Art Tokyo Art Meeting I
Venue : Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo (MOT)
Organization : Tokyo Metropolitan Government/Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo, Tokyo Culture Creation Project (Tokyo Metropolitan Foundation for History and Culture)/ The Tokyo Shimbun/Tokyo University of the Arts In special cooperation with: Institute for Art Anthropology
Co-curator : Shinichi Nakazawa
AES + F, Matthew Barney, Simon Birch, Francesco Clemente, Marcus Coates, Jan Fabre, Gabríela Friðriksdóttir,Shahzia Sikander, Sputniko!, Jana Sterbak, Sarah Sze, Masakatsu Takagi, Tunga, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Naoki Ishikawa, Bharti Kher, Lee Bul, Motohiko Odani, Junya Oikawa, Jagannath Panda, Patricia Piccinini
In "Ragnarök" Jose Luis Borges wrote: "...these were the Gods returning after a centuries-long exile. Made larger by the platform, their heads thrown back and their chests thrust forward, they arrogantly received our homage.
"...one of the faces of Janus looked with distrust at the curved beak of Thoth. Perhaps aroused by our applause, one of them - I no longer know which - erupted in a victorious clatter, unbelievably harsh, with something of a gargle and a whistle. From that moment, things changed.
"It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the Gods did not know how to talk."
Just as there are times when the gods forget human language, so there are also times when humans forget it too.
This exhibition, entitled "Transformation," takes as its theme a vector by which human beings are transformed into something that is no longer human. This means primarily that they change the form of their physical bodies, or the way they act. And it poses questions about the nature of humanity in the modern world. Since the 1990s, with the development of technologies that carry the potential for vastly broadening our perceptions, like the mapping of the human genome, DNA substitution, organ transplants and cosmetic surgery, our notion of the human body has changed dramatically so that we now see it as a number of exchangeable parts.
A number of factors in the early 1990s provided a sort of prologue to our present times, including advances in computer science and biotechnology, and the collapse of communism. And one of the early exhibitions to respond to the changes that these brought about in the concept people had of their physical being was "Post Human," curated by Jeffrey Deitch in 1992. In this he cast doubt on what had been the conventional idea of personality and showed the way to a trend of new figurative art built on the impulse to dismantle the self and reconstruct it in a context of diversified values. Mike Kelley, Robert Gober, Charles Ray, Janine Antoni and many other artists had been influenced more by the conceptual performance art of the latter half of the 1960s and the '70s than by sculpture and painting. Deitch saw that natural human evolution was being supplanted by artificially generated evolution, art was bringing together computers, biotechnology and other new sciences, and the very form of human beings was subject to "improvement."
While this incorporated a degree of anxiety about the inherent uncertainty of the world, there was also a degree of faith in the creative power of artists, and an optimism in the progressive course of history under the leadership of the Western world.
The transformations seen in this exhibition do not share the single generative path seen in "Post Human." Instead it is an awareness of issues stimulated in the first decade of the 21st century due to the new opportunities provided by the changes listed below: an action in the process of posing the classical yet constantly renewed question of where the line can be drawn between that which is human and that which is not.
The world has changed tremendously since the turn of the century, and especially since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., on September 11, 2001, including that performance we've come to know as 9/11. The distinction between justice and injustice − quote, unquote − has become more obscure, and the range of mobility of personal information has expanded greatly with the increasingly global economy and the development of the Internet. Yet change has also come to the intensity and freshness of life. In particular, it no longer established ideologies and ideas that sway politics so much as biological forces responding to life in the raw, information and the global economy. Giorgio Agamben writes on the subject as follows:
"...[20th century] man has now reached his historical telos and, for a humanity that has become animal again, there is nothing left but the depoliticization of human societies by means of the unconditioned unfolding of the oikonomia, or the taking on of biological life itself as the supreme political (or rather impolitical) task."
As Agamben points out, individuals are increasingly observed and managed under the control of the human genome, the global economy and humanitarian ideology, and their individuality has been replaced by data. The physical body, meanwhile, is subject to tension between the areas that are managed and segmented by these forces and the complex personal areas incorporated in the multiple aspects of our self-identity as generated within the context of both global movements and local cultures.
