Portrait of Ei Arakawa. Photo by Kenji Takahashi. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo. 

Pacific Peripheries

Ei Arakawa

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

It would be easy to mislabel Ei Arakawa as a “Japanese artist.” His work See Weeds (2011), for example, features performers who take iconic Gutai paintings mounted on wheeled frames and move them around in unison with music, making them “dance.” The accompanying narration consists of stories that the artist uncovered through archival research regarding the conflicts Gutai members had with artists of the previous generation. The piece demystifies the Gutai collective, reframing its potential for further discussion. As well as engaging with conversations in Japanese art history, See Weeds also poses questions about the ontology of painting itself by repositioning it—literally—as a moving object. 

In his diverse, performative works, Arakawa employs tropes of ethnic and cultural identity, but in such a way that they are not confined to their own discourse. Arakawa himself has a transnational presence that confuses geography and national identity—and this is not just because his works or images are everywhere, including in the Georgia Pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale, as well as last year’s triennial survey of Japanese contemporary art, “Roppongi Crossing,” at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. He is constantly moving around the world, disseminating his presence by performing in numerous global locales, and further multiplying it via collaborative processes and the production of physical objects. This “everywhere-but-nowhere” condition informs his sensibility: performative, on-the-go and somewhat indeterminate. 

His latest collaborative project, with New York-based artist Carissa Rodriguez for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, takes us far from the island of Manhattan to the Hawaiian archipelago. Hanging from custom-made racks, the installation Hawaiian Presence (2014) consists of three oversized, wearable hats in the shapes of Kauai, Hawaii (aka “the Big Island”) and Manhattan. Each is large enough to be worn by two or three people at a time. Additionally, there are two vitrines, one housing a clock and the other its case, and two paintings composed of volcanic salt, suggesting the texture of a Hawaiian beach. Here, the artists conceive of the archipelago as a location layered with geopolitical narratives and aesthetic confluences, and shaped by a range of ethnic and cultural transfigurations. Their work becomes a stage, and an uncanny theater begins to reverse the islands’ stereotyped image as a utopia. For certain periods of the exhibition, Arakawa sat on a stool in the gallery, clad in floral-printed Prada (from the 2014 “Menacing Paradise” collection), awaiting visitors to the site. Then, the iPhone, Galaxy, iPad or digital camera is raised. Oddly it seems as though there is always someone, whether visitors, Arakawa’s friends or museum workers, to capture the decisive moment—a souvenir from the fantastic, for private gratification or to be shared on social-networking sites.

When I ask about Hawaiian Presence, Arakawa responds with startling and unusual frankness: “Manhattan is a decoy.” He continues, “For most visitors to the exhibition, it’s easier to relate internally to the shape of Manhattan. It functions as another entry point to access the work.” Arakawa uses objects to entice and allure people into the work, almost mischievously tricking them into assuming an operational role. “I wanted the viewer’s experience to be of a dynamic nature rather than an inert one,” he says. The process begins when the museumgoer starts to gaze at Arakawa and his hats from a moderate distance—a safe-enough place to observe. But, just as Arakawa speaks about his collaborative and participatory works as a “mechanism for decentralizing attention,” in Hawaiian Presence he is quick to invite people into the work, shifting the dynamics. The responses vary from enthusiastic laughter to contrived smiles. For the most part, Arakawa maintains his composure. He doesn’t seem concerned about the audience’s comfort per se, but is more interested in the transformative sway that artworks may have on people. The ensuing awkwardness, the ambivalent reaction of the visitor, occurs in relation to the initial curiosity—and pleasure in watching—which does not get fully satisfied as the viewer turns into the viewed. What is usually an individual and private act is inverted, and becomes not only a shared experience but also an active spectacle. 

Two years earlier, for a performance at the Tanks at London’s Tate Modern, Arakawa had orchestrated a scene in which singles gathered and boldly intermingled through the mediation of artworks, while Arakawa went around singing, clapping hands or just smiling and laughing awkwardly as the energy of the crowd shifted from one state to another. His roles in these events remain entirely fluid, moving from that of the emcee to a performer or a viewer. Arakawa not only embraces the uncertainty, confusion and insecurity of the audience (as well as his own) that often characterizes participatory actions, but he pushes them further. When entering into this field of cooperative action, we are left a little vulnerable. 

Personal relations are frequently interwoven in Arakawa’s collaborative practice. In Helena and Miwako (2013), a project created with fellow artist Henning Bohl that was shown at the 2013 Carnegie International, Arakawa’s mother Miwako serves as one of the protagonists of the video. Exploring Arakawa’s hometown of Fukushima, the work reflects the climate of confusion, loss and melancholia that followed the earthquake-tsunami and radioactive leakages of March 2011, without explicitly referencing the events. In the piece, Helena—Bohl’s young daughter—travels from Germany to Japan in search of Nadeshiko, the Japanese national female football team. Shot largely in playgrounds built by Japanese architect Mitsuru Senda and exhibited alongside colorful soccer balls at the Carnegie International, the film has a playfulness that is in stark contrast with the invisible background of disjuncture and mourning. Helena intermittently asks Miwako and the camera, “Nadeshiko wa dokodesuka?” (“Where is Nadeshiko?”), but is answered only by more scenes of empty playgrounds.

As one observes in Helena and Miwako, Arakawa is not concerned with verisimilitude or consistency. Helena’s heavily accented and shaky Japanese embodies multiplicity, synthesizing a “German-ness” and a “Japanese-ness,” if there are such things. A similar effect occurs when Arakawa himself speaks. He speaks English in a somewhat familiar but oddly symphonic accent—where parentheses and ellipses are placed at unusual but rhythmical intervals. The artist emerges on the margin of identity, walking the line between art-historical narratives and ambiguous potentiality, between personal and public, between being Japanese and not, between American and not American. 

While testing the symbolic weight of history, Arakawa stealthily changes familiar scenarios from outside in and inside out. His works are filled with elaborate, precise humor that encompasses highly nuanced subversion (the inclusion of Hawaii in New York, in the Whitney Biennial, for example), aptly confusing and displacing the central from the marginal. And this is precisely how Arakawa takes us to an uncertain and mesmerizing destination such as “Hawaii.”

EI ARAKAWA, installation view of “I Am an Employee" of UNITED Vol. 2.” at Overduin and Kite, Los Angeles, 2012. Courtesy Overduin & Co., Los Angeles.