The curators, Jason Smith and Eriko Osaka, were very clear that this exhibition of six Australian and six Japanese artists was not an exercise in political correctness. Osaka noted that ‘flowery words and phrases inundate the media […]; words that have lost their meaning can only be interpreted as their opposite’ and pointed out that this was the first time that artists from the two nations had shown together on this scale, rather than in exchange exhibitions. Instead, she advocated the recognition of an opportunity: that ‘the chaotic conditions of today’s world and their uncertain prospects may present a new raison d’être for art’.
In acknowledging these debatably ‘new’ conditions the Japanese artists responded with a sincerity and depth of feeling that seemed lacking in some of their Australian counterparts. Perhaps the commonalities between Australia and Japan identified by Smith – the cultural condition of the globalized individual, the long shadow emanating from the West Coast of America, the border neuroses of islander mentalities – are simply harsher realities in the northern and ‘Eastern’ hemisphere than in the southern and ‘Western’ one. As Osaka suggests, in contemporary Japan ‘there is always a broad gap between ideals and reality, but today it seems futile even to talk about ideals any more’. Or maybe, comparatively speaking, Australia really is the land of milk and honey.
David Rosetzky certainly had something to say about this. His video work Weekender (2001) presented relaxed, beautiful people doing relaxed, beautiful things. The title of the exhibition was borrowed from one of his earlier works, not actually included in the show, yet it emphasized the finely veneered nature of his practice that its presence was only title-deep. Commune (2003), however, did make it in, just, as literally cardboard cut-outs of ennui-intoxicated bright young things, chained and/or symbiotically linked by a pulsating tube of lights. Rosetzky often employs professional models in his photographs, and here the ‘look’ of lifestyle desire was all that he (and, by implication, we) really cared about.
Tabaimo was similarly interested in desire and the everyday, but her order of dissatisfaction was less Prozac-coated. Haunted House (2003), a hand-drawn animation of the view through a telescope from one domestic interior across a city skyline into various others, referred to a childhood memory of visiting a fun-fair, where she ‘just enjoyed passing in front of the Haunted House’. Anticipation, the treasured abstinence of the pleasure-delayer, was placed in opposition to Rosetzky’s one-dimensional lotus-eaters. Instead, Tabaimo made a plaintiff’s case for the imagination, a concern echoed by Taro Shinoda in his Personal Satellite Project 2004 (2004), a plywood trestle table supporting a plastic model of some secret military base, although the purpose and symbolism of the construction itself were shrouded in mystery. A play on the fantasy inherent in space exploration and technology – as well as the prominence of these in the Japanese imagination – it was reminiscent of the scene in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) where a mashed-potato mountain of the alien contact site is created by the extraterrestrially possessed hero. This reference also seemed very much in Ricky Swallow’s mind, in his nostalgic enlarged Darth Vader helmet Monument for a Sunken Monument (1999).
Crises of the ecological kind were sensitively acknowledged by Kaoru Motomiya, as well as in more complex, ambivalent responses by Fiona Hall, Rosemary Laing and Susan Norrie, whose haunting DVD installation Passenger (2003) evoked both Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). Her facility with narrative structure also connected with Akira Yamaguchi’s intricate oil painting Picture of Many People Making Something (2001), seemingly a traditional eshi interpretation of a Marx Brothers sketch. Finally, sustaining this thematic of making and traditional practices were Tetsuya Nakamaru and Samuel Namunjdja, whose works Premium Unit Sink (2003) and Gungura – Wind Dreaming (2003) intelligently combined culturally functioning, decorative objects with hyperrealities, past and present.
The irony of the exhibition’s title assumed a linguistic knowingness that it would be difficult to be certain both parties shared, as Osaka acknowledged. However, the curious formal resonances between works across the cultural divide suggested a shared ‘body’ language: Norrie’s ferris-wheel footage echoing the engineering fantasies of Taro Shinoda; Laing’s circles of patterned carpet; the curtains and round frame of Tabaimo’s animation; Ricky Swallow’s Darth Vader; or the gargantuan clay Uncle Sam bust singing ‘God Bless America’ by Tadasu Takamine, modelled with arms and legs by a young Japanese couple in their living-room and perhaps the highlight of the show. If the political agency of democracy is validated by its effectiveness in registering individuals’ consensus and correlation, then these parallel strands – which, as Smith says, quoting from UNESCO, ‘cannot be set against each other, for they are intertwined’– point hopefully to an influential position for contemporary art in international society. Or to put it another way: the acceptance of the implied paradox of the show’s title demonstrates that simultaneous difference is not such a bad thing.