As a novelist, manga artist, and visual artist, Erika Kobayashi (born 1978 in Tokyo) depicts the human nature of being enthralled by light, radiant materials, and invisible entities that go beyond reason. Known as the second “Prometheus’s gift,” nuclear energy became Kobayashi’s leitmotif, particularly after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011. With the Tokyo Olympics 2020/2021 as a backdrop, Kobayashi created the story, “She Waited,” which interweaves the history of nuclear weapons and the geopolitics of the Olympic torch relay. In Kobayashi’s work, anonymous girls – the “she” – under those fascist regimes in the West and East are portrayed, waiting for the sacred fires to arrive. While a summer Omoshirogara kimono with Tripartite Pact flag motifs reveals how the ideology of the time can become imprinted upon our daily lives, Kobayashi’s work scoops up the voices of people who have been tossed about by the tides and left in a valley of oblivion.
Jong Ok Ri
Zero (2015) belongs to a series of war paintings Jong Ok Ri (born 1991 in Tokyo) started in 2015. The work is based on the stories of Korean residents in Japan who were drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II and volunteered to become members of suicidal missions. The portrayal of the figure floating in the sky – reminiscent of a cyborg, united with a skeletonized Zero fighter plane – is a self-portrait expressing the artist’s own diasporic, intersectional lived experience as a third-generation Korean living in Japan. The uncertain belonging and vulnerable body might perhaps resonate with the migrant condition in Germany today.
In her ongoing series Renovated, Kei Takemura (born 1975 in Tokyo) wraps broken everyday objects with translucent synthetic fabrics and stitches the damaged parts together. For the artist, to sew is to create a temporary state that retains something forgotten or altered. For the exhibition, Takemura selected 12 pieces, including an 18th-century German Frankenthal coffee pot and an Italian Ginori Moka cup, which reference the historical entanglement of the former Axis powers. Covered with delicate cloth, these broken objects, which no longer serve any function, are fused with fluorescent silk threads developed from genetically modified Aequorea victoria’s protein, reviving them into a new state of being. Displayed under blue light, these threads glow for only a limited amount of time and thus reflect the transient condition of all things material as well as memories: the intimacy and fragility the healed objects entail.
Having grown up in two cultural and linguistic milieus, Yu Araki (born 1985 in Yamagata) explores the gaps that open up in processes of cultural translation. Araki’s The Last Ball (2019) is inspired by a travelogue of French writer Pierre Loti – who visited “Rokumeikan” (Banqueting House), a luxury building that the government commissioned in Tokyo in 1883 to host Western diplomats – and a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. The work restages a dance scene, albeit in a contemporary setting: two performers dance to the tunes of “The Beautiful Blue Danube.” Using their iPhones, they film each other while simultaneously evading the other’s camera. Composing the scene from multiple angles, the artist plays with the construction of social stereotypes in historical narratives parallel to filmmaking’s documentary and fictional nature.
Sukajan are brightly embroidered Japanese bomber jackets that became popular as souvenirs among U.S. soldiers stationed in Japan, particularly in the Yokosuka area with the Korean War as a backdrop. Sukajan was later associated with Yakuza gangsters and became an iconic counterculture fashion item. Through the sukajan, Yuichiro Tamura (born 1977 in Toyama) reveals the hybridity and conflict of East Asian popular culture where Eurocentrism has been unconsciously installed. The Ring (2021) is an installation consisting of one red neon light and sukajans from the artist’s collection. The names and identification numbers of U.S. troops are embroidered alongside East Asian mythological symbols (tiger and dragons) and stereotypical Japanese icons (Mount Fuji and cherry blossoms). Together, they represent the soldier’s sense of belonging to the troops stationed in Japan and the heroic aesthetics of wars in the Asia-Pacific region. The histories of postwar Japan, which was politically and culturally indebted to the United States, and those of Asia and the Pacific, which suffered the consequences of the Cold War and Neoliberalism, are literally interlaced on the back of the sukajan.