On the Fence

Weissfeld-Roentgenwerke AG’s current exhibition casts an unusual light on feminist discourse.

poster for

"Visage" Exhibition

at Radium von Roentgenwerke AG
in the Bakurocho area
This event has ended - (2007-09-07 - 2007-09-29)

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In Reviews by Gary McLeod 2007-09-12

Tomoaki Marubashi, 'On Hand' (2004), Lambda Print on transparency film mounted on light box. 827 x 1240 x 167mm

According to Craig Owens in his essay of 1983 ‘The Discourse of Others’: “if one of the most salient aspects of our post-modern culture is the presence of an insistent feminist voice, theories of postmodernism have tended either to neglect or to repress that voice.” So if something strikes you as quite odd about the seemingly feminist works on display in this exhibition, then you would be right. Titled “Visage”, this all-male artist exhibition groups together works that could be misinterpreted as merely carrying the torch of male subjectivity. However, each of these artists could well be understood as holding their hands up, almost in defeat, and here’s why:

Tomoaki Marubashi would appear fully aware of the fine line he is treading. His photographs usually draw attention to the symbolism of women and his images here depict women playing out scenes in the woods. In one image, women are locked in hand-to-hand combat with other women, each of them prepared to meet their end if necessary. In the other, several women attend to an old gent who is luxuriously sitting and lapping up their attention. My mother used to say that women are better at multi-tasking and these two images would appear to reinforce that belief. Since the advocation of equal rights, women have had to go to war and cook the meals, and to be frank; women are probably better at it. So what is Marubashi saying? Look to the left of the picture of the female entertainers and you will see a woman taking a cigar-break behind a tree while her colleagues keep up appearances. Clearly taking time out from her ‘role’, Maruhashi would appear to employ this image to champion women and admit defeat gracefully, but is he also making a sly caution?

Hideki Sato, 'Untitled' (2007), Pencil and acrylic on canvas mounted on board 535 x 360mm

If Marubashi can be said to straddle the fine line then Hideki Sato brings that line to a point and is clear to literally make that line the focal point of his drawings. Japanese women’s hair is said to be the finest in the world, equivalent to that of silk in terms of quality. Sato draws our attention to anonymous heads of hair, meticulously drawn so as to celebrate the beauty of each individual strand. Drawn in pencil on painted acrylic canvases, the effect is almost one of a daguerreotype, such is the amount of lead on the surface, ensuring that one has to be careful where you stand so as to see the drawing at its best. Such attention paid to the angle from which one is to view the works may or may not have been intentional but it certainly reinforces the necessity of looking and admiring, both the examples of hair and the artist’s attention to detail.

Hideyuki Sawayanagi 'Extatic' (2006), Aluminium, gesso, 565 x 440 x 2mmHideyuki Sawayanagi’s works also require that you stand in a particular place. Appearing to float off the walls, these flat sculptures (that are in fact hanging from the ceiling) present women from blown-up photocopies of pictures found in newspapers. Only their faces are reproduced in pressed aluminium, whereby the punched holes and the spacing of them define their expressions. They could be anybody but when we learn that they were taken from the infamous tabloid newspaper The Sun, its not easy to dissociate that tabloid’s reputation from the expressions of ecstasy and shock in the works. For me, his works are a little muddled. Whereas Marubashi and Sato are allowing their viewers some leeway, Sawayanagi’s works force the viewer to conform to a single “correct” point from which to view the expression of women who are perhaps faking their enjoyment. These works then are showing only one way to look at these women, but is this an attempt to encourage the viewer to consider other ways to view women, thus turning our attentions away from the stereotype? Such a question leaves me asking an even bigger question of the whole exhibition: whose side are they on?

Cultural theorists such as Michelle Henning would suggest that we are entering a matriarchal era and that the projects of modernism and post-modernism were patriarchal projects of the pre-digital past. From one point of view, what could be said of all the artists is that they are glorifying the male subjective view of women, playing on ‘prefabricated’ symbolism, therefore conveying a cynical and even fearful view of contemporary society. Yet, they simultaneously display sympathy and to some extent (as in Marubashi’s case) solidarity with a feminist view. The title of the exhibition could be interpreted as “face” or “mask” and thus brings our attention to an age-old argument that still has implications for the future. With this in mind, collectively this exhibition appears to be sitting on the fence, leaving just enough clues to fuel either view.

