You go up to the 4th floor, you turn left after getting out of the elevator to look at the description of the show. There, you can see the work which intrigued me the most in the show: A statesmanlike, official looking portrait of President Obama placed high up on the wall. Beneath it, people gather to read the description about the show.
“Why is he there?” I ask my wife. We are at one of the most prestigious cultural institutions where, at least to me, openness and examinations of possibilities should be encouraged, and the shapes, positions and the contexts of humanity in our lives should be explored without any authoritative boundaries. I was disturbed to see him introducing the show, greeting a few thousand museum goers everyday. For a starter, this president joins a meeting every week with the people from the spy agencies, generals and other officials to discuss who should be assassinated with remote controlled planes. This president engages, without due process, the executions of suspects which include the US citizens and innocent bystanders. The attacks are often aimed at wedding ceremonies, funerals, and they often include “double tapping”, a war crime according to international laws, in which a successive attack is aimed at rescuers, desperate relatives in tears and the brave people who volunteer to help the injured victims. My wife sort of avoids the question saying “I don’t know”. We often get into arguments when I start talking about things of this nature.
I really hated to ruin the day with a fight. After all, it was my birthday and she came out to pick me up in the city where I was working for a week. It was nice to see her after a week of separation, but I felt the burning anger and sadness thinking about the deaths and the destruction, the words “why is he there?” just dropped out of my mouth. My wife might have rolled her eyes, but that was not unusual. I also forgot about it after 5 seconds. We were back to our fun outing.
Moving along, looking at art works, I might have taken a picture or two. I thought one of the cardboard sculptures on the wall was nice. My wife complained that she didn’t like anything except for the pots with dinosaurs on them. I wanted to say that some of the works seem to be like blue prints or recipes. They seemed to include instructions or narratives but they didn’t actually create the magical tastes in my mouth, or the profound shock of transformation in my head. But before I could actually open my mouth and say it, we weren’t walking together anymore. I guess I tend to think in a day dreamy manner sometimes, my wife would get mad because I think in my head and I fail to actually say it, resulting in, well, ignoring her without meaning to do so. In short, we were just appreciating the art works in the show.
Anyway, we moved to the 3rd floor. By that time, however, I was feeling something again. I noticed that I was repeating the words “why was he there?”. The portrait: his piercing eyes, the image of the people swarming beneath him. And I almost forgot to mention this but you could also hear low ominous sound effects coming from a sculpture around the corner adding to the undeniable unsettling feeling. Come to think of it, the placement was sort of odd too, stuck at the corner, sort of too high as if it was calling your attention to bring out the question “why is he there?”
I had to tell my wife that I had to go back to the 4th floor to see what the portrait was all about. A big mistake, of course. Later I was accused of leaving her wondering in the museum alone. But the question kept repeating in my head “why was he there”. I could not help it.
This is what the description on the wall said:
“Many of Dawound Bey’s photographs–including the others on view elsewhere on this floor–reflect on the nature of portraiture. They explore the limits of what the genre can and cannot do, using it to pose complex questions of identity and our relationships to history. Bey’s portait of Barack Obama is, by contrast, an excellent but straightforward example of the genre. It is included here as a tactical move within curator Michelle Grabner’s quasi-pedagogical strategy; Grabner notes that this image can be viewed as “a signifier of both civil unity and political and racial instability, a punctuation of nationalism and hierarchy in a shifting field of artworks that occupy the fourth floor””.
OK, so the museum does acknowledge the portrait as a “punctuation of nationalism”, and “a signifier of both political and racial instability”. But the president’s portrait, which is positioned to preside over one of the most important cultural events in the city, is also seen as a symbol of “civil unity”.
There is a civil unity based on justice and humanity and a civil unity based on violence and fear.
The Obama administration has succeeded in rounding up the entire population of the planet under the vast NSA global network. The government is collecting everything we do online and more. They send out bugs to infect our devices to spy. They infiltrate democratic movements to hunt down dissenting voices. They threaten journalists with unjust laws and imprisonment. And as the elected officials talk about peace and democracy, they keep 1000 military bases across the globe with 57% of our taxes going to the defense budget. The US fights numerous covert and overt wars, all of them are offensive and are based on the special interests of the multinational corporations and the giant banks. At home, the police force is militarized. We have 2 million people, mostly minorities and mostly for victimless crimes, incarcerated in domestic prisons, the running of which is out sourced to private corporations, providing virtually free labor for the major US corporations. OK, I’ll stop but my point is that it’s the “civil unity” by the rule of fear.
