I’ve tried not to be seduced by the old, but there’s an Edo period woodblock with naked men contorted into poses that cumulatively resemble a face. The colour print, At first glance, he looks fierce, but he is actually a kind person, c. 1847-48, is one of many Ukiyo-e style prints by the Utagawa school, now synonymous with an outsider’s idea of what Japanese illustration looks like. I was drawn to its similarity to the illustrations Kato Yoshihiro put together to help storyboard Zero Jigen performances. However when I started to invest more time and energy into learning about the Utagawa prints, I find Inshoku Yōjō Kagami (Rules of Dietary Life), and Bōji Yōjō Kagami (Rules of Sexual Life), both c. 1850, which depict a male and female form respectively, with their internal bodily functions performed by miniature persons. The prints are pretty conservative in their message, with the first one educating about over-eating and drinking, and the latter shaming women who frequently have sex.
In Mori Art Museum, I am reminded of my early research when I watch the film Diamond Hour (fig.3), a fictional narrative following drag queens who live and compete in the Crystal City, an expansive metropolis symbolising the body of Furuhashi Teiji, leader of performance collective Dumb Type. The exhibition is the culmination of a research project looking at the vibrant drag scene in Kyoto from the 1980s-2000s, including the (still-running) ‘Diamonds are Forever’ club night, and the many crossovers with AIDS activist and sex worker movements including ‘And I Dance with Somebody’, and ‘Sex Workers! Encourage, Empower, Trust and Love Yourselves!’. A big part of this history is Teiji-san, the subject (and setting) of the film, and his work with Dumb Type. The artist came out as HIV positive very early during the initial epidemic, and worked within both art and activist contexts to share information and tackle social discrimination against those infected with the virus. The film Diamond Hour is a fitting tribute to the artist who passed away a year after its completion, and whose transparency about his condition helped educate many others about the effects of the disease.
It feels odd to draw parallels between Crystal City and the Utagawa prints, but both hold similar intentions in the transmission of information about the body. Although the former has a somewhat dogmatic quality to it, the two assemblages of people resonate with the idea of a collaborative body, and how we work (or don’t work) together. Crystal City’s inhabitants compete with one another in contests, gossip in private houses, and are generally a plural—yet supportive—cohort. Utagawa’s prints picture a naturalisation of work and the ordering of subjects by their jobs: a river flowing through the body is a factory line.
Earlier in the trip, I’m driving around the Aso caldera with Yuko Hayama, the project co-ordinator for ‘Artists in Aso’, an artists-in-residence programme in rural, central Kyūshū. At roughly 30km in diameter, the extinct crater is now recognised as Japan’s water capital, a UNESCO Global Geopark, and world-renowned agricultural heritage site. In the middle, five oddly distinct mountain peaks watch as we drive around them. Five artists-in-residence are dotted around the bowl, and Hayama-san drives around regularly to catch up with them. It’s very remote, so to see two of the five takes a whole day’s travel from the nearby city of Kumamoto. She tells me about the lasting impact the projects have on the communities there, and the genuine interactions between the artists and locals. One of the residents shows us the video of a sumo wrestling match he unknowingly got involved in the night before, and tells us about the relationship between Shinto religion and the rice ceremony. Within this agricultural heritage, there are plenty of other embodied knowledges smuggled in, all of which have a direct closeness to the land. The land feeds the culture like the fertile soil feeds hairy corn.
Fig. 3 follows an encounter in Aso Caldera with Yuko Hayama (Aso, October 18th 2018), in Club Metro (Kyoto, October 26th 2018) in Toyota Commemorative Museum of Industry and Technology (Nagoya, October 28th), in Aoyama | Meguro with Hideki Aoyama and Bontaro Dokuyama (Tokyo, 29th October 2018), and in Mori Art Museum with Reiko Tsubaki (Tokyo, 30th October 2018)
Gordon Douglas works in close conversation with organisations and groups towards deconstructing the acts of collaboration and performance. He is a performance artist and curator currently based in Glasgow.