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AVF '87 - The Absence of Reflection: Video, Lunacy and Post-culture Japan.

4 September 198710 September 1987

The Australian Video Festival, 1987.


The Absence of Reflection: Video, Lunacy and Post-culture Japan.
Alfred Birnbaum, Peter Callas (Curators)

β€œThe moon is the oldest television."1 Autumn is traditionally moon-viewing time in Japan. The thirteenth night of the ninth moon - which falls within the Festival period - is considered an apex of the season. A time to gaze and reflect. The twelfth-century poet Saigyo sung at this time a "mirror for the moon".

Eight hundred years later and a hemisphere away, an electronic sun comes to earth. Critics in the West have been swift to predicate the violent nature of television and video. From McLuhan's "hot medium" to Virilio's "speed space", indictments have been levelled at the seductive subliminals, the omnipresent no-point perspective, the coercive framing inherent in the programming grid, the disjointing of events in collapsed time - the violence of the very cathode raygun firing away at our retinae. The flickering tube burning with infernal intensity. A radiant sun that blinds as it illumines.

In Japan a hazy moon eclipses that sun. The critical clarity brought to bear on this medium in the West is not only obscured; it is virtually unintelligible, For one thing, the Japanese trust the medium implicitly. Familiar and familial, the television stays on all day, morning to night, as friendly background, a clock, or at worst as innocuous timefill. Japanese are at home with television and on television - comfortable enough to frolic in innocent, lunatic abandon on their live shows without even a split-second broadcast delay. Television adds another "living room" to the Japanese home.

Increasingly this 'living room" is coming to encompass the whole world. This sense of screen as surrogate place - as space itself reflects nothing so much as its absence. Commercials and travelogues present vast open landscapes and idyllic climes far removed from the overcrowded Japanese megacity. The Japanese want to be absent from it all; they seek an uncomplicated reflection of life elsewhere, in other times - yet here and now. Displacement where the West sees only disrupture.

Video, even more than television, expands in this direction, providing electronic horizons where the natural horizon has long since disappeared. Japan has found, in the medium, post-cuitural solutions on how to be two places at once. Tranquil ambient BGV "background video" is everywhere. Moreover, this technological solution to the local "space race" actually asserts the neo-colonial economic centrality of these tiny isles. Video brings the world to Japan, and makes it a part of the architecture. In some areas of Tokyo the pedestrian is so bombarded with video images from built-in shop display monitors and jumbo signboard screens that the very physical space seems to bifurcate. Illusionism ceases to be illusion when the "real" surroundings are so designed as to be indistinguishable from the unreal.

One could arguably trace this to the Japanese tradition of "borrowed landscape" in gardening or to the near millenium and a half of mirroring other cultures, the very process by which customs from the Asian continent - moon viewing included - are transformed into Japanese "tradition", and which now allows post-culture Japan, cut off from its own past by the enormous rifts of Meiji-era Westernisation, the Great Kanto Earthquake and the Post-War Occupation, to freely appropriate from earlier historical periods. It is as if the preceding fourteen centuries never really happened and had to be invented (one Japanese producer, on viewing some Australian video, commented in all sincerity that Australia was indeed an "older culture" than Japan, the work had such "depth"). All is surface, interchangeable motifs, form-as-content. Here again, the absence of reflection: a tabula rasa accepting of the "look" of everything, polished mirror images resplendent in their insubstantiality. This superficial vision of recombinant designed realities says much not only about Japanese videowork but also about contemporary Japanese art in general.

Japanese video art first emerged from experimental film in the early 70's. Much work still probes the nature of self, perception, and the medium itself. Much is obsessed with a "coming to terms" with nature, or with the perceived "continuum" between man, technology and nature. The tapes shown thus far in Australia as part of Continuum '85, various Sydney Biennales (most notably 1982) and the First Australian Video Festival have largely exhibited such video verite tendencies. Another aesthetic entirely, however, exists in pop, graphic and promotional video - categories which comprise the current "software boom" in Tokyo. These represent the most viable aspects of the medium in Japan, considering that public funding for the arts and opportunities for exhibition are almost non-existent outside the circuit of rental galleries. Where culture would manifest in art post-culture needs only glosses. Yet by the same cool distancing effect, in a society where everything is reflective facade, commercial sensibilities are refined to a degree that fairly replaces art.

Either way, Japanese videowork is typically non-narrative in character. Or rather non-causal - like the Japanese language - the parallel synchrony of the right hemisphere dominating the serial linearity of the left hemisphere. Only rarely is Japanese videowork "about" anything. The exceptions, though, are noteworthy: Hiroya Sakurai's work is distinctive in its topical socio-political orientation and depth of analysis into the power of the media.

Much of the work in this presentation will admittedly come across as foreign to the Australian viewer Even so, many of the images will be somehow familiar. You may even see yourself reflected in these tapes from the Land of the Rising Sun.

Screening Programme –


Mao Kawaguchi and Miss Motion La Cite Delire (1987) 26 mins.
Ambient imagery. A 3-channel version of an 18 channel work originally designed for 100 monitors. A mood piece on Tokyo's "body temperature" throughout the course of a day. Music by Yasuaki Shimizu.



Taeko Kitajima Dancing Insects (1986) 4 mins.
Videographics. Aniputer-animated bugs-in-the-works.

Dancing Beans (1986) 13 mins.
Videographics. Videomanga: thrills, chills, codicils.

Koichi Tabata Mizutama Hour (1986) 10 mins.
Videographics. A post-pop art look at American Pop Art in polkadots.

Hiroya Nakano Early-Bloomer Girl (1986) 3 mins.
Music-clip for singer Jun Togawa. A "scratch" of samurai film footage.

Bruce Osborne Spring 1982 (1986/87) 14 mins.
A humourous semi-documentary. One resident foreigner's view of some "typical" Japanese customs.

Ra Physical Life (1986) 4 mins.
Videographic treatment of the life of nighttime streetworkers in Tokyo.

Radical TV Compilation (1986/87) 10 mins.
Video performance. A sampling of recent techno-pop stage shows by the performance group Radical TV. Vocals by Daizaburo Harada.

Made In Japan (1986) 6 mins.
Computergraphics. An affirmative treatment of Japanese New Year decorations.

Makoto Tezuka Lovers in the Edo Period (1986) 5 mins.
Music video. Traditional Japanese aesthetics meet Rock-n-Roll,

Steel-Helmeted Woman (1987) 5 mins.
Music video. Fascism a go-go.

Naoko Tosa Ecstasy Monochrome Version (1986) 6 mins.
Computergraphics with dance imagery.

Terihiko Yumura Terry's Channel 100 (1985) 6 mins.
Animation. "Paper-puppet" parody of 50's American romance cartoons.


Alfred Birnbaum Artist and Curator. Liaison and editor for Infermental VIll: The Tokyo Edition (scheduled for release May 1988)

Hiroya Sakurai – Video artist.

Keiko Sei – Curator, managing director video gallery SCAN. Liason and editor for Infermental VIll: The Tokyo Edition.

The Japan section has been kindly assisted by the Australia-Japan Foundation, OANTAS and the Australian Film Commission.


1Nam Jun Paik