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Meiro Koizumi

Battlelands by Japanese artist Meiro Koizumi is on show at the White Rainbow project space in London until 12 January 2019. The main body of work produced by Koizumi is based on the connection between nation and identity and has involved a series of collaborations with Japanese war veterans. Battlelands, originally commissioned by the Perez Art Museum in Miami, is the only project of the artist to have dealt with non-Japanese veterans, focusing instead on the experiences of US military personnel after their return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently living in Japan, Koizumi explained that the inspiration for this work came after hearing American airplanes flying overhead when taking his child to the day-care centre, an occasion in which he realised the metaphorical and actual close proximity of Japan to the USA.

The main focus of the exhibition is a single channel film recounting the daily experiences of five young veterans. The film is screened within an inner sanctuary that has been built at the centre of the gallery to enclose the space and to offer a more sheltered experience for the visitors. Blindfolded and wearing a Go-Pro head strap body cam, each veteran films their surrounding space, while talking to the viewer through their memories of warfare. Most of these veterans were on the threshold of adulthood at the time of 9/11, and this event pushed them to enrol in the army to take a personal stance against the war on terror. Some of them came from poor backgrounds and saw the enrolment as an economically viable alternative to an uncertain future. Not all of the subjects portrayed in the video have directly experienced armed conflict but everyone, including the ones who were working only within the military bases, for example as mechanics, shows PTSD symptoms.

Meiro Koizumi – Battlelands, 2018. Installation view.

One of the movie’s most powerful recollections takes place when Hypolito, one of the veterans who plays a part in the film, revives the moment in which, during a tense site inspection, he enters a room and finds a very young Afghan girl. The description of the terror he reads in the girl’s eyes is rendered more brutal by the pairing of the story with the location that can be seen on the screen: Hypolito’s flat, most probably his own children’s room, furnished with a comfortable bed and a chest of drawers full of toys.

The visit to a fair occurs near a pool of water, a serene scene with the flavour of a summer stroll by the Thames’ riverside, with incessant background shouts of “scanning, scanning, scanning”. The video portrays people enjoying a relaxed afternoon outside, but the voice from the screen embodies an atmosphere of fear and confusion. A firework scene has a background noise of gunshots with the viewer left wondering whether the recorded sound was really one of gunshots, or whether we are perceiving them as such because of the war stories we have been listening to previously. In the gallery’s press, drawing on Koizumi’s research, it is mentioned that “only 2% of soldiers felt no guilt after killing an enemy combatant” [1]. Questions such as “is today the day I fire?” and “is today the day die?’ are clearly pressing ones in the veterans’ recollections.

The veterans are spatially isolated from their memories, for example talking about the beauty of stars while on screen the viewer is being shown the white ceiling of a room. These moments of disconnection between the veteran’s mind and the viewer’s experience are constant and clearly not meant to provide an obvious explication of feelings. Rather they intend to create a continuous interplay and to heighten the tension between image and sound. For example, when Hypolito is outside playing with his children, scenes from the previously described fireworks are superimposed on images of the park they are visiting, with the indication that war memories are constantly and incessantly running in the background of the veteran’s mind. The encouragement given to his son who is trying to mount the kindergarten slide starts to resemble training military instructions, until the two voices merge together.

Meiro Koizumi – Battlelands, 2018. Installation view.

Addressing military history and personal histories of trauma with a technical set-up that resembles a hypnotherapy session, Koizumi pierces together fragments of stories. The illusion of the neutrality of the artist, who might have been perceived simply as the hand collaging hours of footage, is soon destroyed by the understanding that these recordings have been meticulously edited to maximise the utmost discomfort in the audience. Koizumi did not relinquish control of the work, but he gracefully operated a selection aimed to open questions on war and mental health.

