For six days in October 1972, 16 artists experimenting with the plastic potential of film and video held an exhibition in Kyoto – outside of Japan’s art, media and political centre of Tokyo. Soon after, a lengthy but ambivalent review appeared in the art journal Bijutsu Techo, after which the exhibition faded into relative obscurity and the works were packed away in storage or lost altogether. Given the exhibition’s marginal position in postwar Japanese art, it was surprising that curator Kenjin Miwa recently chose to meticulously research and reconstruct the show at the National Museum of Modern Art. But ‘Re: play 1972/2015 – Restaging “Expression in Film 1972”’ proved to be a quiet revelation, opening a new window onto history while also turning a lens, as it were, onto the apparatus of rewriting exhibition histories.
The original Kyoto show, officially called ‘The 5th Exhibition of Contemporary Plastic Art: Expression in Film, ’72 – Thing, Place, Time, Space – Equivalent Cinema’, was organized by the artists themselves, who announced their intent, through a printed statement, to challenge the theatrical model of film consumption and create a site where film and audience alike would be of equal significance. They set up their works in elaborate, quasi sculptural configurations to allow for continuous looping or combined multiple recordings and playbacks into visual feedback circuits. The works were conceived as part of a single environment, in the large ground-floor gallery of the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, so that viewers could walk among them, or take in several at once, while sounds and images blurred across the space.
In execution, Miwa took a cue from the restaging of ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ at the Fondazione Prada in Venice in 2013. He researched floor plans, notes and photographs to install the works according to their original layout, using plywood panels to build a notional replica of the original venue. Since many of the works incorporated 8mm film, which deteriorates with continuous projection, these pieces had to be laboriously replicated via a frame-by-frame digitization process, and then, in some cases, re-shot on spare reels of film. Works that couldn’t be fully created were demarcated with taped outlines that gave their absence an underlying poignancy. Along the reverse side of the plywood panels, a corridor-like meta-structure encircled the exhibition area, featuring archival materials from ‘Expression in Film ’72’, documentation of the restaging process and additional information about the artists.
Visitors entered the exhibition proper by turning a blind corner, upon which they immediately encountered themselves, captured in Keigo Yamamoto’s Confirmation by Its Action No. 1 (1972/2015), an installation comprising two monitors placed side-by-side, with a hidden video camera directed at the viewer. One monitor showed a real-time image upside-down, while the other showed an upright image on a slight delay. With the two screens – one spatially disorienting and the other temporally disjointed – operating in tandem, the work had the uncanny effect of doubly alienating viewers from their mirror images.
This provocation of the mimetic power of the camera, the inherent subjectivity of the mediated image, and the assumed hierarchies between past, present and future was a leitmotif that extended through the rest of the works. Showing abstracted footage of the sea, Naoyoshi Hikosaka’s Film Duet: Upright Sea (1972/2015), for example, featured two 16mm film projectors facing in opposite directions at either end of the space, connected back-to-front by an almost-ten-minute reel of film that scraped along the floor and wound through the air between them. Keiji Uematsu’s Earth Point Project – Mirror (1972/2015) initially appears to show typical street scenes of pedestrians and traffic, only for the camera to pull back to reveal that the viewer has been watching these scenes reflected in a mirror that the artist carried around with him – which was itself hung in the centre of the projection field, collapsing the boundaries between filmic and real space.
The works displayed a remarkable currency in their approach to the moving image in space, while the act of their re-creation became a commentary on our constantly evolving media environment, as well as the ontology of unique original versus multiple copy. Even as it recovered a spectral history, ‘Re: play 1972/2015’ raised provocative questions about the relation between canon and marginalia, and how works left unappreciated in their own time might be rediscovered.