CHIMPOMellieZABETH, 2007, a bag exploded using a recovered landmine, 36 × 25 × 15 cm. Photo by Kenji Morita. Courtesy the artists and Mujin-to Production, Tokyo.

Thank You Celeb Project: I’m BOKAN


Mujin-To Production

The collective Chim↑Pom was formed in 2005 by six artists in their 20s based in Tokyo. Calling themselves “art soldiers,” these young rebels specialize in socially engaged projects with an irreverent bent. Recent works include Erokiteru (2007), a flashing lamp in a gallery that reacts in real time to phone calls from people responding to the artists’ sexually suggestive ad in a tabloid paper, and Ore Ore (2007), a series of recorded telephone conversations with randomly chosen elderly people to whom the artists sent their own money. The group won the first prize in the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art’s New Art Competition 2007 last summer with their ambitious project entitled “Thank You Celeb Project: I’m BOKAN” (2007), which premiered in Hiroshima before traveling to the recently established Mujin-to Production, part of a new wave of commercial galleries in Tokyo.

For the “I’m BOKAN project, the group borrowed money to send a few of their members to Cambodia bearing luxury consumer objects such as Louis Vuitton bags and iPods, which they then asked local people to blow up using recovered landmines (in Japanese, bokan is a colloquial onomatopoeia for an exploding sound). The members then brought these objects, now charred, torn apart and covered with mud, back to Japan to exhibit as tragicomic talismans.

Among these, Venus (2007) is a hand-made plaster sculpture cast of the torso of Chim↑Pom’s female member, ellie. Venus’ left leg is replaced with a yellow prosthetic limb, referencing the many Cambodians disfigured by landmines. A video, Explosion (2007), documents the process of blowing up the items, relating a spectacular series of loud explosions at regular intervals. Another video piece, Speech (2007), features ellie standing with local boys and mimicking a celebrity self-introduction speech. One of the boys shows his mangled arm; his smile at the camera is shocking, as it does not reveal any hint of his handicap-related difficulties.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, seven of Chim↑Pom’s works were auctioned off and the artists intend to donate part of the profits to Cambodia this spring. However, any sense of bleeding-heart sincerity is complicated by the group’s characteristic embrace of absurdity and its willingness to test social conventions. Yasutaka Hayashi, the oldest member of Chim↑Pom, explained that the aim of this project was, in fact, to create an exhibition of “celebrities,” not landmines. Apparently, Ellie reveres the late Princess Diana for her passionate engagement in charitable activities against landmines. The impetus of the project was ellie’s wish to emulate her idol, rather than highlight an international humanitarian issue.

From this premise, “I’m BOKAN” grew and resulted in a project that reveals today’s twofold reality of Cambodian landmines: they cause serious social problems to the locals, yet they also draw worldwide media attention and attract tourists to a landmine museum in Siem Reap, near the ruins of Angkor Wat. Whether or not Chim↑Pom’s original intent should be taken seriously, “I’m BOKAN” is no ordinary political statement, disingenuously touching upon a complex mix of social issues from political victimization to labor exploitation, emotional voyeurism and the media’s role in distorting everyday reality.