Walker Art Center
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Revolt, Dysfunction, Dementia: Toward the Body of “Empire”


that internationalization of Japan's contemporary theater has accelerated. If we consider the proliferation of international cultural exchange in the past decade, it seems natural for us to assume that practitioners of theater, visual arts, photography, and film in Japan are not creating their work in a domestic vacuum. But those cultural trends do not necessarily suggest that cultural producers are responding to the process of globalization. To respond to the process of globalization means to reflect in the work, one way or another, an understanding of this new twist that is postmodernization. Or it means to comment on various issues of the globalization process that have come into focus in artists' own representational practices. At minimum, the work should make us think about how humans are situated within the context of globalization.

From this standpoint, one could argue that very few practitioners in Japan are responding to the process of globalization. But I can think of some who, rather than merely responding to the process, are methodologically and strategically manipulating the paradigms of this universal change. This distinction is in fact very subtle, and I would like to discuss Japan's contemporary art practice--in theater, dance, and visual arts--in the age of globalization by analyzing the responses and the strategies of some key practitioners.

The first name that comes up is that of Murakami Takashi, who deals with these issues in a very explicit manner. There is an important and essential discourse going on around Murakami's work, and that discussion itself is worth considering. So I will open the issue of globalization in Japan's art practices by exploring aspects of Murakami's work and the abundance of cultural theory that it has inspired.

Murakami Takashi and a New Phase in Japanese Cultural Theory
The importance of Murakami lies in the fact that he has come up with a very articulate strategy for addressing how Japanese culture can find its way in the age of globalization. I consider the appearance of such an artist exceptional in recent Japanese history. There have been heated debates about his strategy among influential Japanese critics, both for and against his work, and key participants in this debate include historian of thought Asada Akira, philosopher Azuma Hiroki, and visual art critic Sawaragi Noi. In their discourse on the post-modernization of Japan, ideas are summoned from theorists ranging from Jacques Derrida, Alexandre Kojčve, and Jacques Lacan to Clement Greenberg and Yasuda Yojuro. We have not witnessed such a phenomenon around art practices in Japan since the 1980s, though there was a similar vital period of critical discourse in the 1960s. It is undoubtedly true that the active participation of important critics from a variety of disciplines contributes greatly to the radicalization of Japan's contemporary visual art practices.[1]

We can find the beginnings of this debate in a text by Sawaragi, in which he observes a new trend in Japan's visual art practices in the 1990s:

We can detect their point of departure in Otaku culture of manga, animations, monsters, and video games. We must be mindful of the fact that those subcultural genres have their origin in America . . . [that] their creative activity began precisely when their minds were occupied by things American and when they "recognized" that they were standing in the middle of "occupied ground." [2]

Sawaragi goes on to discuss Murakami as the one who started to work from such a location and describes the strategy of his Signboard Takashi from 1993:

Murakami's aim was to expose American occupation within Japan by recycling such subcultural designs.

What comes to the surface through Murakami's ingenious manipulation is the significance of this trademark, which usually goes unnoticed because it is so self-evident. It is a paradox that made-in-Japan products, which boast the world's finest quality, could only come into being because of an Americanized class of people who prefer plastic models over menko (Japanese pasteboard cards) or beedama (glass beads). Murakami points to a paradoxical problem whereby the "quality" of such products can only be tested in a place half-colonized by America.[3]


1 Furthermore, literary critics such as Suga Hidemi and Fukuda Kazuya have come into the debate, making it even more interesting, as will be discussed later.

2 Sawaragi Noi, Japan, Contemporary, Visual Art (Tokyo: Shincho-sha, 1998), p. 52; first published serially in Bijutsu Techo 48, no. 727-49, no. 742 (July 1996-June 1997). Unless otherwise noted, all translations of material quoted from Japanese sources are by Uchino Tadashi.

3 Ibid., pp. 85-86.