I admit, I’ve been neglecting my blog…there’s one good excuse that you might accept, which is a 40-hour job. BUT I’m also honest with you: in the last 2 years in Vienna my interest in and invitations to studios of young artists (that aren’t represented by a gallery) was limited. One reason for that is the Viennese inner circle, for which you need a key to enter – a key that you can receive through either hard (net)working, hard money, or hard copying. And sure, I’ve fancied the key; I have fancied inclusion; I have fancied free dinners. Nevertheless, my issues with the Viennese art scene are not the topic of this article, so I’ll calm down, cook, and revise my visit to Michikazu’s studio in the 10th district. I got to know Michikazu through his performance Dance, if you want to enter my country! that was staged at Brut. The piece caught my attention as it is not only witty but moreover is concerned with universal issues like those of inclusion and exclusion, or like the need for a sense of belonging and togetherness.
How you doing? Good thanks. I’ve been travelling a lot and am preparing my performance Dance, if to be staged in Johannesburg, which I’ll adapt slightly from the Viennese version. I’m excited to show it there, especially in regard to the history of black people in South Africa.
Dance, if you want to enter my country! is a performance dealing with the real story of an African American dancer Abdul Rahim Jackson who on arrival at the Tel Aviv Airport was brought to an extra room because of suspicions caused by his Muslim first name. As a member of the world famous Alvin Ailey modern dance company, Jackson was asked to dance in front of the border control officers in order to prove his profession as a dancer. Michikazu encountered this story in a newspaper in 2008 and was intrigued by the oddness of this incident. Jackson finally qualified to enter the country through his ability to dance “right”…as if the officers could judge?! What I find striking is the paranoia a name causes and the fact that apparently the level of profession legitimizes to be a “good” person who may enter a country. And what if the “judge” just didn’t like the dance?
Why dance? Dance always fascinated me. I used to work as a dancer in contemporary dance productions before I started making my own performances. But I got really tired and annoyed of dancing…so my own works in the first period was a lot about how I could escape from dance, how to perform without dance. That was an important shift for me to find my own way as an artist.
Like what? One of my projects, made in collaboration with Austrian artist David Subal, was about standing still. We stood for 60 minutes in front of touristic and historic sights in various capital cities of the world – for example the Atomium in Brussels, the Brandenburger Gate in Berlin or the Pyramids in Cairo. During the whole hour, we posed in front of a camera, like tourists would do to make photographs of themselves, imitating their typical postures and wearing tourist goods like t-shirts or caps that one could purchase at any cheap tourist shop. In Vietnam, for instance, we were wearing rice field hats. So, this instantaneous moment of posing for a camera was extended to an hour of standing and was actually recorded on video. In these 60 minutes a lot was happening around us: people passing by, teasing us, standing with us. It turned into a lively interaction with the venue and the people.
With this motionless performance Michikazu and David were investigating the flux of global tourism and the imposition of national identities. In my perspective, their inaction manifests itself as a powerful statement against stereotypes and how they are perpetuated to represent and sell a nation to foreigners.
Why national identity? I come to this topic again and again. Look at Dance If you want to enter my country!: Abdul Rahim Jackson was forced to dance at the airport in Israel because of his Muslim first name. But this story is told and performed by myself, a Japanese living in Austria, who has a different kind of body expression. This gap is what interests me: the image of a person between expectation and reality.
I’m residing in Austria for 18 years and still feel like a foreigner. I don’t feel as an Austrian. I grew up in another culture. It’s sometimes not describable what is different.
Does the current political situation influence your art making practices? Indirectly, yes. I tend to dislike over-political art as it seems too limited in its approach. For me art is not so much about directly reflecting a current political situation but naturally becomes a part of it. By following my interests, my art becomes political and socially engaged. Like my performance Goodbye. It’s based on farewell letters that I found on the internet and read on stage. One is written by Maria Theresia to Marie Antoinette on the day she left to France to marry Louis XVI. So at first it’s a letter from mother to daughter but then it’s also a letter from empress to princess, which opened up a whole new dimension as it became historical and therefore political. Another letter is from a blind man to his guide dog that died. He wrote a very sad letter. They were co-dependent. So this added a social layer to the piece.