Pensive figures silhouetted against a beautiful landscape are the subject of two photographs that are also displayed in the gallery main space, two movie stills that highlight again the asynchronism between the environment the veterans live in and their thoughts. An installation of plaster body parts exhibited in the room at the back of the gallery, A Sleeping Boy, was inspired by the birth of Koizumi’s son, who is now 5 years old. The artwork not only portrays the primeval instinct of protection felt by a father for his child, but it functions as a graphic representation of dismembered children, without doubt the indelible result of Koizumi’s countless conversations with war veterans.

 The title of the show refers not only to the battle lands of war, but to the ones left behind in the psyche. With Locke’s ‘Memory Theory of Personal Identity’ in mind, Koizumi’s works make us question the value of memory as a condition of personal identity. If a human being’s ‘self’ is connected to what they do remember, are these veterans’ identities forever inextricably linked to tragic war events? Koizumi’s works have been defined as “thoughtful and aggressive at the same time”[2] by Tobias Ostrander, Chief Curator of Pérez Art Museum Miami, and indeed this exhibition delivers powerful feelings of post-war trauma through a sense of grace and compassion for the individuals involved.

Meiro Koizumi – Battlelands, 2018. Installation view.

 

Further work by Meiro Koizumi

Working with video and performance, Meiro Koizumi (b. 1976, Gunma, Japan) lived abroad for many years, attending the Chelsea College of Art and Design in London and the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, before returning to Japan in 2007. Koizumi credits the time he spent outside Japan for the inspiration behind his research on ‘Japaneseness’ in relation to ideas of nation, history and war. His first work on the topic, ‘Portrait of a Young Samurai’ (2009), is a film centred on the figure of a fictional WWII kamikaze pilot about to leave for his suicidal mission, prompted by the question ‘would anyone be willing to die for their country today?’ The word samurai is still used in Japan to symbolise qualities such as dignity, bravery and loyalty. Samurai warriors, who historically were feudal lords in the Japanese societal system, lost considerable power in the long period of peace established by the Tokunaga shogunate between the 18th and 19th centuries. In the book ‘Hakagure’, published at the beginning of the 20th century, the figure of the samurai and his aspiration to have an honourable death were aestheticized and canonised in the Japanese collective imaginary. During WWII kamikaze pilots rose to the status of modern samurai warriors, with many kamikaze pilots carrying a samurai sword in their aeroplane’s cockpit.

Meiro Koizumi, Portrait of a Young Samurai, 2009. Four-channel screening, 10 minutes, 10 seconds each. Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam and the artist. Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation. From Ibraaz website

In the film Koizumi, who plays himself as the director (although we only hear his voice), enlists a young actor to interpret a kamikaze in the act of saying goodbye to his parents, while thanking them for all they have done for him and asking them to pray for his success. Koizumi proceeds to instruct the actor to repeat the same goodbye words “in a more samurai spirit”. This is first expressed through his eyes, then with a samurai spirit shivering throughout his body, and then literally by bringing the feelings up from his stomach. Koizumi’s direction insists on a physical representation of emotional pain that feels unnatural and completely different from the traditional composure associated with the Japanese behavioural code. The movie’s climax, in which authentic and performed sentiments juxtapose to create an unrealistic and overtly emotional scene, is reached when a voice in the background – Koizumi’s, perhaps interpreting the mother or father of the young pilot – cries out in desperation asking the pilot not to go. Almost satirical in the intensity of the portrayal of emotion, with this work Koizumi seems to ridicule the mawkish approach some Japanese war movies were taking at the same time as he was making the film.

The investigation into WWII and ‘Japaneseness; is further explored by Koizumi in other projects. In ‘Double Projection #1 – Where the Silence Fails’ (2013), he collaborates with a ‘failed’ kamikaze, Mr. Itazu. Towards the end of the war the fuel for aeroplanes was running low and many kamikaze were not able to complete their suicide missions. While the soldiers of the Special Attack Units had been hailed as heroes during wartime, after the Japanese defeat the surviving members of these units (the ‘failed’ kamikaze) were considered ultra-nationalist criminals, and they lived in fear of American retaliation and imprisonment.

