Feb 25, 2013

Projects 99: Meiro Koizumi

Projects 99: Meiro Koizumi

Museum of Modern Art
Organized by Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator,
Department of Prints and Illustrated Books.
January 9th - May 6th 2013

   Currently exhibited by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, Projects 99 showcases three of Meiro Koizumi’s filmic works, as well as a glass cabinet display of original sketches for the exhibit’s focal piece, Defect in Vision (2011). The ink and pencil outlines, aptly named Idea Drawings, give the spectator a sense of the artist’s process in conceiving and creating the work. The film, which is projected onto two sides of a single screen, but shows different images on each side, is drawn on paper as two images on top of one another, in what could have possibly been the initial concept of projecting two overlapping and transparent images on a single screen. The end product however, would have lost an essential essence if this was in fact Koizumi’s original plan; the idea that the viewer is prevented from watching both screens at once is paramount to the piece. One screen is predominantly close-up shots, and the other wide shots.
   Set in Japan at the end of World War II, the twelve minute video is simplistic in its nature, showing a man and wife sitting at a chabudai, or low table, in a traditionally japanese living room setting. The dialogue is purposefully repetitive and centers around impending disaster and death - most likely the kamikaze pilots that flew into American warships in the Pacific Ocean, the husband being one of them. The viewer quickly realizes however, that both characters are blind, the wife both physically and philosophically. “Please come back alive,” she tells her kamikaze husband. It is indicative of a social and political ignorance from both a Japanese and American, or simply an Eastern and Western standpoint.

   To a passing spectator, Koizumi’s two other pieces in Projects 99, Human Opera XXX (2007) and My Voice Would Reach You (2009), seem tacked on and even unrelated to the exhibit’s main attraction. Whilst Defect in Vision is presented in its very own space, in a dark room separated from the museum floor by large thick curtains, the companion films are presented outside this room on two television screens, a square 4:3 screen and wide 16:9 screen respectively. Nonetheless, after watching both pieces - you must use the provided headphones and stand (or sit on the floor), the relation between them and the exhibit’s focal piece becomes clear. In all three pieces, Koizumi plays on human emotions, bringing them to the forefront via forced emotional manipulation as in Human Opera, by way of decisive ignorance as in My Voice Would Reach You, and through a mix of both in Defect in Vision.

   Like Nickelodeons of the early twentieth century, film exhibitions in a museum setting tend to play on a reel, and the films in Projects 99 are no different. Spectators coming and going at different parts of a piece can often be chaotic and distracting, however for Defect in Vision, there is method to the madness, of sorts. Whilst Human Opera and My Voice Would Reach You have defined beginnings and ends, albeit not controlled in time by the viewer (they’d have to wait for it to end if they wish to watch from the start), Defect in Vision has no clear-cut story arc. The very fact that museum-goers enter the room at various points in the film, coupled with the double back-to-back screen, emphasizes the idea that there is no one way of seeing and experiencing the piece.
   The room that hosts the film is also very purposeful in its presentation; it is a dark room with black walls, black paneling and black carpeting, and serves to reflect the film’s black and white saturation in a simplistic yet meaningful way. Not only do the streaks of light pouring in through slits in the curtained doorway accentuate the shadowy style of Koizumi’s film, but as spectators enter the room from the brightened museum corridors, they fumble as their eyes adapt to the dark. Asides from the low lighting, there is another initial confusion for the viewer to contend with upon entering the room; some people see the screen in front of them and cease to move from where they stand, others notice the flashes of light from the opposite screen on the back wall, and head straight for the farther side of the room, and a handful of viewers circle the screens and watch the film for a time on both. However, even amongst those that notice the back-to-back screen set up, there seems to be few who realize that the content of each differs. At one point on the far screen, a man, who Ken Johnson in his New York Times article (January, 2013) deems to be a production assistant, enters the frame and rearranges items on the table whilst the man and wife continue their conversation obliviously. Johnson writes that it “lend[s] it all an oddly artificial feeling,” however it is probably more important to note that the spectator who declines to watch the film by way of the far screen, will never garner that specific component of the film. Perhaps, something is lost on them as a result, but perhaps it is their unique experience of the film, however great or small that is more important to Koizumi’s vision.