There is no word about any of that in the 2014 Whitney Biennial. We may talk about gay rights. We may talk about women’s rights. We may express and explore the boundaries of our culture and our perceptions. But we are unified under the piercing eyes of our commander in chief. Why is he there? Because he is the symbol of our corporate cage. We are free and creative as long as we stay inside of our cage. And the more I see our moral and ethical obligations neglected in our art community by our silence, the brighter the president’s portrait on the 4th floor shines.
Of course, that is just all in my head. But I fantasize and I’m dying to want to believe that one of the curators of the 2014 Whitney Biennial sees it through. She is compelled to step out of the cage and poses important questions as a responsible human being: Why is he there? Don’t we know what is going on? What is art for? What is culture when our basic values are based on corporate interests? Don’t we care?
As we left the museum, the entire building seemed to be a giant art monster with President Obama’s portrait as the head and the long line leading out of the door as its tail.
This story really moved me. It happened in the 90s in Japan. The economic bubble of the 80s had burst and the corporate oriented restructuring and austerity measures gave some people a newly found reality of surviving outside of the corporate routines. The underground station of Shinjuku, Tokyo was filled with cardboard houses populated by the homeless people.
It’s a story of young artists who themselves lived on the edge of the corporate cage, relentlessly trying to be true to humanity…
I came across their website recently and the English translation was missing in the descriptions of their art works which are crucial in telling the story of those artists. I offered to translate some of them and here is a first set of images which tells about how they got started.
Photos are by Naoko Sakokawa.
The very first Shinjuku Underground Station West exit Cardboard painting.
Initially, I wasn’t intending on painting those cardboard houses at the underground corridors at all. I was set to street-paint in Shinjuku, guerrilla style. I walked around Shinjuku with paint cans with “TAKEWO”. But the seemingly open, unrestricted big city didn’t have any place for the guerrilla paint job. We looked and looked but it was all systematic. We just walked around aimlessly with disappointment.
We just stood around hopelessly. The city was gigantic and oppressive. As we followed the river of people in despair, we came across the village of cardboard houses at the Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit. We stumbled onto one of them, knocking the cardboard door:
“What do you want?” A large man with a menacing face answered.
“I’m an artist and I would like to paint on your cardboard house,” I answered.
“Like I said, I would like to paint on your cardboard house.”
“OK, go ahead.”
That’s how our cardboard house painting got started. We, “TAKEWO” and I, spent all night painting two of the cardboard houses that night. We kept hearing distant sounds of people screaming and shattering glass, and the underground corridor was filled with the police siren and the ambulance siren every once in a while.
In the summer night, our rebellion was born in the underground of the mega city.
This piece is considered a representative work of ours that survived the forced removal of homeless people by the city of Tokyo on 1/24/1996. It’s THE Shinjuku Underground Station West Exit cardboard house painting.
Yamane mentioned the words “Left Eye of Shinjuku”. The image of those words got the three of us started. It was an all night live painting. The battle of us three. It was so intense that we drew some audience.
Across from the West Exit rotary there is a monument called “An Eye of Shinjuku”. It’s the right eye. And the one we painted is the left one. Makes sense. It’s the pair. The giant eyes had emerged in the Shinjuku underground corridor. The underground became a creature with a soul, baring its teeth against fucking Japan.
Just in case, I must say that the “Left” of “The Left Eye of Shinjuku” has nothing to do with the left wing. So those middle aged dick-wad lefties dragging around the 60s shouldn’t mix this up with that. We are not piece of shit like you all. By the way, it’s odd but when we finished painting this one, we somehow felt that when this painting is gone, that’ll be the time this village will be gone.
The Left Eye of Shinjuku which survived the forced removal had prevailed as a symbol of the underground kingdom.
Then the big fire of February of 1998 came. Soaked in water, the painting was disposed of by the City of Tokyo, and the village has disappeared as well. The Left Eye of Shinjuku really died with the cardboard village.
A piece made with circles.
I wished my work to be weirdly “inevitable” to the time and the space, not to be about my personal ideology, my philosophy or my process.
I drew lots of circles. A circle doesn’t have edges. It’s round, and it looks the same from any angle. And it’s somewhat humorous. I was edgy but I drew lots of circles.
