Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Against context.

(This text was written for an art exhibition in Taipei, Taiwan, October 2016)

Ken Mogi

Ever since the time when Thomas Hobbes quipped that humans are in effect living inside a monster (aka the Leviathan, or a nation state), we have been forced to live a life of a monster tamer, trying to overcome the often savage nature of the monster in which we all live and hopefully breathe. The task has been a difficult one, and it has been conducted with a sense of Machiavellian wisdom and hypocrisy by the powers that be, and at best times, with a balancing sense of humor and humiliation, at least by some good states persons. 

From the point of human existence, the monsters were enforcers of contexts in which we all live and act. When nations go to war, we are forced to take some specific stance within the context of war, whether the good nature within us favor it or not. Being ambiguous is often made into an unacceptable crime. The Leviathans that were supposedly conceived to protect our individual rights by overcoming the Bellum omnium contra omnes (the war of all against all) would sometimes crush our own freedoms and even lives, when it forces certain contexts on our existences. 

Now, in a world becoming more and more complex, the monsters have begun to take many new forms. The Leviathans in the form of nation states are perhaps made less and less absolute in their reigns, due to the development of technologies such as the internet, which makes borders or national control in principle irrelevant. The nation states do not have a monopoly of the Leviathan status anymore. The monster’s powers have been transformed, transferred and diluted, into the multitude of entities both physical and virtual, connected through the ubiquitous medium of information technologies. 

To be sure, despite all these changes, the powers that be remain very real, sometimes with tragic consequences, even after the blasts introduced to the human civilization by such individuals as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden, and Chelsea Manning (born Bradley Manning). 

The first law of the dynamics of human society states that contexts which sometimes restrain our activities are here to stay for the foreseeable future. In order to remain free, we need to fight the contexts, whether they are imposed by political powers, the market, cultural conventions, or our own prejudices. On the other hand, it is also true that we cannot do anything without some framing contexts, leading to one of the most interesting dilemmas of human existence. Regarding contexts, we cannot live with them, and we cannot live without them. It is precisely because of the subtle nature of context-dependent dynamics that artistic expressions can sometimes contribute towards making it easier for us to breathe, by delving deep into the tangled web. 

Here, it is important to note that we are not just talking about political systems. The very nature of economy forces us to accept some degree of inequality. Human culture is increasingly divided into millions of sects, with adherents of each sect being indifferent to others, as if they are inhabitants of distant galaxies. Gone are the days when terms such as a contrast between high and counter cultures were at least marginally relevant. Now, the heterogeneity of the cultures are such that  it no longer makes sense to talk about high, mainstream, low, or counter cultures, unless you are being a hypocrite by intention and design. The mirror that reflects the various contexts in which we live in has already been shattered, and perhaps it is not a good idea to try to restore it to its original coherency.

Noboru Tsubaki is aware of all these difficulties and transformations. Or rather, we are made aware of these sea tide changes through his artworks, although, of course, as in any works of fine art, the references and metaphors are indirect and sometimes surpass the specific events that worked as sources of inspiration. 

Behind the seemingly nonchalant diversity of Tsubaki’s artistic expression lies the spirit of an artist who is engaged in one of the most strategic and consistent activities searching artistic and human freedom in recent times.

In essence, Tsubaki is an artist who is not afraid of being in a crash course with a monster, be it the art establishment, market, capitalism, institutionalism, or good old Leviathans of the nation states themselves. In fact, some might regard Tsubaki as kind of a monster himself, growing up to the scale of a gigantic sea monster in one’s own favored imagination. Tsubaki is perhaps entitled to receive the recognition of an artistic Leviathan status, although the artist might well shy away from such an acclaim, especially from his sense of anti-authority. 

Tsubaki’s stance not to take the status quo for granted was evident ever since his debut as an artist. He is recognized as one of the most outspoken and nonconformist artists of the nation, and the ripples are felt well beyond the borders of nation states.
As a young and upcoming artist, Tsubaki was known for his painting inspired by the mono-ha movement, for which he received numerous prizes. Following that line of expression alone would perhaps have earned him the status of a successful artist. 

However, Tsubaki did not stop there. He went on to explore new and unconventional venues for artistic expression, which ultimately put his name on the map. 
Going out of one’s own contexts might well be the hallmark of a monster slayer, especially when the monster is the ubiquitous contexts that we all breathe in. That is a universal problem that we face as individuals in today’s world, and it is an artist’s job to tackle it.

