This article was originally published in The Japan Times newspaper on July 30 2019.
The political function of art is a perennial question in the field of aesthetics. In classical Athens, Plato argued that art as a form of imitation was limited in its ability to communicate knowledge about political life. In contrast, Aristotle saw this mimetic gap as a space for imagining new political realities.
In our digital times, for better or worse, life is increasingly experienced as a simulation — on screen, out there, out of reach. Since the border between life and imitation is increasingly blurred, social media messages gain as much purchase on the body politic today as political speeches of the past. A single image, a 10-second video, or a one-line tweet can both unify and polarize audiences in an instant.
What then, is the role of the work of art in the age of simulation?
This is one of the questions at the heart of the fourth edition of the Aichi Triennale contemporary art festival. The Festival’s artistic director, the journalist and media activist Daisuke Tsuda, has written extensively on the state of global geo-politics in the internet age and is a fierce advocate of media literacy. He sees in art the potential to “eschew the simplification of a gray, mosaic world into black and white.”
From Aug. 1 to Oct. 14, the festival will showcase cutting edge work in and around Nagoya and Toyota by more than 80 domestic and international artists. The works are divided into four key programs, curated by individual directors. These are contemporary art, film, the performing arts and music.
Tsuda chose the provocative title “Taming y/our passion” to frame the festival. It brings to mind Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” and its portrayal of a woman subjugated by male authority. The social web is full of power games, expressed through language, and contemporary politics makes full use of its currency.
As Tsuda noted, the word “passion”, which is “jōnetsu” in Japanese, has multiple connotations. The Chinese character “jō” can also be used in the words for information (“jōhō“) and humanity (“ninjō“).
For Chiaki Soma, director of the Tokyo Arts Commons festival and performing arts program director for the Triennale, these keywords resonate with the development of theater in ancient Greece. Theater emerged as a medium capable of harnessing human emotion as a communal experience. At the same time, Soma is wary of the male, Western-centric value system that underpins classical Western drama and puts mixed roots, creative difference and gender parity at the core of her program.
Among the 14 works in the performing arts section, artists hail from Japan, Germany, the U.S., the Netherlands, Slovenia, Spain and Norway. Three productions from Japan make direct reference to the roots of theater in Greece. Akira Takayama’s “Public Speech Project” will invite four members of the public to form a “school” that will study public oratory through theater and performance theory. The group will look at Aristotle’s “Poetics” and “Rhetoric” and explore ways of performing texts from pre-war Pan-Asianists. In a nod to Plato’s academy in ancient Athens, the school’s four students will present the outcome of their work in their own chosen spaces in Nagoya.
The video artist Meiro Koizumi will tackle “Prometheus Bound,” a play usually attributed to Aeschylus (though its authorship is contested), whose protagonist is chained to a mountain in punishment for derailing Zeus’ plan to destroy humanity. Prometheus steals Zeus’ fire and bestows it upon humankind to enable progress and civilization. In his first full-scale theater production, inspired by the themes of “Prometheus Bound,” Koizumi will take audiences on a virtual reality journey into a near future world in which they will get to experience the senses and emotions of “others.”
Director and playwright Satoko Ichihara will transform Euripides’ “Bacchae,” a play about the murderous revenge of the god Dionysus on his slanderous cousin Pentheus at the hands of Dionysus’ “raving” female followers, the Maenads. Working in collaboration with the musician Masahi Nukata and visual artist Hiroko Nukata, Ichihara calls the play’s patriarchal narrative into question in a radical retelling from the perspective of a housewife, her pet dog, a half-breed cow-human and a chorus of 12 Friesian cows.
Among the other offerings by Japanese artists is the performance installation “House of L” by Saeborg. Saeborg, whose real name is Saeko Oi, is an artist exploring the cultural implications of cybernetic technology. She experiments with latex body suits as second skins and challenges identity markers such as gender and race. In this piece, she invites audiences to interact with a host of strange animal-like characters that call into question borders between animals and humans.
Monira Al Qadiri moved to Japan from Kuwait at the age of 16. A doctoral graduate from the Tokyo University of the Arts, her play, “Phantom Beard,” is based on her personal experience of being told by a psychic in Japan that 40 male ancestral spirits were attached to her. Mixing music by Indonesian metal band Senyawa and film work by German group Transforma, with references to anime culture, her performance explores this unusual transcultural connection.
Theater Urinko, in partnership with Motoi Miura of theater company Chiten will perform “Afraid of Troubles — Cannot Have Luck,” a play by Russian children’s author Samuil Marshak that questions whether one person’s happiness depends on another’s unhappiness. Urinko is a Nagoya-based youth theater company with a 45-year stage history producing more than 450 performances each year.
The three international works are politically charged. German/Swiss artist, Milo Rau, working in collaboration with the CAMPO theater in Ghent, Belgium, will present “Five Easy Pieces,” a play that deals with the case of the confinement and murder of young girls in Belgium in the 1990s. The cast is made up of children who perform a testimony and report-based script.
The New York based Nature Theater of Oklahoma has partnered with the Slovenian EN-KNAP group to create “Pursuit of Happiness,” a dark and cynical dance satire that dissects American politics in the age of U.S. President Donald Trump through a hyperbolic adaptation of a spaghetti Western, relocated to Baghdad, Iraq.
Meanwhile, from the Netherlands, Theater Artemis and Het Zuidelijk Toneel will perform “The Story of the Story,” which presents an unlikely family comprising large-scale clip-art puppet versions of Trump as the father, Beyonce as the mother, and Christian Ronaldo as their 8-year-old son.
In this post-truth world of sound bites and culture wars, the festival’s producers suggest that one of the functions of art is to learn how to fight. Not with guns and rockets, but with concepts and skills the better to resist assaults on truth; forging gaps in the machine, to view the world in its complexity rather than reduce it to binary logic. Whether or not the works on offer at the Aichi Triennale live up to this role is for audiences to decide. The prospect is certainly tempting though.
The Aichi Triennale is being held from Aug. 1 to Oct. 14 at venues in the cities of Nagoya and Toyota in Aichi Prefecture.