Elliat Albrecht <e…...@gmail.com>
Thursday, Nov 14, 2013 at 10:42 AM
Towards the end of my trip we didn’t speak at all. I spent the last week in Tokyo alone trying to find anyone to speak English with, following close behind couples in parks trying to pick up secondhand conversations and lingering outside of Starbucks to hear familiar words. I was homesick. After we stopped talking on the phone, I forgot what speaking aloud felt like because nothing required speech of me for several days.
One afternoon while waiting for a flight home, I stumbled upon an exhibition of contemporary Japanese art at the Mori Art Museum, located in the top floor of a skyscraper in Roppongi. This was the view.
Roppongi is a district in Tokyo known for its concentrated gang presence and nightlife. The streets are lined with bars, strip clubs and restaurants where dolled-up girls hand out pamphlets and men hand out dancing jobs in the middle of the afternoon. The name "Roppongi" translates to "six trees" in Japanese; legend has it that six large zelkova trees used to mark the area; the last being destroyed during World War II. Japan was occupied by the Allied powers until April of 1952, during which it became a democratic state. A Recreation and Amusement Association (also known as Special Comfort Facility Association) was established by the Japanese government to provide organized prostitution and other recreational facilities for stationed Allied troops. The RAA "recruited" 55,000 Japanese women and lasted over four months until January 1946. Afterwards, entertainment remained paramount in Tokyo for social and economic reasons: the prevalence of bars, nightclubs and brothels symbolized the revival of energy and spirit in certain pockets of the city.
I was young then and afraid of everything. I bought my admission ticket to the museum and followed an English speaking couple to the second floor. Taking up an entire two-story wall was Japanese artist Yoshimura Yoshio’s monumental work 365 Portraits. It was difficult to find any information on Yoshio until Setoushi City Art Museum housed an exhibition of his work six years later, primarily showing works of graphite on paper. There’s one video on YouTube showing him installing drawings for an exhibition. The background music is a tinny rendition of Debussy’s Clair de Lune which I’m not going to link because you can play it with your eyes closed. I can barely play it in C.
365 Portraits is comprised of 365 graphite drawings of the artist’s face made daily over the course of a year. The drawings were hung in several chronological rows on a massive white wall. Without context, just hundreds of floating heads; they were a laborious and somehow more soulful predecessor to that gimmick of self-portrait timelapse videos on Youtube. Each meticulous drawing varied subtly from the last; if one scanned an entire row from left to right, one could see Yoshio’s hair grow longer and messier until suddenly - drawing #41 - it had been cut. The artist was suddenly more awake, younger. His moustache undulated in length. His expression oscillated between smirks, looks of boredom, frustration and peace.
I fantasized Yoshio’s life during the year-long project. Did he draw himself at night or upon waking? Did he take an extended lunchbreak from work? To whom did he apologize to while excusing himself to a quiet room with a mirror? I imagined a test of social endurance as much as a commitment to documentation. The series as a whole, presented in lines on the wall as they were, became a grid, reminiscent of minimalist paintings like Agnes Martin’s, often brought up in the history of repetitive and laborious two-dimensional work. Years later I’d see a room of her white paintings at The Whitney and leave with an eerie feeling when the security guard stepped out of the frame to allow me to take a picture.
You, my scientist, know that repetitive processes in art share similarities with methodical research. In order to propose a credible theory, one must repeatedly test a hypothesis to eliminate false conclusions. That science is only a model of realism and a system of falsity means there can always be an exception to undo a rule. What I’m trying to say is that the purpose of a hypothesis is to arrive at a conclusion which by nature can never be entirely stable. Researchers devote years of effort to develop answers that can never truly be true. Yoshio’s series of self-portraits comes to an end - the 365th and last drawing, but there is no spectacle to mark it. There is no moment of summit or exaltation. The antithesis of repetition may be climax, and in the collection of drawings it it is absent. Instead the series, with its shifting, subtle human variances, is a humble ebb and flow. I’m going to sign off with something that American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunnignham once said:
"Now I can't see that crisis any longer means a climax, unless we are willing to grant that every breath of wind has a climax (which I am), but then that obliterates climax, being a surfeit of such. And since our lives, both by nature and by the newspapers, are so full of crisis that one is no longer aware of it, then it is clear that life goes on regardless, and further that each thing can be and is separate from each and every other, viz: the continuity of the newspaper headlines. Climax is for those who are swept by New Year's Eve."