BY Becca Voelcker in Reviews | 17 MAR 14
Featured in
Issue 162

Yebisu International Festival for Art and Alternative Visions

BY Becca Voelcker in Reviews | 17 MAR 14

Chto Delat, The Tower: A Songspiel, 2010, video still

‘Take some colour from the car’s brake light and throw it out into the dark. It looks nice.’ This is the mayor of Tirana’s advice as he steps out of the car in Anri Sala’s Dammi I Colori (Give Me the Colours, 2003). This short film was shown alongside five other pieces by Sala in this year’s Yebisu International Festival for Art and Alternative Visions. In the film, the artist drives around the Albanian capital with his friend, the city’s then-mayor, Edi Rama. As part of an initiative organized by Rama, the city’s drab facades are being painted red, yellow, orange and blue.

Throwing colour and light into the dark is, in a sense, a metaphor for cinema. As Roland Barthes explained in ‘Leaving the Movie Theatre’ (1975), cinema happens in the dark and, through the vehicle of projection, we find ourselves both projected into other places and more sensitized to our own surroundings. Like Barthes, the festival’s director, Hiromi Kitazawa, is optimistic that cinema can offer encounters with other people and places, and encourage us to become more aware of those already familiar. For its sixth edition, titled ‘True Colours’, the festival gathered Japanese and international artists for 15 days of screenings, exhibitions, talks and performances, held in and around Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography. Sala’s film set the tone for the festival, which describes itself as an exploration of today’s world through its ever-changing local and global hues. Broad though this may sound, the festival achieved coherence through the anthropological interest shared by many of the participating artists. Several pieces explored the genres of cinema vérité and ethno-fiction but, while their approaches were similar, their ambitious range of subject and location helped create the multicoloured array Kitazawa described. While some transported us as far from Tokyo as a Jewish hotel in Golders Green (Iris Zaki’s My Kosher Shifts, 2011), others reflected upon matters closer to home.

Threats to the stability of home and heritage form the core of Russian collective Chto Delat’s filmic opera The Tower: A Songspiel (2010). The film voices anxiety over Gazprom’s corporate expansion in St. Petersburg, based on real events in 2006. The film’s portrayal of Gazprom’s business advocates looking down upon citizens from a tower recalls Russia’s former dictatorships, and although The Tower ends with citizens’ rights being restored, it suggests that, increasingly, business interests overpower local ones. In a similar vein, exploring globalization’s threat to speech rather than territory, Susan Hiller’s installation The Last Silent Movie (2007) mourned the loss of regional languages. Hiller originally trained as an anthropologist, and it seems fitting that her work was displayed alongside films made by Japanese visual anthropologists Daisuke Bundo and Itsushi Kawase. Bundo and Kawase conducted fieldwork in Cameroon and Ethiopia, respectively. Bundo’s cassette tape (2013) observes a Pygmy man repairing a music tape’s sinuous black ribbon. Kawase’s Tattoo Gondar (2013) demonstrates the photographer’s equally unscripted attentiveness towards his subjects. Projected onto the wall opposite cassette tape, it documents an Ethiopian woman having her neck tattooed with a popular symbol from the Orthodox Church. Kawase cuts from this scene, captured in colour at a modern tattoo parlour, to black and white shots of a similar pattern being tattooed by hand elsewhere in the community. Traditional tattooing is now viewed in opposition to more sanitary electronic techniques, though the culture of the earlier method still runs deep. The lines tattooed on the woman’s neck, like the cassette-tape’s ribbon, are a tangle of tradition and modernity.

Bundo and Kawase’s approaches are representative of the many observational pieces in the exhibition, which document specific locations but let the sites and their subjects speak rather than imposing a textual analysis. Yoko Asakai’s wayfinding (2014), comprising a slide-projection and series of colour photographs taken on the coasts of Japan, Australia and New Zealand, explores the traditional practice of star navigation, and its dependence upon light and atmospheric qualities specific to each site. Motoyuki Shitamichi’s six large colour photographs (torii, 2006–12) were also taken on exploratory voyages to the edges of Japan, but these edges are now Russian, Chinese, American and Korean territory, and the torii (Japanese shrine gates) that remain there are relics from Japan’s colonial past. Shitamichi’s photographs reflect this history, as well as Japan’s strained foreign relations today.

The familiar landscape of a computer desktop is the site of change in Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013). Made during a residency at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Henrot’s film is a vivid, technological rap about digital possibility. Against a generic computer-background galaxy busy with pop-up windows, her text and soundtrack recount the origins of the universe. In one particularly witty window (it would be hard to speak of cinematic ‘shots’ here) we see an archivist closing a chest of drawers containing taxidermy specimens, and the real drawers close to the edge of the virtual computer window, as if they have been clicked and minimized on screen. As computer users, terms such as browsing sites, opening, expanding, minimising, pasting are part of everyday parlance. Henrot animates such metaphors and celebrates our digital mémoire du monde while warning it can produce fatigue.

This year’s festival mobilized the act of looking, travelling across terrain marked by global and digital change. As Barthes says, leaving the movie theatre, we enter the cinema of life. As I left the festival’s opening, it seemed as though the colours from the Smithsonian, a hut in Cameroon and from Sala’s brake lights, had indeed been cast into the night. Tokyo’s bouncing electronic signs never looked so bright.

Becca Voelcker is a PhD candidate researching experimental, ethnographic and artist's film in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA.