Edited by Eri Kawade, former contributor Frieze Magazine and former co-editor Bijutsu Techo
Toward the end of 2016 Yokohama Museum of Art presented a curated exhibition that tackled the contemporary context of the body. In a year that U.S. drones reportedly dropped a staggering 26,171 bombs in defense of the American body politic; imagine how many bodies were destroyed in these bombings. The exhibition titled Body/Play/Politics ran from October until mid-December though not touching directly upon the discourse of mutilated bodies in the context of postmodernist warfare, did in some way relate to the general context of debased and objectified bodies that have become historically normalized in our time. Using a wide variety of media ranging from installation, photography to video; selected artists namely, Yinka Shonibare MBE, Yee I-Lann, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Uudam Tran Nguyen, Ishikawa Ryuichi, and Tamura Yuichiro responded to this timely problem.
The exhibition curator Kimura Eriko took the departure point of the exhibition from the award-winning novel titled Kombini Ningen – a novel that tells the story of a woman whose subjectivity doesn’t seem to fit the collective body that requires her to follow social norms considered acceptable in modern Japanese society. Having difficulty conforming, nevertheless, the protagonist still strives to fit in and it is in this context that the curatorial framework operates, because according to Kimura, “the human body is by no means autonomous.”
To breakdown and problematize her premise, Kimura has to categorize the exhibition into three parts, namely: “Mythologies and Folktales”; “Memory”; “Hybrid”. Altogether these parts delve into her devised hypothetical question: “What constructs a body/group and what designates its behavior?” The six artists selected have their own equally qualitative response to the problem posed by the curator. However, I will only focus on two artists that intensely articulated the question about the body and its subjectivity.
In the last categorical part of the exhibition: Hybrid, documentary photographer Ishikawa Ryuichi showed us the untold life of two unusual bodies through his empathic lens. The portraits shot on color film and installed in a documentary narrative order together with a hand written ethnographic note on the side of the photographs demonstrated, without a doubt, the problem that Kimura would like to tell.
The first series of portraits titled, “Little Daddy” portrays a strange old man’s life, one completely ignored by society. Abandoned and broken, he only finds solace in his world of favorite pets, cats and birds, that is until Ishikawa came into his life to share his reclusive world with him. Unfortunately, little daddy passed away just in the moment after he made contact with the outside world through Ishikawa and his photography. He died alone with no known relatives to gather his body. The next series of portraits was “Guppy,” an eccentric old lady who literally created her own world and image that mainstream society had ascribed her. Guppy embodied all the ugly images that were thrown upon her which eventually turned her into a monster, one whom only tigers dear to venture near. In this instance the tiger is Ishikawa and his empathic lens.
By making the different visible through his empathic lens, Ishikawa successfully scrutinized the homogeneity of Japanese society that systematizes exclusion leading to a number of bodies to break down and be forgotten. This systematic parameter that sets the measure of Japanese societal standards in relation to the body/behavior is a classic example of how the body/behavior is structured by power, following Foucault’s notion of Biopolitics. But is it possible to reverse the picture; instead of society configuring the body/behavior standards, will it be the subjective body through the notion of affect that configures a society?
In Yee I-Lann’s “Imagining Pontianak: I’ve got a Sunshine on a Cloudy Day” – a multi-channel video work that categorically belongs to the first part of the exhibition: “Mythologies and Folklores”, tells us that this powerful subjectivity is capable of generating collective speech important to a bottom-up structure of an empowered type of society. I-Lann, a local artist from Sabah Borneo, reimagined a Southeast Asian folklore of a vengeful supernatural female figure known as Pontianak to discuss the female body and its possibilities in relation to the male dominated society.
In this video work, the artist gathered a group of young Malaysian women each of whom was projected onto a seven-channel video incarnating the Pontianak. In Malaysian folklore, Pontianak is believed to be a female ghoul who tears off male penises, especially men who have hurt women. The medium shot profile of each woman in the video, their identities are hidden behind a wig of hair, which according to art critic John Berger, the hair in a man’s gaze is described as a measuring device of female objectivity. However, in this case, it enabled each woman to express their subjectivities. Each woman talked frankly, exchanging their disagreements with patriarchy especially the societal roles given to the female body. This is in contrast to Ishikawa’s portrait photography where faces are revealed to emphasize subjectivity whereas I-Lann, on the other hand, hides it by not confusing identity with subjectivity. The faceless women in her video work empowered them to express their own subjectivity, so powerful enough to affect and contaminate even the viewers, especially those who can relate and empathize with the woman’s burden.
However, Kimura Eriko understood these bodies only from each of their own histories that defined them and destined them to react only on the grounds of history. Nevertheless, in order to substantiate Kimura’s premise and her subconscious desire to end societal pressure, it is necessary to expand her ideas and take a different reading of the exhibition to make sense of the body as a potent vector in generating a collective speech. As in Yee I-Lann’s work, Pontianak and Ishikawa Ryuichi’s photographs that teach us to use the empathic lens and Felix Guattari’s Schizoanalytic Cartographies, the assemblage of six artists chosen by Kimura Eriko are potent vectors of subjectivity that operate beyond history. The affective pulse of their body is the very heartbeat of Schizoanalytic Cartographies, in which “people are able to leave their initial territories and articulate original expressions in problematic interaction with others on a multiplicity of grounds, so as to resist, create, propose alternatives and also escape into their evolving singularities, despite the normalizing forces that are continually brought to bear on them by capitalist societies.” By mapping out these subjective bodies in their assemblage outside the cartography of history, a different way of looking at the body will be possible. This possibility traces the visibility of a lively empowered body actively engaging in a configurative form of politics and play that interrupts the normalization of debasing bodies’ characteristics to history.
22 January 2017