In the work the character of Mr. Itazu provides a powerful insight into ‘failed’ kamikaze beliefs, voicing his worries that his failure might have been interpreted as an act of cowardice, and highlighting the guilt he felt towards his comrades who didn’t survive. Setting up a touching conversation between Mr. Itazu and one of his deceased brothers-in-arms, Koizumi films the old soldier interpreting both roles and expressing the deep pain that has been plaguing him. Koizumi recounts how Mr. Itazu resisted the collaboration as long as he could and, in true Japanese style, Koizumi had to follow Mr. Itazu through several of his public apparitions[3], endlessly asking for his help, before finally receiving a positive reply. Seeing the resulting work, it is easy to understand the reason for this persistent refusal. Almost taking the form of a therapy session, in the video Mr. Itazu cannot resist shedding light on the sense of shame that has been accompanying him for most of his adult life. The work is staged as a continuous dialogue and Koizumi’s presence is almost imperceptible. It is interesting to note that despite taking a non-linear approach to the subject, Koizumi holds the personal belief – as he has made clear in talks he has given – that these young soldiers were sent to a ‘dog’s death’, a death for an unworthy cause, and their lost lives represent a big failure for Japan.

Meiro Koizumi – Trapped Words, 2014. Single channel video installation

In order to explore a different point of view on World War II, in ‘Trapped Words’ (2014), Koizumi recruits an air-raid survivor, Mr. Harada, to relive the memories of the traumatic event experienced when he was only eight years old. Mr. Harada’s home town Maebashi was bombed by Americans, and many of the occupants of the shelter he had taken refuge in did not survive the raid. Closing his eyes, Mr. Harada performs a cacophony of aeroplane sounds and of voices of trapped people, creating an auditory hallucination that transports the viewers into the claustrophobic space of the shelter. This work could also be considered an almost therapeutic re-enactment: recent MRI researches have proven the neural correlations between the act of eye closure and being able to recall memories stored in the amygdala.[4] As the viewers navigate the complex interplays between ‘history’, ‘performativity’ and ‘memory’, they might perceive that Mr. Harada’s story “take[s] responsibility for carrying its force [the force of memory] beyond the personal into the social.”[5]

It is impossible not to read Koizumi’s works in the light of the current debate around Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s intention of rewriting Article 9, the clause of the Japanese constitution that states that Japan renounces the right to engage in international war conflicts. Recent polls have shown more than 51% of Japanese voters are against Abe’s proposed revision.[6] A 2015 amendment of the Japanese security legislation giving more power to the Self-Defense Forces has already been deemed illegal by several theorists and politicians because its approval didn’t follow the constitutional procedure. In my view, Koizumi’s videos serve as a powerful forewarning as to why the Japanese clause of non-belligerence should remain as it is.

With an interest in personal narratives and their interaction with social frameworks, Koizumi considers the core of his practice to be “the complexity of human beings”, and he has now felt compelled to expand his work beyond Japan-focused research. In the recently commissioned piece ‘Battlelands’, as described above, the artist has worked with US veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

 By Silvia Caso, writer and MRes student at Goldsmiths, University of London

 

[1] Grossman, Dave, “On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society”, as quoted in the White Rainbow Press Release: http://www.white-rainbow.art/exhibitions/meiro-koizumi/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOmM14ErP24

[3] Mr Itazu holds interviews and takes part in events to narrate his experience as a kamikaze pilot.

[4] Vredeveldt, Annelies, Hitch, Graham, and Baddeley, Alan, “Eyeclosure helps memory by reducing cognitive load and enhancing visualisation” in Memory & Cognition, October 2011, Volume 39, Issue 7, pp 1253–1263.

https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13421-011-0098-8

[5] Marlin-Curiel, Stephanie, “Truth and Consequences”, in “Art and the Performance of Memory: Sounds and Gestures of Recollection”, ed. by Cándida Smith, Richard, pp.49.

[6] https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/09/21/national/politics-diplomacy/51-oppose-abes-plan-submit-constitutional-revision-plan-diet-poll/

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