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Blank canvas

Contemporary Japanese art is not driving social change, writes Marcus James.

japanese art

‘Theatre of Dreams, Theatre of Play’, an exhibition currently showing at the Art Gallery of NSW, is simply beautiful.

Documenting over six hundred years of Japanese Nō and Kyōgen theatre, the exhibition showcases various elements of these practices, from exquisite wood-block masks to illustrations of theatrical scenes. Nō is the earliest formal Japanese theatre style, and one of the oldest continuing theatre traditions in the world. Developed in the 14th century by father and son actors and playwrights Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo, Nō combines court, folk and religious performance. Lieven Bertels, director of the Sydney Festival, described Nō as “highly ritualised and codified”. Having had the privilege of experiencing the exclusive backstage of Nō theatre, Bertels continually pointed to the unique instruments, rhythms and sounds which give Nō its otherworldly atmosphere. Its alienness is the key to its appeal to Western audiences, he says.

“Theatre of Dreams, Theatre of Play” has certainly captured this well. Inside the exhibition space, a Nō performance is screened on loop and visitors sit entranced by the projection. The scene shown is from the famous Nō play Dōjōji, where priests exorcise a demon from their temple’s bell. The actors’ movements are slow, deliberate and precise, and the feeling of the performance is deeply ritual and archaic. Yet this restraint heightens the drama. With gravelly chants and the piercing nōkan flute, the beat of the taiko drum accelerates into the final confrontation with the demon. The ethereal sounds echo through the rest of the gallery space, which is lined by props and artefacts displaying a level of craftsmanship and aesthetic perfectionism unable to be appreciated just by attending a Nō performance.

Each work is imbued with an extraordinary sense of balance. The masks (“omote” in Japanese) of women, men, spirits and demons range from placid to garish, yet all are proportioned so that the actor can manipulate the emotion of the mask with a subtle tilt of the face. The robes and undergarments exhibited are intricate, but far from ostentatious. Every artefact fulfils its purpose as a dramatic instrument, but is also a work of art in its own right. The exhibition portrays Nō theatre as a perfect syncretism of emotion and subtlety, drama and restraint, culture and enigma.

Ultimately, ‘Theatre of Dreams, Theatre of Play’ demonstrates to a Western audience the rich artistic tradition of Japan and the incredible role that art has played in constructing Japanese culture. In stark contrast, the treatment and reception of art in contemporary Japan is defined by a series of contradictions. While traditional Japanese art is being celebrated here in Australia, the arrest of Japanese contemporary artist Rokudenashiko (Megumi Igarashi) highlights a concerning lack of artistic freedom in Japan and deeply rooted issues of censorship, police powers and artistic taboos. Traditional art is venerated but remains largely as symbolic of national identity, disconnected from youth culture. While Tokyo is regarded as a major centre of the art world, crowds flock to see American or European artists over home-grown talent.

Perhaps most concerning is the state of mainstream contemporary art in Japan. It is internationally recognised, highly regarded and prolific. Yet there is little punch and controversy, with a noticeable lack of interrogating politics, sexuality or cultural taboos, particularly when compared artists like Ai Weiwei or He Yunchang from neighbouring China. Contemporary art in Japan is more entertainment than an instrument of social change. In an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art, renowned photographic artist Mariko Mori explained how Japanese society does not foster an environment for challenging artists. “Japan is a unified society which does not allow for individualism … you are constantly reminded not to step out of line.”

“In Japan there is a situation where culture exists apart. But they try to create art, music, etc in a different context that does not reflect reality.”

However, Rokudenashiko is one artist who not only reflects reality but also directly challenges it. An advocate for women’s rights, particularly the promotion of women’s sexuality, and a member of Love Piece Club, Japan’s first sex shop run by women for women, Rokudenashiko uses her art to fight the gross inequality between men and women generally but also specifically regarding sex. For example, while women’s sexuality is considered a taboo in Japan, the country is infamous for its plethora of wild pornography catering for men’s fantasies as well as Kanamara Matsuri (Festival of the Steel Phallus). A further example in the Japanese media is the censoring of the word manko (vagina) but the allowing of the word chinko (penis).

The price Rokudenashiko paid for exposing this hypocrisy was six days in custody, from 12 to 18 July, and continuing police interrogation. Rokudenashiko faces charges for obscenity which can, if she is found guilty, result in a two year jail sentence or a fine of up to 2.5 million yen. Her artworks revolve around the central motif of female genitalia, using 3D scans of her own vagina to produce works ranging from sculptures, dioramas and iPhone cases to Pussy Boat, a bright yellow kayak in the shape of her vagina. The arrest came after she distributed digital data for the scans of her vagina to individuals who donated towards the construction of Pussy Boat through a crowdsourcing website.

Rokudenashiko’s case demonstrates how censorship and police powers, particularly regarding obscenity laws, create a barrier that suppresses dissident voices in Japan’s art scene. In a conference held by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Rokudenashiko’s lawyer Takashi Yamaguchi pointed to wide judicial discretion within Japan’s Criminal Code. This includes Article 175, which regulates censorship and includes the so-called obscenity law, defining obscenity in respect to the blaringly ambiguous “prevailing social ideas in respect to sex”. Despite Article 21 of Japan’s constitution expressing the right to freedom of expression, censorship laws in the Criminal Code largely prevail. Furthermore, Rokudenashiko’s case exemplifies the use of arrest and detention without charges as a deterrent for dissidents and dissident art.

This combination of social, cultural, legal and political pressure to conform means that contemporary art in Japan, at least in the mainstream, remains somewhat of a toothless tiger. However, Rokudenashiko’s art, her arrest, and the subsequent media attention have all raised the profile of Japanese art and society, albeit through controversy. Indeed, this is how it should be. Art should be at the vanguard of social change. “Theatre of Dreams, Theatre of Play” shows us the beauty and the richness of artistic tradition in Japan. Rokudenashiko’s experience gives hope that through challenging contemporary art, Japanese artists can contribute to this tradition and once again help shape Japan.