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MAT Exhibition vol.9
Nagoya Culture Promotion Unit Bilateral Visual Art Exhibition: Nagoya x Penang (Nagoya Head Office)
Review|Kazuo Amano

Misaligned with the Surface, or On the Side of Taiwan Ramen

With the inability to hold various art industry events, from international art shows to special exhibits, residencies, workshops and panel discussions, the worry today is whether one can even present artworks. However, in the midst Covid there was a unique exhibition which decided to make use of the situation.

With international travel prohibited, an exhibition to be held concurrently at Nagoya, Japan, and Penang Island, Malaysia, in which artists from both countries participate. Such a proposal would have been possible in the past if you wanted to overexert yourself but under the current circumstances it would not be excessive to describe it as madness.

Seven sets of artists (4 Japanese, 3 Malaysians) from the two countries presented artworks simultaneously at two locations without ever meeting face to face, spending time in the other country, studying the actual site, and prevented from exhibiting together. I was taken aback by the audacity of proceeding with what would normally have been cancelled or postponed (furthermore, with less than 2 months for research and preparations). But this was precisely what made this exhibition different from others. It turned an unheard of “online pseudo-residency,’ a joke essentially, into reality. Even the collection of photos illustrating the promotional flyer with Nagoya Port in the background turned out to be complete fabrication as well.

With an ironclad rule of “no shipping of items,” communication was carried out via numerous Zoom meetings, fabrication of artworks at each venue was done by a substitute artist, and these were subsequently put on display. Naturally, a degree of misalignment was unavoidable. To compare, conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt used instructions to create artworks without direct involvement to break free from an individual’s metier but it resulted in elaborate workmanship, the concept superseding the physical production process. This time, the artworks were more of a superficial imitation devoid of in-depth cultural interaction rather than conceptual, as the cultural background of the artist was left to the imagination of the fabricator who could not question about the details. Although both sides studied the exhibition sites as best they could they had no choice but to entrust the fabrication to another person. Instead of faithful recreations, the injection of artistic interpretation including misalignment resulted in interesting and curious qualities being infused at the other exhibition space.

This writer has a slight knowledge of Malaysia although none of Penang. Penang Island is a port town with layers of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and its respective cultures due to Indian and Chinese influence, and its time under British and Japanese rule. Georgetown with its clearly British colonial features is renown as a world heritage site. Perhaps precisely because it has been an intersection of East and West, and a key transport hub along the Malacca Straits, Penang may have possessed the necessary foundation for the free-flowing interaction required by this exhibition. One must also not forget that during the war it was an important base for the Japanese military leading up to the fall of Singapore, and paintings and film were produced during the heady early days of the war.

I was told that the theme this time was “Nagoya” due to the fact that 2 out of the 3 Penang artists had been to the Nagoya site, and following a Malaysian proposal they came up with the pretend “Nagoya Culture Promotion Unit (NCPU)” headquarters in Nagoya and a branch in Penang. One can sense the attempt to fend off the abnormal with uproarious laughter. Perhaps one can even say that open tolerance and playfulness were the prerequisites for accepting the mismatch between the subject and artworks and the resulting misunderstanding and misalignment. By producing with an artistically flexible viewpoint, it emphasized that the viewpoint itself was art. But this unbalanced character must have been a known factor from the beginning. The exhibition venues were the Minatomachi Potluck Building in Nagoya (which was under lockdown for part of the exhibition period) and a space in Penang. For those of us in Japan, the Penang exhibit with the restrictions in place may have affected the understanding of the artworks, and in terms of cultural transformation Penang may have been better suited due to its more hybrid qualities.

Let me touch on the specifics.
Yuji Kinoshita and Forest Wong did a collaborative research of the Nagoya Port area, overlapping their real and imagined maps of Nagoya Port, and using emojis. To an outsider like us it existed as an indecipherable third being.

Craft tends to be seen as being on the periphery of art but it is deeply entrenched in daily life and directly related to people’s lives. Asuka Miyata works using a home knitting machine, and she made “pennants” which were once popular as port souvenirs in Japan, weaving sketches and words that referenced the energy plant that cropped up in her interviews with the locals. In addition, Tetriana Ahmed Fauzi turned her attention to a company called “Nagoya Textile” which sold fabrics with Japanese style designs in Malaysia, and designed a fabric symbolizing the two cultural textiles of furoshiki and sarong, which both function as wrappers. They both dug up the historical layers and transformed them into daily items.

