Frans Hals Museum | De Hallen Harleem presents new and recent work by Meiro Koizumi until 8 January 2017.
Meiro Koizumi creates provocative video works that address personal histories as well as the history of Japan through the manipulation of personal and collective memory. The result is a poignant comic and cruel vision of history expressed by his characters’ emotions. Art Radar profiles the artist on the occasion of his latest museum exhibition.
There is art that confronts the ghosts of the past with lucid clarity and political poignancy, and then there is art that makes of history a comic yet cruel scenario in which human emotions, personal and collective memory are torn to pieces, leaving a frail, obfuscated and ambiguous vision of the past whilst retaining the deepest emotional affect.
Meiro Koizumi‘s video art is part of the latter kind, a practice that even though inspired by the realities of history creates an alternative image of it, with a theatricality reaching the excesses of the absurd. Although the vision of the historical past still stands, it is presented by the artist with provocative performances and constructed scenarios that through disruption and repetition create extreme emotional reactions. In the same way, personal stories are brought to life with equal potency. Koizumi intervenes in his works whether directly or indirectly to reveal the fragility of the human psyche and the multilayered relationships between the voices of power and the multitude or the individual, challenging conventional and official recounts.
In his oeuvre, Koizumi examines complex issues ranging from power dynamics on familial and national scale, the tension between staged and authentic emotion, and the conflict between duty and desire. As New York’s MoMA wrote on the occasion of his major solo exhibition in 2013, his manipulative videos “conceal a dark and cynical core beneath a seemingly ordinary surface”, implicating himself, his performers and the viewer, and “straddle the shifting boundary between the comic and the cruel”.
The Art of Emotional Resonance
Meiro Koizumi was born in Gunma, Japan in 1976, and grew up in a suburb city called Maebashi, located 100 km north of Tokyo. The artist cites his parents and his upbringing as pivotal elements in the later development of his artistic practice and its underlying concepts. His father was a professor in the history of education, as well as philosophy, while his mother was a housewife. Both parents were committed Christians and frequented the local protestant church every Sunday, something that he himself had to do as well until he left home at age 16 to go to school in Canada, where his aunt lived.
In an interview with Sara Suzuki (PDF download), the curator of his 2013 MoMA show in New York, Koizumi revealed how in retrospect the importance of religion in his childhood education had a profound effect in his development as an artist:
[my parents’] religious efforts actually had a great impact on shaping who I am. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve kept asking myself this ultimate question: is there a God? I had difficult time with this question when I was a teenager; I got emotional before being able to think rationally. When I later studied religion at university, I finally acquired a way of thinking that allowed me to deal with this question more rationally, more objectively. Now as an artist, I have come to realize how important this phase of my life was. I am never satisfied with my work unless it touches this layer, this ultimate question, in some way. And for years, I couldn’t identify myself with many other Japanese artists of my generation because I thought these kinds of heavy questions were missing from their work. Without my parents religious effort, I would be someone who had no interest in religion. Thanks to their effort, I am now a serious atheist.
The depth of the religious influence exercised on his way of interrogating life found its best expression through video, as a medium that can at best portray feelings and their progression, and create living scenarios through which stories can unfold in unpredictable ways. Koizumi speaks to Suzuki about “emotional resonance”, a repeated motif in his work since Amazing Grace (2001), a performative piece carrying a renewed level of emotional depth in his oeuvre that would lead the way for his following productions like Human Opera XXX (2007), where the artist’s interference in the direction of the piece would become increasingly powerful. He tells Suzuki:
Emotional resonance became one of the repeated motifs in my works since Amazing Grace. I have been fascinated by this ability of moving image ever since. Video is a medium that can deal directly with human emotion, and that can offer direct access to the emotion and consciousness of the audience. […] It’s a very powerful medium. I think I want to make works that are crystallizations of the complex mechanism of how our emotions work within a subject and within a society.
I think that video is a fantastic medium because it can deal with the emotion, perception and consciousness of people quite directly. For example, one single video can make half the people laugh and another half of people cry. This kind of possible with video as a medium and I am quite fascinated with this. I think that through this experiment with video I try to find out about human beings, how we perceive the world and how we feel about the world, not only as an individual but also as an individual within a society and within the world. There are a lot of things happening, it’s always complex, never simple and is full of contradictions. And video can handle this contradiction […] that’s how I feel. It can crystallise the questions, or contradictions […]. With my art I try to get a better understanding of who we are.
Koizumi’s work developed from performance videos in which he was the actor to works for which he recruited other actors, and where his role would be one of interference, exacerbating his relationship with both actors and viewers. One of his most poignant works in this new vein was presented at the Future Generation Art Prize exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2013. Portrait of a Young Samurai (2009) had all the characteristics of his typical video work, with the direction of the artist perceived in the video, the actor repeating his lines over and over again, starting as a mere interpreter and ending as an individual who had grown into his part to the extreme, losing all control of his emotions.