1. Owens, C. cited in Foster, H. ed. (1998) The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Post-Modern Culture, The New Press, New York. pp.65-92
2. Henning, M. cited in Lister, M. ed. (1995) The Photographic Image in Digital Culture, London: Routledge, pp.217-235

Gary McLeod

Gary McLeod. Born in 1979 in Portsmouth, he studied at Wimbledon School of Art, spending around 2063 hours driving up and down the A3 before eventually filming every junction of the M25. Coming to Japan in 2003, he set about documenting all of the traffic lights and escalators of Osaka before up and leaving for Tokyo in 2007. Whilst exhibiting, writing and teaching during that time, he has also spent the past two years researching the HMS Challenger's visit to Japan in 1875 for his MA in Digital Arts at Camberwell College of Arts. His current field of interest and recent work both act as a "window" and a "mirror" between Japan and the UK, whilst exploring relationships between digital imaging and Japanese aesthetics in light of ocularcentrism. See his website here. » See other writings

Comments

  1. kusagauma
    2007-09-13

    I haven’t yet seen the show so I can’t comment on the works, but the above review seems like a radical overinterpretation based on a rather silly factual error: somebody at TAB has managed to get the kanji in the exhibition title wrong!
    The correct character is NOT 豹 (meaning “panther”) but 貌, which means… “visage”. Hence, the title of the show is just “Visage” in Japanese and English.

  2. Ashley Rawlings
    2007-09-14

    Hi Kusagauma,

    Thanks very much for spotting the mistake. Funnily, this mistake managed to slip through at least two stages of checking when added as a TAB event, and then another two when picked up as an event to review for TABlog. Ultimately I should have checked the event information one more time before publishing this review, so I apologise for that.

    I’ve corrected the event information and the author has revised the relevant parts of this review. It would be great if you saw the exhibition and let us know what you think of it.

    Best wishes

    Ashley

  3. Gary McLeod
    2007-09-14

    Hi Kusagauma

    Thanks for your observations. My interpretation was actually derived first of all from Murabashi’s photo works and then in comparison with the other artist’s works in addition to the use of the word “Visage” in the title. The etymology for “Visage”, comes from the French and it means “face”. In conjunction with the subject matter of all the works, the use of the word “face” implies “masks” or “appearances” which are commonly recognized to not be taken for granted. The works in the exhibition focus the interpretation of the title and therefore left this writer in a state of indecision as to whether they themselves were rebelling against women or admitting defeat. With regards to that topic, their reluctance to commit to either side is indicative of the position of men in future societies and its on this level that the exhibition makes an interesting comment. I’m interested in your thoughts about the exhibition, so if you get a chance to visit it, please let me know what you think.

    Regards

    Gary

  4. Ashley Rawlings
    2007-09-16

    I dropped by the show very quickly yesterday – too quickly to form an opinion of it, so that will have to be for another time.

    I finally found the source of the error. The show is called 「貌」 (Visage) but it was the Japanese only gallery press release sent to us some time ago that had 「豹:ヴィサージュ」 (Panther: Visage) as the title. Either it’s a very unusual mistake for someone at Roentgenwerke to have made (since it’s not just a simple typo but involves pressing completely different keys on the keyboard) or more likely they just changed their mind about the exhibition title after sending out the initial press releases.

  5. kusagauma
    2007-09-18

    I saw the show on Friday, but I’m afraid I didn’t think about the possible feminist angle at all while I was there.
    The piece that intrigued me the most was one of Marubashi’s photographs, the one that – apart from a lone woman smoking a cigar and a group of nightclub hostesses (?) surrounding an aging dandy with a camera – also features a line of wooden chairs gradually disappearing into the ground, all in the middle of a forest. When I asked the artist, who was present, about these chairs (a metaphor for death?), he told me that there was a short story (物語) behind each of his pictures, but that he was reluctant to reveal those stories – in order to let the viewers make up their own, I suppose. So your guess is as good as mine!

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