7. Imagining Distant Ecologies in Hypersonic Tokyo: A Review of “Floating Between the Tropical and Glacial Zones”
By Akimi Ota
Published on October 1st, 2021
When I think of previous experiences visiting art shows, there are only a few cases in which an exhibition leaves an “after-effect” in me, one which then grows in my mind and increasingly bears upon my thinking over time. This is even more seldom in instances when I wasn’t really all that impressed during real time. “Floating Between the Tropical and Glacial Zones” by Yoichi Kamimura and Seiha Kurosawa, is one of these rare cases. The original Japanese title, ‘Tsumetaki Nettai, Atsuki Ryuhyo’ (literally meaning “Freezing Tropics, Warming Glaciers”), is an obvious homage to the classic ethnography Tristes Tropiques by French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Immediately, this informed us that the exhibition we were entering wouldn’t offer us a happy-nature-lover-time, but instead would require a different type of intellectual engagement on the part of visitors. Artists Kamimura and Kurosawa have undergone tough field research in extreme environments, the Amazonian rainforest and Shiretoko Peninsula (Hokkaido, Japan) respectively, and both claim to be forging “a new ecological perspective”. My heart was inevitably filled with an anticipation for feeling the majestic rhythm and materiality of distant lands, which, as I was knowingly aware of at the time, stemmed from an irresponsible self-indulgence. Listen, we are in Greater Tokyo, another “polar area” called the “Far-East” (if gazed upon by the “West”), an extravagant, dirty metropolis created by humanity. In short, my body was tired of inhaling polluted air and hearing the relentless sounds of metal on metal.
When I think of previous experiences visiting art shows, there are only a few cases in which an exhibition leaves an “after-effect” in me, one which then grows in my mind and increasingly bears upon my thinking over time.
I entered the gallery space and in a small room to my left came upon a finely crafted little snowdome (15×18cm). Displayed behind it was a single photograph. The photograph looked as if it were made from two separate images that had been cropped together. Both images showed the bow of a wooden boat, with each craft piloted by one of our respective artists in Amazonia and Shiretoko. These cropped photographs were edited to be aligned side by side in order to make a symmetrical image.
We are in Greater Tokyo, another “polar area” called the “Far-East” (if gazed upon by the “West”), an extravagant, dirty metropolis created by humanity. In short, my body was tired of inhaling polluted air and hearing the relentless sounds of metal on metal.
In the following larger room, my eyes were immediately drawn to what was a strange combination: a hammock strung up amidst a large number of transparent oval balloons, spread across the ground around the “exotic” sleeping kit. When art is considered to be simultaneously site-specific as well as an embodied experience that is contingent on the contexts visitors enter from, encountering an assemblage of polyurethan balloons in a concealed room in central Tokyo easily produces a sense of suffocation. On the other hand, it is also true that being in this hypersonic city and still finding a hammock, frequently used among Amazonian indigenous peoples and in wide areas of Latin America, begins to create another semiotic arena. I must admit that it made my pulse quicken. Maybe, this was due to my being a city-human and so customarily alienated from simian-ish actions such as “hanging” or “suspending.” Or maybe it was as someone who had a long-term unforgettable experience in South America. Well, for now let’s assume both. Whilst health-wise, blood vessels pressurizing and inflating at the same time seems an unwanted symptom, art-wise, it might turn out to be a good sign.
One word neatly describes the whole-floor soundscape created by Kamimura: impressive. This musique concrète is a remix of two audio elements. One is the destructive yet creamy sound coming from the melting glaciers, and the other is the ultimate killer tune played by the anonymous orchestra called “tout-monde”, echoing at night in the Amazonian rainforest. Remixing these together, the soundscape invited visitors, especially those swinging in the hammock, to some sort of illusionistic (or, better yet psychedelic) experience.
On the right side of the large room, the same Kamimura somewhat randomly exhibits his watercolor paintings. As I looked at them when lying on the hammock, my attention was drawn to the gradual change of the tones from cool to warm colors, rather than the scenes they depicted. As symbolised in one of the paintings titled Hammock Girl, which represents a little girl sitting on a hammock within a landscape filled with overtly blue colour tone, here again, Kamimura remixes motifs and elements from both Shiretoko and Amazonia. I found myself asking why this gradation had to be from “cool” to “warm.” If he loyally followed his mindscape, the transition could have been from “white” (Shiretoko) to “green” (Amazonia), appropriating two colours which acutely distinguish these extreme natural environments from one another. Would this have been more compelling? Why should the metaphor be temperature as represented by color? It made me ponder.
Towards the back of the space was a video installation by Kurosawa, screened on three monitors. Watching the sequences shot from the slow boat ride makes the visitor imagine the almost timeless feeling of a vast Amazonian river view, while another monitor screens aerial drone shots of the same rainforest, retracing “perspectives from dreams” of some sort or other. Then, all of sudden, a shot of a young Japanese woman calmly sleeping under early-afternoon sunlight fills one of the monitors. On the one hand, this unexpected juxtaposition disrupts the illusion of “Amazonia”, so commonly circulated, as a place that is untrodden. On the other, it paradoxically reminded me of that monstrous rainforest, where insects, bacteria and other beings mercilessly invade human space, precisely because of the fact that the monitor next to it seemed to show a bedroom in the ultimate germfree city of Tokyo. We are challenged: “Are these images actually co-existing realities, or are they not?” The inclusion of the shot of the clean, classic MUJI-looking room where the woman sleeps suggested to me something of Kurosawa’s playful yet somewhat rebellious attitude.