Like many of Michi’s works also this piece fuses manifold dimensions: dance, humor, sweat, irony, props, personal stories, sincerity, and emotions mix with a certain degree of uncertainty. After all, he addresses love, loss and the last remnants of letting go. Only death is quite certain….
What are you worried about? Politicians using scare tactics like what is happening at the moment. The problem is education and the media. In Japan the government is quite nationalistic. Some artists are really against the government and how some situations, like Fukushima or the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, are not properly dealt with. But the difference is that even though there’s a tense relationship between some Asian governments, foreigners on the streets make friends. It is really shocking how governments are manipulating fear. People believe the media and the government controls what they publish. They lost their own standpoint and critical stance, which is very dangerous.
Politically engaged art? The degree of the political is almost like a secondary importance in my works, it’s not my primary intention. But to work with a Russian artist, for instance, automatically turns political. For Objective Point of View I collaborated with Maxim Ilyukim and it was very important for me to show that friendship is at the core of the work. And that’s not political as such but in its attitude. On stage we encounter each other with our own views and stories and thus we gradually move towards contextualizing tensions between cultural ascriptions, social identification, and personal experience. How Russia is treated in the media is not pleasant at all, so to make friends with a Russian artist is a statement in itself.
Thus, Michi is raising awareness and subliminally causes change or changes opinions. And I guess the effect is even higher than overt political art. After all, people – myself included – hate to be “governed”, to be controlled, or told what to do and think. Hence, change might happen slowly and subconsciously when pondering issues such as unjust discrimination at airports or when feeling content about one’s own conventional name.
What about your audience? I’m interested in offering possibilities for certain reflections and thoughts. But I cannot force the audience to do or think in a certain way. I’m serious in what to offer and what to suggest. I have a hope or trust that people eventually find another understanding, which they wouldn’t come up with before. But of course I cannot force that. It’s a bit like when I’m teaching as I’m also a teacher for performance. I don’t want to change students, I offer them exercises that trigger a process. That’s maybe also my attitude towards the audience.
Humor, Irony, or Cynicism? I understand performance as entertainment, which not only has to be funny but should also be interactive with the audience, like standup comedy. To be entertaining is a completely different task than being political. So that challenges my works in another way. Some sense of humor and fun functions the best for me and eventually a certain degree of irony and cynicism develops out of it. Like in the work Buydentity Crisis, which is a wordplay I quite like. You buy a thing and this represents your identity. People afford the objects that refer to their class, profession, family background, etc. Unintentionally it stands for your status.
The work consists of a series of portraits in which Michi wears tights by different fashion brands as robber masks. His facial characteristics are hidden but his identity, status, or even personality is portrayed through his purchasing power. Another series of portraits is Passportrait, for which Michi secretly films passport control officers examining his passport at international airports. Again, it shows the arbitrariness of border control and the various understandings of otherness/foreignness. As one officer might have an in-depth look at his passport, another one is rather neglectful. It is a strong and bold statement which Michi is making as it not only puts him at risk but also turns around the lens of the surveillance camera. The observer becomes the observed.
Act of Civil Disobedience? I thought about it…in my opinion it is not forbidden to film the officers. I regard it as my civil right. Look what has been happening in the US when people started to film the police officers. The people started to control the police and it proved that it was needed. The moral issues have changed in the last few years, which was also an inspiration for me. At border controls we get surveilled, so we also have the right to document their interrogations. So in my mind it’s not illegal. If I’m going to be sued for that, I’m going to fight for my rights. I believe in the autonomy of art so I may also use it as footage which we can discuss.
And your most recent project? Right now I’m working with mattresses, which has to do a lot with the European bed. In Japan a lot of people sleep on futons and interestingly the mattress is a foreign, exotic object that is just now integrated into the Japanese culture. Ironically, the word comes from Arabic. I’m interested in the cultural habits and norms, how they are transformed and translated from one culture into another.
After my conversation with Michikatzu I was once again reminded of the key metaphor and that we probably all fancy or even need a sort of key – a key that breaks open gates that are guarded by keepers who are either unaware of its privilege or misuse its power; a key that unlocks suppressed feelings of togetherness, belonging, and safety; first and foremost a key that opens up the door to a home.
All works (C) Michikazu Matsune