If you look back on the history of art, it was always about innovations going beyond the established contexts. The impressionists, originally a derogatory denomination thrown by the (then) mainstream art scene, were young artists which were regarded as second rate by the establishment. Marcel Duchamp, in his legendary Fountain (1917), turned the art scene upside down, and the world has not been the same ever since. Going against or out of the context is the name of the game, and Tsubaki is well aware of that in his actions. 
Tsubaki spent his youth in the rural Japan, where he was exposed to the brutal forces of nature. Tsubaki had ample time to observe and experience various forms of lives, a fact that perhaps explains the richness of artistic Cambrian explosion characterizing his artistic career. 

This  Camereon Eater (1983) is a hallmark work in Tsubaki’s early period, exploding both in physical dimensions and color. This work, according to Tsubaki, gave such a visual shock to two visiting American curators that it found its way to be included in the “Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties” exhibition. The term “Againt Nature” was of Tsubaki’s own coinage. The New York Times referred to Tsubaki’s work in one of its articles, mentioning the new monster coming from a country where the first atomic bombs were dropped. 

As a result, Tsubaki inadvertently became one of the first artists to introduce aspects of Japanese pop culture into the world art scene, well before such now household names as Takashi Murakami and Yositomo Nara.

The emergence of Japanese pop culture in the contemporary art scene has been an aesthetic coup d’├ętat, turning many things upside down, as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain did. This phenomenon could be compared to the influence of Ukiyo-e paintings on such impressionist artists as Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh. One may even say that without the preparation of ground by the Ukiyo-e influences, the unique and yet very flat originality of Henri Rousseau paintings might never have recognized. The same could perhaps be said about the influences of Japanese pop culture on contemporary art, although the jury of history is still out. Tsubaki’s works can be placed in the great web of arts and artists, in which a “pay it forward” relay of influences contribute to the betterment of the art word in general. 

Tsubaki pays it forward well.  One of the hallmarks of Tsubaki’s works is the vibe of energy emanating from its works. Energy is a great liberator of human spirit, a fact that lovers of Tsubaki’s works appreciate well.

In the Insect World (2001), exhibited at the Yokohama Triennale of 2001, Tsubaki put a gigantic locust figure on one of the landmark hotels. This work has a certain poignancy in a land where the fictional monster character Godzilla was born and then was made popular through the film series. When you suppress or damage something (in the case of Godzilla, it was the nuclear test in the Pacific that awoke the legendary monster from sleep), it will eventually snap back. In Tsubaki’s work, the giant locus is perhaps a reflection on human’s original sin against nature, which our ancestors once feared and then conquered, seemingly to our own benefit, but eventually to our own demise. If we control the nature within the suffocating context of modernization, then we should also expect it to snap back, whether in the form of a fiery monster or an oversized pest.
Needless to say, the conflict of contexts is not only between humans and nature. 

Tsubaki is not afraid to question the hegemony in the social context too, even if it possibly means upsetting the nerves of some onlookers. In UNBOY (2003), Tsubaki made a critical reference to the impasse in the world’s efforts to bring about peace, especially in the particular zeitgeist of the time when the United States was supposedly waging a war on terror in the wake of the 911 attacks. 

Here, it is noteworthy to note that In Tsubaki’s artworks, the killer instinct is not shied away from. In aTTA, modeled after the leafleting ants in Costa Rica. Tsubaki seems to be giving expression to, if not totally endorsing, the brutal in nature, whether it be non-human or otherwise. 

At the end of the day, it is evident that humans cannot perhaps do away with brutality all together. The rise of terrorism here and there in the world has made it obvious that the classic justification of the maintenance of nuclear weapons under the MAD (mutually assured destruction) scheme is becoming obsolete. As nations collapse and technical glitches emerge like bamboo shoots after the rain, the fiction that “responsible” nation states (oh, the Leviathans again!) could in principle control nuclear weapons is becoming an outdated and perhaps lethal fairy tale. Even in such a situation, humans seem to be adhering to the now seemingly ancient notion of security assurance by the powers of nation states, in a world divided by the Leviathans in an ad hoc manner.

If we cannot abolish human brutality from the root, it befalls on us to come face to face with it, not only to stay realistic but also to give peace a chance. That is perhaps why Tsubaki, although a peace loving man himself, often refers to the brutal nature of existence in his artworks.