All that said, my honest feeling after leaving the venue was that this exhibition, as a whole, left me unsatisfied, for despite any of the strengths of individual elements they nonetheless failed to organically come together and ultimately to build to something bigger for the experience of visitors. More importantly, in this exhibition, I didn’t perceive any of the aura in an Benjaminian sense, that would drag me inevitably into the sensory realm of the grandiose natural environments of Shiretoko and Amazonia. A good question is whether creating such an aura was even desired by the artists. Looking at the snowdome closely and observing the details of the miniature, a duplicate Amazonian rainforest sinking under the floating ice of Shiretoko, I found myself sceptical about the radical artificiality and the ubiquitous presence of “chemical” materiality. It almost seems as if two field-researching artists abandon us Tokyoite city-dwellers alone, already, as we are, confined in a minuscule bubble called shakai (heavily loaded Japanese term for “society”), suffocated through a deprivation of air.
I didn’t perceive any of the aura in an Benjaminian sense, that would drag me inevitably into the sensory realm of the grandiose natural environments of Shiretoko and Amazonia. I found myself sceptical about the radical artificiality and the ubiquitous presence of “chemical” materiality.
One possibility is that we may take their attitude as creative cynicism, considering the tragic path that the planetary ecology is currently rushing along (at least for many of species including humankind). Nonetheless, the statement accompanying this exhibition suggests that the artists’ intention is to inspire the imagination towards distant natures, rather than a knowing mocking of visitors. The thresholds for stimulating visitors’ kinaesthesia here were almost limitless: the ice-cold gut feeling when stepping forward into complete darkness; the pleasant smell of decay omnipresent in the rainforest (I have vivid memories of this in Amazonia); the unevenness of ground and snow impeding the basic action of walking; and, last but not least, the astonishing knowledge of local people for making a livelihood.
In recent art movements such as land art, bio art and especially under the umbrella concept of the Anthropocene, there have been increasing attempts internationally to deconstruct the aesthetic value system that has historically maintained the hierarchy between the “artificial” and the “natural.” Regarding this recent tendency, again, I think the two artists could have better accounted for their insistent use of artificial materials. Perhaps more importantly, what might be lacking is an approach of sympoieisis, as coined by Donna Haraway, or a vital trust in cross-species art making. I wouldn’t claim that we should make art only with biodegradable stuff from now on. Yes, we can still make art exclusively with artificial materials and lean on meta-communication. But then, in that case, I wish Kamimura and Kurosawa would have come up with more politically and philosophically challenging ideas that express the profound contradictions and entanglements that we, as habitants of Tokyo, are experiencing today.
Have I offered too many critiques? Let me now offer some counter to the arguments I made above. As I alluded to in the beginning, I have found my thoughts to be increasingly haunted by this exhibition, which has questioned me silently, yet persistently. My theory for why it lingers in my mind stems from the nature of the exhibition: it speaks to our subconsciousness, articulating highly abstract (dis)joints in our intellect, rather than offering a vivid transmission of the artists’ personal experience. One example is the conscious use of the metaphor of color temperature and avoidance of retracing the color sensation of each place. Another is the contrasting sensory experience produced by the omnipresence of ball-shaped things, such as balloons and snowdome, which create a sense of confinement, alongside contraptions that transport visitors back to the “open air”, such as the hammock and aerial drone shots. Encompassing all these items is the soundscape, which produces an integrated aural experience by remixing sounds from two polarised lands.
When I was inside the venue, these contrasts caused an uncomfortable sensation rather than effortlessly permeating my flesh. However, the more days that have passed, the more I find my psychological compass attuned to the central area of colour gradation, where the difference between two colours is imperceptible, or at least ambiguous. This feeling is similar to one I have had when sleeping with a fragment of a thorn inside my finger and finding the following morning that it had been dislodged and fallen out as a result of spontaneous healing. What I have realized through this exhibition is the simple fact that my body constantly works without me actively noticing it, and that even when an exhibition didn’t have an immediate impact upon me, that it still could have the capacity to affect me on a subconscious level over the course of time. Depicting three “extreme environments”, namely Amazonia, Shiretoko and Tokyo, this exhibition experiments with interdisciplinary art practices, courageously making the first step into a realm that few people have yet to venture. I consider this attempt as highly significant in the international context of contemporary art, and cannot help but eagerly await the future works by Kamimura and Kurosawa.
Depicting three “extreme environments”, namely Amazonia, Shiretoko and Tokyo, this exhibition experiments with interdisciplinary art practices, courageously making the first step into a realm that few people have yet to venture.
“Floating Between the Tropical and Glacial Zones” by artists/curators duo Yoichi Kamimura and Seiha Kurosawa was held at Tokyo Arts and Space Hongo from January 9th to February 7th, 2021.
Learn more about the exhibition here.
Watch the exhibition video tour here.
Dr. Akimi Ota was born in Tokyo. He graduated from Kobe University’s Faculty of Intercultural Studies, and obtained a master’s degree in anthropology at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. While engaging in ethnographic fieldwork in Morocco and suburban Paris, he has also worked as a journalist and photographer at Kyodo News Paris Bureau. During this period, he frequently visited the Cinémathèque Française. He subsequently enrolled in the University of Manchester, where he completed the PhD programme in Visual Anthropology. This research allowed him to conduct a year-long fieldwork in the Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador and Peru. In 2020, based on this experience, he completed his first feature-length documentary film, titled “Kanarta: Alive in Dreams”.
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