Yoshio SHIRAKAWA's Challenge
by Masashi OGURA

On the occasion of Canada's Year of Asia Pacific, the CIAC presents from November 6 to December 21, 1997:

Les Avant-gardes au Japon 1920-1970

Notes de Yoshio SHIRAKAWA

Entrevue avec Yoshio Shirakawa et Masashi Ogura

Is Yoshio Shirakawa an artist who can be placed in a precise category and appreciated for what distinguishes him from other artists in the same category? Of course, I mean the category of artists who, once the modernization of Japan began in the Meiji period, realized that their only choice was to live divided between Western culture and the culture of their native country.

As an artist, Shirakawa found a direction arising from his reflections on the historical realities of Japan at a time when the country's modernization, halting though it was, nevertheless was becoming a reality. It is a direction that involves the application of cultural theories to the world of art.

Shirakawa went to Europe in 1970 to study philosophy. In Paris, he was so taken with the ambient artistic atmosphere that he decided to become an artist and registered at the École des Beaux-Arts in Strasbourg. In 1976, wanting to carry his artistic research further, he moved from France to Düsseldorf, Germany, to study at Günther Uecker's studio at the Kunst Akademie.

Now just over 25 years of age, Shirakawa had to confront the problems facing any Japanese artist working in the context of the history of modern European art — for Japan has its own history of modern art. Working under these conditions forced him to keep up to date on both art histories.

Shirakawa knew that Japan had seen great positive cultural and artistic developments during the Meiji era and the interwar period. He also presumed that post-First World War avant-garde European art had reached Japan quite quickly. He therefore began to research the history of Japanese avant-garde art, but realized very quickly that it was impossible to gather enough documentation on the subject in Germany. His only choice was to return to Japan temporarily, which he did. And he discovered that it was just as difficult to find documentation on the subject in Japan. He went to considerable trouble to locate and interview surviving artists from the period, and he amassed a large quantity of photographic documentation. Returning to Germany with these materials, he put together a thematic exhibition, The Japanese Dada Movement, on the Japanese artistic avant-garde from 1920 to 1970, presented in Düsseldorf in 1983.

His problem was to decide upon a foundation on which to base his artistic work. As a "historical product" of Japan, he thought that he could discover this foundation by turning to the past of his country. But he found himself, instead, caught up in the whirlpool of Western, especially German, contemporary art, from which he learned that in terms of creative activity an artist has no choice but to refer to the history of the location where he or she is at the moment. At the time, of course, Düsseldorf was the home base of Joseph Beuys, whose art is deeply rooted in the history of the German identity. Although Shirakawa never personally knew Beuys, he could not escape his influence in Düsseldorf.

Shirakawa finally realized that he would always be a foreigner in Germany. The country was not his home, and so it was impossible for him to identify with its history. The only place he belonged was Japan. With his exhibition on the history of avant-gardes in Japan, presented in Düsseldorf, he had offered the German public information on a place different from theirs, which was in itself a notable contribution to European culture. And he had been able to make this contribution manifestly because he was Japanese. This, in turn, made him aware of his Japanese identity and he decided to return to his own country. He went back to Japan in 1983, the same year in which his exhibition The Japanese Dada Movement, took place.

And this was where his real troubles began. He was perforce slotted into the category of Japanese artists who had studied abroad at a time when very positive developments were occurring in Japan's modernization. These artists, who had experienced two different cultures, Japanese and Western, were forced to live caught between them. In fact, Shirakawa had been led to reflect upon Japan's modernization because he had studied in Europe. Finding himself in a situation that required him to take in Western culture, he returned to Japan with ideas that he had developed in a Western cultural environment.

But Japan had changed greatly since he had left for Europe; Japanese society, after more than a century of modernization toward a Western model, now had a firmly rooted eclectic style. Given this new situaton, the time when a clear choice had to be made between "Western cultural supremacy" and "return to sources" was long gone. The first thing that Shirakawa had to do upon his return was familiarize himself with the new Japanese context. He wanted to know how this new Japanese reality had been shaped by the history of Japan's modernization, an approach that had much in common with the issues he had addressed in his research on the history of avant-gardes in Japan. It also enabled him to explore his precise place in his country. In parallel with his research, he attempted, in his artistic activities, to separate the Western and Japanese elements that he carried within himself and to appreciate them separately; he thus adopted two directions in his work after 1990: the first, he called formalist (art related to Western modernism); the second, socio-cultural (attempting to uncover problems inherent to the process of modernization in Japan).

His work in the first direction, which constitutes a continuation of the visual research he began in Germany, is particularly well illustrated in the pieces he has created as "public art," such as the metal sculpture (1991) installed in the garden of the Kitakanto School of Visual Arts in Maebashi and another metal sculpture (1992) adorning the Ebisu Kosei Chuo Hospital in Tokyo. In both of these works, which mix basic geometrical shapes such as circles, cones, and rectangles, and produce dynamic movement through a very elaborate combination of forms, volumes, and materials, his desire to create art that asserts its independent existence with regard to the space in which it is found is evident. The desire to produce works that impose themselves formally in space is less obvious in the works that deal with Japan's social and cultural problems, where priority is given to combining elements linked to various social, cultural, and historical anecdotes connected to Japan's modernization. The search for appropriate materials with which to present these different elements plays a motivating role in the shaping of these works. They form a testimony to the desire to reveal something in relation to these anecdotes and their background — in other words, an approach seeking to reveal problems relating to art and culture. In deciding to pursue his research in parallel develoments in both of these directions, Shirakawa has rejected the middle path, which consists of choosing a single eclectic direction midway between the Western and Japanese cultures. His approach, however, was likely to be misunderstood in Japan, where dealing with the social and cultural problems of modern Japan could be interpreted as a classic "return to sources." In this regard, some have the impression that he is an anachronistic artist, caught between two cultures.

But the direction of dealing with socio-cultural problems of Japanese society bears potential for development in a very different direction. This potential is very well illustrated by Shirakawa's Automobile Route (1994), installed at the entrance to the Faret Tachikawa parking garage in Tokyo. This work was created by making cutouts from the surface of the ground at the entrance to the garage, signifying its theme of the specificity of the "location" (or, rather, the formal specificity of the location?) where it was installed. Shirakawa's work in this new direction is in fact based on following the very precise notion of "location" (Lieu- Gumma, first manifesto). He had finally realized that what was important for him was not to concentrate on socio-cultural problems that had arisen in Japan's history, but on "location." His initial interest in these problems had been because he had found himself obligated to change his location of work by leaving Germany (and thus Europe) for Japan. He had concentrated on these socio-cultural and historical problems to find out what Japan meant for him as a "location". "Location" makes human beings aware of these problems, which are shrouded in the memory of the past, and determined by their geographic and climatic conditions. Shirakawa needed to know more about the "location" in which he was getting ready to pursue his artistic career — that is, Japan, the location in which he would work and exhibit his art. This has led him to present the products of his research into the spatial and temporal specificity of each location, conducted as an approach recalling the fieldwork of an ethnologist or archaeologist. And he has gone further, making works that combine, even juxtapose, his usual work location (Maebashi) with other specific sites, with which he finds himself related in one way or another. This is his new challenge.