From December 7th to January 10th, Kenichi Kondo, curator of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, presented a series of young Japanese artists at the Sala 1 – International Center for Contemporary Art in Rome, as part of the review Videozoom Japan. It was an overview of selected and formally interesting artistic production coming from the Rising Sun realized over the past decade, which focused on issues related to the “re-framing of daily life” (as suggested by the subtitle of this review).

In the Japanese culture where work and leisure seem to be more streamlined than they are in Italy, daily life also appears to be more formal and controlled. Functional gestures and objects you use constantly fill a void sometimes symbolic, sometimes more subtly concrete, which pervades the solid and organized routine of the urban day which is presented as a compact combination of things, places and people. But at the same time it never makes a clear distinction between people and inanimate objects.

“Everything is everything”. Everything is everything. So there is no difference between things, people, animals, everyday objects and routine. Only things fill (or empty?) the void. The video by Koki Tanaka called Everything Is Everything, is a work on the operation of “emptying the void” which is expressed (and fragmented) coolly and dispassionately by performing a series of manipulations of some of the most “common” objects of “everyday” life.

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Plastic cups, shoes, garbage cans, brooms, chairs, more chairs, food, bath mats, plastic, paper plates and toilet paper. All the trivial objects of everyday life are used. An endless series of worthless objects are discovered as part of our lives. Their presence is both necessary and important (like food) and amorphous substance, so amorphous that the artist repeatedly treats it as meaningless.

Daily life is (pessimistically) meaningless. Or the “emptiness” is its sense. Or again, the gap has been “created” in daily life. By whom? Well, by contemporary people? How? Through processes of society? Critics and acceptance, rebellion and registration go together and exploring the gap can be an act of extreme courage. The Empire of Signs, Roland Barthes used to call it in his famous essay on Japan.

The signs of “countdown Tokyo” are today the gaudy numbers printed on American University t-shirts, which are widely used by young people in Tokyo. Thanks to accurate research, Youki Okumura filmed a sequence of numbers ranging from 10 to 0, seeking the individuality (the act of dressing) that brings us back to zero.

And it is zero, the zero of daily life, the zero of the city, small anonymous acts that catches the attention of Atsushi Suzuki in So What?; this is a work composed of hundreds of small “ripples” of daily life which produce a quantity of hyper-trivial micro-events. Sometimes they are amazing, sometimes extraordinary (as when in an anonymous landscape in the suburbs a giraffe emerges suddenly, without any sense, like a surrealist apparition), but even if often out of place they can become the very meaning of a “place”.

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But it is not what is out of the ordinary which is “extraordinary.” Fragments of admissions, gestures, actions and shapes are extraordinary, these fragments which are always classified according to the minimalism of Japanese tradition are very effective in describing the texture of randomness that represents cities today.

So, random signs, like the ones of action painting which Takehito Koganezawa tracks in stop motion on glass with a common daily shaving soap. In Paint it black and Erase we face serial paintings dated and deleted every day as aesthetic gestures, renewable and forgettable.

Mariko Tomomasa with his Have a meal with father, revisits the relationship with his father using “narrative memory”, repeating the same scene of a dinner and a dialogue and calling a different old man every time to represent his father. The video is of an amazing filmic quality, without betraying the essence of his video nature; the men chosen to play the role of the father have the same quality of presence (conscious and tired) as the characters in the films by Wong Kar Wai and the same strategy of comparison between imaginary and reality in the understanding of the real.

A bit like in the film In the Mood for Love (“cult movie” by Wong Kar Wai) where in order to understand the movie you have to live and live again reality, because nobody really understands it while it happens. You can refer to it talking about a performance of “film” where the action does not seek the truth, but the forms (verbal and behavioral) which represented it.

Saki Satom in From B to H, interprets a dance (contemporary and abstract) on popular tunes which takes place in an elevator between one floor and another of an austere skyscraper office block. The performance is interrupted each and every time the elevator stops and the doors open letting in some formal and gray presences of daily work: employees, managers, etc … When the elevator stops, the dance stops as well becoming once again working behavior. The performance is a nice reflection on the contrast between the world of work, his schedule, constraints, controls, fantasy.

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In parallel, in the work Mum by Meiro Koizumi, an employee, on his return home in the evening, starts a telephone conversation with his mother. Suddenly, the employee becomes someone else, a soldier on service in one of the many wars taking place in the world speaks to his mother. And, by mimicking the sounds of a dramatic battle, he dies just as dramatically. The fantastic prevails over daily life? This is what this video seems to suggest; drama is inserted at a time we suppose is one of the greyest ones of daily life. All this suggests some interesting ideas. For example that the perception of the drama of others can be an escape from everyday life. And that the psychological participation a form of compensation…

Finally, we asked some questions to Kenichi Kondo, the curator of the exhibition, intentionally focusing the conversation on the relevance of video in the Japanese contemporary art scene.

Lorenzo Taiuti: How important is video today in the work of contemporary Japanese artists?

Kenicho Kondo: Well, video is becoming increasingly important in Japan. You will be able to understand the importance of video as a medium in our country today when you see the work by the video artist Tabaimo which will be presented at the Japanese pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year.

Lorenzo Taiuti: Japanese art is usually formalist. How would you describe the group of selected videos in the exhibition from a formal point of view?

Kenicho Kondo: Some of the artists in the exhibition Videozoom Japan are very focused on the formal aesthetics of their work: Koki Tanaka, Hiraki Sawa and Naoyuki Tsuji. But I can assure you that other artists such as Meiro Koizumi and Atsushi Suzuki are not particularly attracted by formal aesthetics.

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Lorenzo Taiuti: Do the new digital media act as a stimulus for contemporary Japanese artists and do they lead them to produce new types of work?

Kenicho Kondo: Well, yes and no. Exonimo and other artists who participate in exhibitions at the InterComunication Center in Tokyo, use the latest technologies and actually create new types of work which are rather interesting. Others do not use them. Personally, I do not think that digital media have a great influence in the Japanese art as a whole …

Lorenzo Taiuti: Does video have a market in Japan today?

Kenicho Kondo: I think so. A relatively small market compared to the market of painting (as everywhere else in the world), and let’s also take into consideration the fact that the Japanese art market is also smaller than that of England or Germany. Having said that it must be added that this market is growing steadily.

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To conclude video is a vastly popular means but not central in the Japanese art market, as is also true in Italy. But the variety of its possible uses, makes it an interesting tool to bridge the narrative gap between the object and the visual languages of communication in which we are immersed daily. While the festival continues with a gradual shift to the fantastic, the most compelling works are placed in the “cold” analysis which is even frosty, of what daily life can be like when not enriched by the imagination. Cataloguing, enumerating, simulation with analytical results are thus the most appropriate tools to face up to this “Below Zero” reality in which we live.