When we become excessive, we lose the essence. I also wanted my expression to include a healthy dose of looseness and a sense of humor. But that was pretty tough. We often ended up painting with a grabbing-someone-by-the-neck sort of an attitude.
Myself screaming savagely with a knife in my hand, myself being inclusive with a sense of humor, many thoughts went through my mind.
But I felt that the experience which transformed me positively the most is when I touched the warmth of humanity.
This might be a picture when the cardboard village was being removed.
Far into the picture there is the word “sin” (罪) and to the left, there is the word “no”(無), the piece reads “innocent”(無罪). It was a piece done as a reaction to the not guilty verdict of 1/24/1996 to an activist for protesting against the removal of the cardboard village. Later the verdict was reversed. The activist became the sinner and the city committed a sin of eradicating the cardboard village. A sin is manufactured according to the convenience of the society. The society is made up with individuals. While we fight among each other, we are harming the planet. It might be correct that we are all born sinners.
In Movie on
Last night, I saw a documentary movie, Campaign 2 by Soda Kazuhiro, and it was in many ways remarkable. First of all it was very funny. It owes a lot to the main subject, Yama san’s down to earth, understated yet dry sense of humor.
Yama san is a 46 year old man with a rather unusual history. After failing to get into the most prestigious University in Japan, the Tokyo University, 5 times, he manages to get in. This is where he meets the director of the movie Soda Kazuhiro. Soda describes him as a bohemian sort of man who he only saw at parties but never in the class rooms. As a result, he spends a few extra years to graduate. One thing we must understand is that being a graduate of the Tokyo University promises one a special social standing. Many intellectuals and bureaucrats are graduates of the institution. This peculiarity leads to his next spectacular event of becoming a city council man backed by the giant political party, LDP, which has reigned the post WWII Japan. The LDP has been covertly supported by the US ensuring its strategic role in Asia economically and militarily which of course include the nuclear polity of Japan. It represents the traditional values of the post war Japan, the consumerism and the corporatism. Soda describes his candidacy basically as a puppet of LDP faithfully following the guidelines of the machine in his campaign. This unusual event becomes Soda’s successful movie Campaign, which precedes the current film.
However, in Campaign 2, Yama san appears as an angry man–although he is always smily and likable–who is disillusioned by the corruption, the nation’s inability to deal with the nuclear accidents, the political structure which makes the meaningful political process impossible and so on. He is no longer backed by LDP. He runs as an independent candidate with 100000 Yen out of his pocket. It poignantly depicts the ridiculousness of being rational in a society where logic and humanity have ceased to be the measures of the social fabric. Yama san narrates the movie in humorously self-deprecating way, pointing out the surreal fact that the air people breath contains twice as much radio active materials as pre-Fukushima, pointing out people’s striking avoidance about the fact, pointing out the inevitable victory of the LDP candidates, pointing out the hands-on, DIY aspects of his political campaign which basically consists of himself, his wife and their sweet 3 year old boy and so on. We enter into a bizarre structure of an equilibrium where micro-managed corporate will meets bursting energy of humanity.
Soda’s shooting and editing style are also remarkable . With a very limited notice by Yama san, Soda who was in Hong Kong at the time, flies to Japan, purchases equipments and singlehandedly follows him with his camera. The movie is long (150min.) but it goes quite fast with the sense of immediacy. As Soda himself explains he does not follow a script. He dives into the scene, starts shooting without a preconceived notion, and the result is the streams of spontaneous moments letting the story flow with pleasant, often very funny accidents. But he does capture the essence of our time beautifully, yet brutally, without compromise. We see many touching moments in the interactions of the people who happen to appear in the movie. We see a chilling portrait of the machine in the interaction between the director and one of the LDP candidates.
The movie certainly shows the peculiarity of the Japanese society. However, we can easily see a parallel in any society where sheer power of money and violence overpowers the basic humanistic values: where the democratic values only exist so long as they promise to perpetuate the economic and the political structure owned by the ruling elites. Do we see Yama san’s action as a helpless attempt at changing the irreversible direction humanity is heading? Or is he a part of the awakened population which shifts the direction in which we are heading? I keep wondering. A highly recommended movie.
The movie screens at MOMA on:
In Painting on
And here is another old one. This was one of the very last paintings on canvas I did back back in 1995. I feel that there is a direct lineage to the sculptures I do today. When I painted it I felt that I was stepping into something different– the colors got muted and the forms were starting to emerge. Wish I can show it in person.