends. A red stream of cloth flows through the confines of her dress, symbolizing her intact virginity. Yet, behind the mirror is another story entirely. Wickedly juxtaposed, a soiled dress for the comfort woman, its red stream ripped apart, tattered, and public— for all to see. Condoms are strewn on the floor. In the background, what appears like a pleasantly textured and pleated window is certainly not so. On closer inspection, we see 600 condoms pasted together on the wall, shockingly A Month’s Work (1995) for a comfort slave. From this abstraction, if we still don’t get it, Yoshiko Shimada takes us further and straight to the victim herself, by means of a cropped facial photograph above. While on the one side the Japanese woman is portrayed in her reflected state, on the other side we see the violated staring right through the mirror, straight at the “collaborator” in the war effort, appearing like a deranged music box figurine, oblivious— in her idealized form.

At the group show, Gender Beyond Memory, at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, which presented a variety of other perspectives, Yoshiko Shimada added the element of sound to her work. Entitled Black Boxes-Voice Recorder (1994), Shimada presents a series of black boxes referring to the sex slaves. Some are sealed by chains in slavery, and progress, like documentation, to an opened box with the contents revealed. Here, Shimada crops a close-up facial photograph of an aging, former sex slave to reveal truly exhausted eyes. However, while she crops out the mouth of the woman, symbolizing her historical silence, (or perhaps the Japanese government’s closed ears), she gives the woman a voice. The result is powerful.

“The installation was very moving,” said Philadelphia-based independent curator, Dr. Judith Stein. “Although I don’t understand Japanese, I was brought close to tears by the very tone of voice and emotion-drenched cadences of the taped narrative. I liked Shimada’s use of actual boxes, both as real objects that hold secrets, and as symbols of the women, alluding to the traditional concept of the woman as a vessel, with a secret and hidden inner life.” [...]

In addition to installations, the bulk of Yoshiko Shimada’s work consists of prints. However, the content she chooses is equally forceful. Drawing upon historical photographs from old newspapers, government, propaganda material, and military photographs mainly from the Imperial War Museum Archives, she often juxtaposes these images with others that offer an alternative view of official and “created” history. Instead of pinning the blame on individuals, or even groups, she questions a system that creates victims, one that continues to this day. Manipulating these images to her desired effect, she creates strong focal points and contrasts. In Shooting Lesson (1992), she shows kimono-clad “collaborators” in the former colony of Korea, lined up at a firing range, protecting themselves from possible attacks by “natives.” In Baby Contest II (1995), we see the collaborators participating in a contest to see who can produce the most children over a period of time: their duty and sacrifice to the Emperor.

Further, in an earlier work, Yoshiko Shimada more blatantly questions the submissive idealization of Emperor Showa and the nationalistic fervor that occurred around his death, and the Toyama Museum of Modern Art’s self-censorship of a controversial artist. This artist included images of the Emperor, sometimes juxtaposed them against nude females, and angered more conservative elements including the very dangerous right-wing, resulting in the Museum burning catalogues that showed the artist’s work. Shimada herself got angry. She took an archival photograph of the Emperor, placed it side by side, and rubbed out the face and imposed a red X for the series. With the image on the right, A Picture to be Burnt (1993), half of it was destroyed, she sent the work and ashes to the museum in protest.

Under her sex-slave theme, Fujiyama Geisha (1993) contrasts an archival photograph taken by the United States Navy on its takeover of Japan; in the background is a previous meeting of Axis leaders, a geisha is in the foreground to provide entertainment. In Tea and Sympathy (1995), she contrasts the “good intentions” of Japanese women first serving tea to soldiers above, then at bottom, giving donations indirectly to the former sex slaves, suggesting a payoff scheme to cover up the government’s responsibility. In the background, the victim hauntingly looks out at us.

From this work, Yoshiko Shimada takes us a step further in history questioning prostitution and the pervasive sex industry in Japan today. In R+R (1996), she presents three contrasting images from top to bottom, each with a large letter “R” on either side of a representational image. At the top, R+R (rest and recuperation) shows us a comforting image of a nurse. In the middle, R+R (rest and reproduction) presents the body of a naked woman and the physical effect of being a mother. Lastly, at the bottom, in R+R (rest and recreation) we see a skimpily dressed, young woman ready for “fun.”

Perhaps what makes this work so unnerving is their level of restraint. Her technique creates distant perceptions of time and place, and we don’t immediately understand what these images are about. Looking closely at the work, and reading her explanation of the work next to the image (by this time we are pulled in), we realize how truly haunting these images are. This delayed reaction causes a strong impression that cannot be ignored, and makes us not only question Japan’s history, society, and system, but also our own. [...]

In the earliest phases of this work, Yoshiko Shimada received virtually no support within the conservative Japanese art system, which has subjected itself to self-censorship for the fear of threats such as the one experienced in Toyama. Most curatorial positions have a rather low status in Japan, which means that bringing in risky work, particularly that which challenges the construction of history and society, can be not only questioned, but as civil servants, curators could end up in a basement filing room somewhere. Reviews of her work mysteriously didn’t appear, even in a newspaper that sponsored the show. Support from the fringes of Japan, however, and particularly from outside, Western-oriented circles extending to writers, curators, and collectors, have championed this work, in a sort of intervention, and articles and reviews have appeared not only in a variety of art magazines but also in the Los Angeles Times, Asian Wall Street Journal, and Newsweek. Concurrently, she met Hidenori Ota, her first Japanese collector, now her gallery representative, who represents among others, the legendary Yayoi Kusama, who had been literally ignored by the Japanese art system after her return to Japan in the 1970s. Since then, the number of Shimada’s Japanese collectors has increased and she is now regularly showing her work not only overseas, but also in Japan. While self-censorship may still occur in the Japanese art system, this hasn’t held Shimada back; if anything, it has made her more determined than ever. [...]