The reason we feel as though the dividing line between the human and the non-human is becoming more obscure is that the relationship is weakening between the physical body and society and its customs, along with the fact that changes are taking place in the regulatory power of Western thought that has hitherto determined the pattern of humanity, and a transformation in physical perceptions due to the intrusion of information and machines. A wide range of alternative values, based on the ideas and ethical outlooks of the non-Western world, are being promoted in resistance to this. In The Open: Man and Animal, Agamben cites as an example of this Western knowledge the attempt to divide the human from the non-human. He sets out to redefine what is human by understanding how the human being itself is a simultaneously a place of ceaseless partition and division and the result of that. On the other hand, what Agamben seeks to discuss, on the premise of a non-Western perspective of reciprocity between the world of animals and the world of humans, is what Shinichi Nakazawa systematically related in his theory of "symmetric anthropology."
Changes in society and our environment in 2010 demand ever more "urgent" adaptation on our part, to the extent that one could almost equate life with change. But we are not always reconstructing ourselves consciously. We are also called on to make changes that are subconscious, in the realms of the irrational and the primitive. There has been little attention paid to these subconscious factors because Western modernism has generally overlooked them. And yet acknowledging them is an important part of the attempt to discover a here and now in which diverse modernisms can coexist in a complex mix of the global and local, but not as some kind of nostalgia for some pre-modern era that Western intelligence and logic are unable to fathom.
Taking that point still further, human beings and other living things have equal value (according to the idea that all creatures have a spirit), and in parts of the world where the cultures include ideas of reincarnation and mutual exchange from one life form to another, there is a completely different negotiation, a different political science and a different image of the threshold between human and non-human (life forms). This exhibition takes that perspective of the non-Western cultures and, through the expressions of artists from both East and West, it seeks to examine the politics raised by the themes of change.
Transformations in appearance have been commonly adopted as a theme in art around the world since ancient times. Typical approaches include humans mimicking animals and sudden changes in the way someone sees things, as we can see in the works of the artists in this exhibition. The relationship between man and tiger, between the viewer and the viewed: the relationship between the inside and outside of the cage, and the relationship between the one in control and the one who is controlled in Simon Birch's Soghomon Tehlirian (pp.114-115), or the description of the city of Venice through the eyes of a dog in Jana Sterbak’s Waiting for High Water (2005, p.p.56-57), or Masakatsu Takagi's experiment in Ymene (pp.68-71) to recreate the world of a bird that sees everything in the four primary colors, or Marcus Coates' Local Birds (p.67), in which people mimic the voices of birds, and so on. Transformations are perhaps among of the most effective artistic devices for linking the real and the ideal worlds. Transformations through which human beings become more like something that isn't human – animals, machines or totally imaginary beings – have appeared more and more frequently in the narratives of movies, videos and computer games. The transitions experienced by many of the character models appearing in the mythical tales of transformation, the separation of spirit from body (as in avatars and ghosts), as well as werewolves, can take on an exuberant reality through the expressive process of computer graphics, which has an independent impact that dissects the narrative completely. The fear of terrorism, the sensation of alienation from exposure to different cultures and the like take on the image of monsters or chimeras.
In this diverse and fluid world, transformation functions – by modifying someone or something into a different entity – to make things more comprehensible to us, and to express through imagery a transitional model of humanity that cannot be dissected through discourse. Many of the artists from 15 different countries who are featured in this exhibition come from places that might be considered remote from the Western mainstream, be they from Asia, South America, Australia, or from northern and eastern parts of Europe, including Russia. The relationships they have with their own parts of the world and with their local cultures are by no means uniform. Their approach to transformation and the way they express it is extremely varied due to many differences in their experiences. Some belong to the digital generation, while others grew up before the widespread use of computers; some are migrants, while others have lived in the same places all of their lives. Their works demonstrate these differences, not only in their forms and acts, but also in their perspectives (of the world) and their appearance. They are linked by the forms that are generated by a world of reality and imaginative power.
"Conspiracy to recall life: the current state of transformation in artistic practice" Yuko Hasegawa (Excerpt from the catalog)