YUKINORI YANAGI, Banzai Corner, 1991, plastic toys, mirrors, 90 × 240 × 240 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Into the Atomic Sunshine: Post-War Art Under Japanese Peace Constitution Article 9

Daikanyama Hillside Forum

In “Into the Atomic Sunshine,” curator Shinya Watanabe presented the work of 12 artists—eight Japanese and four international—who respond to war, peace, national sovereignty and collective humanity, issues addressed by Article 9 of the Japanese constitution. Implemented by the United States’ occupying forces in May 1947, Article 9 affirms Japan’s renunciation of war and its right to maintain land, sea and air forces. First held at the Puffin Room in New York in January, the exhibition opened in Tokyo on the 63rd anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima on August 6.

Focusing on the relationship between art and the nation-state, curator Shinya Watanabe explained that through this exhibition he wished to “carefully contemplate the ‘otherness’ that Article 9 itself contains,” here referring to the paradox of a constitution that negates the absolutization of national sovereignty and yet was written by a foreign power using nation-centered terms.

In some works, such as Yukinori Yanagi’s Banzai Corner (1991), the invisible “other” is the authority of the state. Standing on a rectangular white plinth, rows of red Ultraman and Ultra Seven figurines have been arranged in an arc, their bodies facing the corner of the room where there are two mirrors. Their reflections complete the circle, and the differing shades of red in their outfits create a radiating pattern within the installation that recalls the Japanese Kyokujitsu-ki flag, with its red bars reaching out to the edge of the white background. Yanagi’s use of this character is not incidental: Tetsuo Kinjo, the author of the Ultraman series, grew up in Okinawa during the US occupation. Thus, these toys are imbued with political symbolism: in their infantry-like ranks, the figurines have their right arms raised in an implied cry of “Banzai!” However, the focal point of the troop arrangement is an illusion, an empty center reflected on itself.

This sense of the ultimate futility of man’s ideologies and the helplessness of the individual brought up by these works is felt throughout the show. Upside Down Hinomaru (2006) by Okinawan artist Yuken Teruya literally consists of the Japanese flag hung upside down, suggesting that while inverting the US flag can function as an act of protest, the hinomaru, its form unchanged, remains impervious to such dissent.

By contrast, Yoko Ono’s Play It By Trust (1966-1998) offers a glimmer of optimism. Viewers are invited to play a game of chess on an all-white board with all-white pieces. The further this recreational simulation of war progresses, the harder it becomes to distinguish one’s own forces from those of the adversary: all notions of military strategy, conflict and victory are rendered meaningless. As a product of the climate of anti-Vietnam war protest and the geopolitical tensions of the 1960s, the resonance of Play It By Trust may be specific to this region but its relevance is timeless and universal.