It is interesting to observe how Tsubaki’s artworks have evolved and are constantly evolving. In the aftershock of the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995, Tsubaki produced Metapolice, a visual metaphor of the society where the ubiquitous cameras would monitor our activities constantly. After the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant accident of 2011, Tsubaki produced RADIKAL AQUA, a critical reference to politicians, scientists, journalists, and artists who promoted the use of nuclear energy. 

In his recent works Mammalian and DASYBELL, Tsubaki have stressed the view that perhaps humans themselves are the monsters, on the backdrop of new innovations of balloon technologies, enabling the artist to produce forms in the air freely. Now, Tsubaki says, he considers himself to be an “air sculptor“. 

So, the artist Noboru Tsubaki is constantly evolving. And so are the humans in general. Tsubaki seems to be dancing with the progress (or regress) of humans. It takes two to tango. And it is all about monsters.

Indeed, we have come a long way, monster-wise. It used to be that the picture was relatively simple. In the dawn of humanity, the mother nature was perhaps the greatest monster of all, providing humans with nutrition and necessary resources, but hitting back with life-threatening forces at the most unexpected time. The “enemies” (i.e. people of opponent nations in a war) were also depicted as monsters. These oversimplifications were perhaps politically correct and even psychologically necessary, to survive in a brutal world. Even the contrast between the heaven and hell might have come from such a psychological need for survival. We made monsters of the images of heaven and hell through survival necessities. We have come a long way from the primitive menagerie of imaginations gone wild. Welcome to the 21st century, where a brave new world of ubiquitous and often forced contexts is just around the corner. 
The art world is no exception, from the point of view of the tyranny of contexts. Many artists have criticized the “white cube” of art institutions. Banksy has gone physically out of the context of exhibition rooms. What is left in the art museums then? The elephant in the room now, in the most general sense, is perhaps the still rampant “contexts” surrounding humans, penetrating and integrating the civilized society in which we all live. 

The internet is one gigantic context, in which individuals hope to achieve the legendary 15 minutes of fame. The dream of individual glories is counterbalanced by the motif of totalitarian control. The government secret agencies try to gather information about the individual activities through a megalomaniac tapping plan, whether these individuals are involved in suspicious activities or not, or, for that matter, whether these activities are legal or otherwise.  It is the very nature of the information technology that individual differences have no relevance for the regime. It is one of the greatest ironies that we have come to this, with the supposedly benign motive of protecting our own freedom originally.

Everybody is fighting with contexts nowadays. And the fight will not be over with Episode I. Episodes Never-ending is the human destiny, when it comes to the fight with contexts. The artists would never be out of their jobs.

Some people argue that the singularity is near, in which the artificial intelligence vastly surpasses human intelligence and becomes dominant in the universe. After all, the artificial intelligence is nothing but a very finely tuned contextual dynamics. When an artificial intelligence program (e.g. the AlphaGo) is designed to play the game of Go well, it does so with unlimited concentration, within the context of a board game. But how are humans different from artificial intelligence? Are we not increasing becoming functional bots, constrained in boxed constraints assigned to each of us by the system?

Noboru Tsubaki has been involved in a fight against precisely these contexts. That is why we need an artist like Tsubaki in the years to come. To inspire, and be inspired. To breathe, to make some air.

In person, Tsubaki looks and moves like a seasoned athlete, or more precisely, a boxer who has trained for a long time to fight a monster in the ring, the world at large. The monster, or elephant in the room, is probably well perceived and aimed at by the artist, and the viewers usually get the message.

After all, every message is ultimately personal, and embodied. In addition to being an active artist, Tsubaki is a well-loved and respected Arts University professor. At college, Tsubaki teaches with vision and passion, aiming to inspire his students into the path of an active contemporary art career which he himself once followed. Tsubaki is critical of the way students are sometimes forced to behave in a context-dense society (e.g. Japan), where conformity often stifles the sparks of individuality, a necessary condition for artistic expressions, or, for that matter, existence as a decent human being. 

Tsubaki’s passion to guide the younger generation has a deep root. Tsubaki used to teach at junior and senior high schools. During that tenure, Tsubaki sometimes asked his students to appear in some of his works. Looking at his early works, one feels that the presence of pupils in school uniforms constitute an integral part of the artworks visually, as well as providing a critique of a society into which these young spirits grow and eventually get assimilated.

Noboru Tsubaki is a champion of freedom in a world increasingly becoming context-dependent. The monster has been released into the cyberspace, making it difficult to identify and locate the Leviathan, let alone slay it. Tsubaki’s quest is likely to go on for quite a long time yet. Art is long, much longer than the reaches of the monsters, and therein lies our hope.

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