The work sees a young man dressed in fighter pilot gear, impersonating a WWII Japanese kamikaze preparing for his ultimate sacrifice in the name of Nationalism. The kamikaze trope returns again in a later work shown in his MoMA solo in 2013, entitled Defect in Vision (2011), where two blind actors impersonate a couple during WWII, of which the man ends up sacrificing himself for the nation.
World War II is of particular interest to Koizumi, as it epitomises Japan’s nationalistic efforts and its call to all individuals to serve and live for the country. Currently on show at La Biennale de Montréal is a recent work entitled When Her Prayer is Heard (Double Projection #2 ) (2014), portraying a woman on a double screen projection who talks about WWII. 86-year-old Kazuko Nagura talks about her experience of the war and how she lost her boyfriend in a kamikaze mission towards the end of the war.
Today My Empire Sings: an attempy to ‘re-direct’ history
The theme of Nationalism is a recurrent one in Koizumi’s oeuvre, and is directly referenced in the title of his first museum solo exhibition in The Netherlands, “Today My Empire Sings” at De Hallen Harleem. On show are a series of new and recent works, which reference both imperial and war history of Japan.
His new series of paintings entitled Air (2016), shown at De Hallen Harleem, was censored by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo (MOT) and could not be show as part of “Loose Lips Save Ships” (2016), which was co-curated by MOT and the ARTISTS’ GUILD, an artist-led organisation that develops experimental projects of which Koizumi is a founder and active member.
The series is made up of enlarged photos of the emperor and his family, retouched by the artist with oil paint to remove the emperor and family from the pictures, thus leaving an “eerie gap” in the images and introducing a ghostly presence. As the press release explains,
The emperor is a crucial figure in Japan and its history: a divine figure for centuries, who following the drama of WWII declared himself human under pressure. The current emperor is also right now the focus of global interest due to rumours of his alleged plan to abdicate.
Through this work, Koizumi further explores the power relationship between authority and citizen, state and individual. The artist ‘plays’ with power and censorship, and with a refusal “to conform to to the authoritarian voice of the conservative-nationalistic government” as increasingly more artists in Japan are doing in the post-Fukushima era.
His recent film In The State of Amnesia (2015) was also shown as part of his exhibition “Confessions” at Kyoto Experiment 2016. In the work, Koizumi attempts to explore the possibility (or impossibility) of escaping from history and the desire to start anew, as he does in Air by erasing imperial presence from photographs. Mr Nobuhiro Tanaka, a man with a memory disorder, tells a gruesome eye-witness account from a Japanese soldier in the conflict with China during WWII. In the video, the man tries to remember his rehearsed text, but as the piece unfolds, he is shown as remembering less and less of it, until as the artist says, “no words came out of his mouth, and all the words escaped from his memory”. In some ways, the video recalls an earlier work, Trapped Words (2014), wherein Mr Harada tries to recount his recollection of the bombing of his town during WWII, “filtered through time passed, unreliable recollection, the limits of speech and the artist’s representation”.
For the exhibition, Koizumi has also created a new video installation that gives the title to the show. The footage was filmed during the annual anti-emperor rally that takes place in Tokyo on 15 August, which marks the annual remembrance of the Japanese surrender in 1945. Koizumi introduced actors and musicians in the heavily policed environment, directing them towards an intense climax. The event, traditionally associated with unrest, demonstrates how deep the wounds of WWII still are and Koizumi aptly exacerbates this element by introducing further distortion and disruption.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- PROVOKE: Japanese photography between protest and performance 1960-1975 – in pictures – December 2016 – a touring exhibition looks at the work of postwar Japanese photographers and members of the historic Provoke magazine
- New York Out of Character: Chinese artist Cheng Ran at New Museum, New York – December 2016 – emerging Chinese artist Cheng Ran debuts in the United States with a museum solo exhibition at the New Museum in collaboration with China’s K11 Art Foundation
- Coding art: Japanese collective teamLab in the digital renaissance – artist profile – November 2016 – Art Radar spoke to the collective to find out more about their origin, raison d’etre, influences, creative process and plans for the future
- “Black Friday”: Qatari-American artist Sophia Al-Maria at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York – October 2016 – Sophia Al-Maria’s first solo exhibition in the United States, “Black Friday”, is a poignant exploration “of dreams and of reality and of the future”
- Art to provoke: Japan’s irreverent artist Tadasu Takamine – artist profile – August 2016 – Art Radar profiles provocative Japanese artist Tadasu Takamine, whose work is on show for the first time in Taiwan at Taipei’s TKG+ Projects