   Organized by Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator in the Department of Print and Illustrated Books (an unusual project for someone in such a department), the presentation of Defect in Vision at MoMa also lends itself to both the abstruse and performative nature of the film. The latter is reflected in the simplicity of the darkened room and the connotative power of its cinematic display, the curtains, carpet et al. evoking the theatric and the dramatic. The former however, is slightly more subtle. The film on the first screen is almost entirely close-up shots of the face, which comes in and out of focus as the subject moves back and forward, and as the image blurs, so too does the spectator’s agitation.  Not only does the focus, or lack thereof, illustrative the protagonist's blindness and ignorance, but it is also analogous to the awkwardness of the museum-goers as they fumble into the room, often crossing the view of their fellow spectators. It is appropriately reminiscent of the film’s chaos. Cheiko, the man’s wife continues throughout the film to ask the same questions and make the same inane comments. As he puts down his newspaper, the husband explains to Cheiko that the Japanese offensive against the Americans in Okinawa will commence soon. And throughout the piece, we come to realize that he will be part of it. At one point on the far screen, the husband is seen in a shaky, handheld, and almost fish-eye close-up shot were he is obviously flying a plane. Amongst the roar of the engine and the whooshing sound of the wind, he cries out to Chieko that he is sorry. Her questions posed to her husband in the piece such as “Will kamikaze blow again?” make it clear that he is embarking on a suicide mission, yet they still converse as if this is not the case. Planning his supposed return, she says “We will take a long walk... have a long bath... [and] have sake for lunch.” But, whether they are playing a game for the sake of normalcy amongst his impending death or whether the husband is satisfying his wife’s ignorance and/or denial, is not acutely evident. Even the thought that the couple are simply well lubricated on sake is not far from the viewer’s mind. The obscurity of the film nonetheless is given ample opportunity to thrive in the exhibit’s dark and somewhat somber environment.

   The inclusion of the two other video installations, Human Opera and My Voice Would Reach You, as accompaniments to Defect in Vision seems to be a purpose based choice. Koizumi’s films are seemingly very different, yet broach similar territory in both theme and tone. He is known to be a quirk both in his personality and his art, blending tragedy and comedy into an intractable bond, and all three films showcase this in varying ways. In Human Opera, Koizumi interviews a man who responds to the artist’s advert (the text of which we see at the start of the film) that asks for someone with a tragic life story to recount the tale on camera for a substantial amount of money. It begins with Koizumi himself, with his face painted silver, setting up the interview room with random objects such as foil tubing, rubber animals et al. Finally, Rob Hoekstrer, a computer engineer from Amsterdam, is brought in to be interviewed by the artist. Koizumi gets him to recount his story in which his girlfriend took away his daughter as result of his alcoholism. However, as Hoekstrer tries to tell the tale, Koizumi continuously interrupts him, saying that “something is missing in the image,” or that he “need[s] something more vivid.” He gives Hoekstrer different obscure objects to hold, cuts his shirt open, doodles on his face, writes “free drink” on his bare chest, and even has him continue his story with a bread roll in his mouth. As Johnson (January, 2011) writes, “the final scene, a kind of shamanistic exorcism, is shocking, scary and hilarious.”
    Similarly, My Voice Would Reach You delves into that obscure yet intrinsic correlation between humor and tragedy. The emotional response to both - laughter and crying - is equally cathartic, and Koizumi displays that effortlessly in what seems to be the overriding theme of the exhibition as a whole. Defect in Vision however, is slightly more akin in its form to My Voice Would Reach You. The film centers around a man who calls the information desk at a credit card company and acts as if he is speaking with his deceased mother. Like in Defect in Vision, he suggests they book a trip to a hot spring, after which the phone operator asks him if he means “hotline.” Whilst absurdly funny at times, it is rooted in the man’s devastation, and probably more so in his guilt about not becoming the man his mother hoped he would be. Unlike Defect in Vision though, the protagonist is most certainly play acting for the purpose of normalcy - he just wants to have a simple phone conversation with his mother - in the face of a tragic reality.
   Projects 99 is also part of MoMa’s Elaine Dannheisser Project Series, which is dedicated to giving new and emerging artists space for their work. And, as both the abstract for the exhibition and Johnson’s article (January, 2011) mention, there is a relevance to the 2011 nuclear disaster in Fukushima, which supposedly occurred whilst Koizumi was in the midst of making Defect in Vision. And so, the sense of impending catastrophe, as well as the running motif of blindness and ignorance take on a greater cultural meaning. The viewing experience thus employs at least one other consistency other than natural sound.

  Projects 99: Meiro Kuizumi runs through May 6th at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

Defect in Vision (2011)
Installation with two-channel high definition video
(black and white sound)
12 min

Human Opera XXX (2007)
Video (color, sound)
17 min

My Voice Would Reach You (2009)
High Definition video (color, sound)
16 min

Ken Johnson, 2011

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