Takuya Yamashita created clay sculptures of Nagoya’s eccentrics, “TOKONA-X,” a rapper who sang about Nagoya, and “Hamanoya Ito,” an art collector, and presented visuals of these juxtaposed against famous sights of Nagoya. These images were transmitted together with video of the production process to Penang, and replicas were displayed, but the cryptic words and characters of these 2 personalities which are incomprehensible even to Nagoya citizens must have been incredibly strange to those in Penang. But they must have sensed the odd and strange texture of the physical and visual combination. The understanding gained from that discord and art may be equivalent to the appeal of experiencing another culture.

Hoo Fan Chon, the curator on the Penang side, not only came up with the idea of switching Nagoya’s shachihoko with Penang’s mudskipper and installing it on top of modern-day Penang’s symbolic high-rise building but also made a wood sculpture of the muchihoko (shachihoko + mutsugoro). Truly a hybrid interpretation, an enterprising misreading!

On the other hand, D.D.’s “Paradoxical Renovation Company” took a totally contrarian approach. They did not delve into the culture of the two countries but asked for “irrational, inconvenient, crazy renovation requests” prior to the exhibition, and then displayed the blueprints of the solutions proposed by the two artists at the exhibition. This writer was one of those who had submitted a difficult task and enjoyed seeing the solution and discovering a fresh new role that exhibition can play. But then again aren’t houses the place where differences in culture is most apparent? In that sense, although there were no submissions from Penang this time it would have been interesting to see such an exchange between the two countries.

By categorizing these overlapping negative conditions that are not of the norm as “game rules” and enjoying the accidents and misalignments that happen on site, and aspiring to a different type of creativity by loosely thinking about conventional artistic quality. This was “another exhibition” where “another artist, artwork” was born. It was a place to enjoy not a classic exhibition but an exceptional and incomprehensible activity. There was not one conventional “artist” there.

In the midst of all the negativity, removed from direct involvement and artistic autocracy, the artworks raced along at the different spaces. “Original and “true” objects give permission for something that is different to exist, similar to the relationship between an artwork and its interpretation. This may be hard to swallow in fine art for being impure but this type of secondary creation is common place in subcultures like animation and comics which evolve away from existing copyright. Misreading and interpretation by artists are permissible and recognized as their own creation. This is something that has long taken place.

One of the items that is representative of Nagoya is something called “Taiwan ramen.” It is a dish not found in Taiwan or other regions of Japan, and according to one account those in Nagoya are unaware of its nonexistence in other places, an invention truly unique to Nagoya. It began as a misinterpretation by the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Nagoya who went to Taiwan and upon his return recreated a dish he had been impressed with which subsequently spread to other restaurants. Although it would be too embarrassing to eat it with a Chinese, it is emblematic of Japan’s eclectic fabricated culture of recent years that people can proudly claim it as “regional culture.” And is this not connected on a fundamental level with Penang’s hybrid quality? Contact with various cultures gives rise to curious but enriching facets. There is no need to even reference historian Arnold J. Toynbee or the “hybrid culture” of Shuichi Kato. There is a view that the true root of cubism in Japan and Asia is unclear, but comparison to the original should not be a yardstick for correctness or incorrectness. Japanese and Asian culture should not be viewed in this manner. Even chintz is widely known as essentially being a hybrid design at its root.

Unlike modern artists, contemporary ones possess the ability to view their relationship with others in a historical context, not bidirectionally but as a third party. They are able to subjectively create a misalignment, enjoy and appreciate its creativity. Transformation of physicality into emoji, the untranslatable quality of Nagoya rap and Nagoya eccentrics, renovation solutions that go beyond the imagination of the client; it all becomes possible because art overcomes language with its tolerant and diverse perspective.

The Nagoya Port region is about to embark on an international relationship, mainly with Asia, and this exhibition could be said to be a forerunner of this development.

Kazuo Amano

Art Critic