Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ominous Relations: The Cocktail Party

Isaac J. Hart was accused—though never convicted—in the 1955 rape and murder of six-year-old Yumiko in what is known as “The Yumiko Incident.” Four decades later, two U.S. Marines and a sailor kidnapped and raped a 12-year-old girl. Efforts to bring these men to justice for their crimes against those two young Okinawans were stymied due to the U.S.-Japan Status of Forces Agreement. Especially heinous, the kindergartner murdered in the former case was cut up and disemboweled. In 1967, Tatsuhiro Oshiro, an Okinawan novelist and playwright, wrote “The Cocktail Party” (“Kakutera Pati”), that novel about the 1955 incident receiving the Akutagawa Prize. Loosely based on this story, new works by Futoshi Miyagi—in an exhibition of the same name—are on view at Daniel Reich Gallery through June 10.

Miyagi’s installation and the novel upon which it is inspired reflect the complicated tension of Okinawan society not only with regard to American military occupiers, but also with “mainland” Japanese. Okinawa prefecture—at the crossroads of Japan and China—is home to a distinct culture bearing Chinese, Thai, and Austronesian influences from its trading past. Spoken are Uchinā Yamatoguchi (Okinawan-accented Japanese) and Uchināguchi (the Okinawan language), the latter used in traditional cultural expressions of music and dance. This same proximity to China and Taiwan has made the island attractive to U.S. military interests: U.S. bases account for 18% of the land on Okinawa’s main island. While Okinawa makes up less than one percent of Japan’s land, it hosts two-thirds of the country’s approximately 30,000+ U.S. military forces.

Two installations, Kadena air base and Futenma Marine Corps air station, are in close proximity to residential areas. An overwhelming majority (85%) of Okinawans oppose U.S. military presence due to noise pollution, horrendous aircraft accidents, negative environmental impact, crimes committed by U.S. military personnel, and possible—though never confirmed—deployment of nuclear arms by the U.S. Under direct occupation by the U.S. military from 1945-1972, Okinawa prefecture and municipal governments have demanded withdrawal of those forces for decades—demands ignored by the U.S. and Japanese governments. Resultant anti-Japanese sentiment has encouraged the Ryukyu (Okinawan) independence movement. The sexual assault fanned voluminous protests against U.S. military presence in the mid-1990s—some of the largest in Japan’s history. Okinawa Women’s Action Against Military Violence and other groups have organized to eliminate extraterritorial rights afforded U.S. military personnel with regards to the Okinawan and Japanese courts and legal system.

In his installation, Miyagi echoes and magnifies Tatsuhiro’s account of the rape of an Okinawan kindergartner by an American soldier stationed at a military base where her father attends a cocktail party, implying the father’s post-war upwardly mobile social status (vis-à-vis socializing with the occupiers). Highlighting the cultural complexities found in Okinawa, Chinese characters also appear in the story about the tragedy. With respect to the gendered nature of the Japanese language, Miyagi was intrigued by the story’s use of “onna kotoba” (“women’s words”) to denote powerlessness and abjection and parallel chosen states of masochism and abasement in relation to race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation.

In “The Cocktail Party” Miyagi free-associates and accesses his own memories of Okinawa, with his work marked by qualities of innocence and fancy. With traditional craft such as Bingata fabric and Origami paper, Miyagi illustrates Okinawa’s cultural binaries. They also show (in a Western context) the Asian stereotype of neatly crafted childlike things for quiet subterfuge. Cultural trauma (such as wartime destruction and American military occupation of Okinawa) interweaves with personal experience: Miyagi’s own memories (told through clues in the form of objects) have the immediacy of a child’s pleasures mediated by pain, pederasty and sadomasochism. The delineation of a story like “The Cocktail Party” with incisive and sensitive angles allow for perverse irony. For instance, in the back gallery, the clothing of the offending soldier augmented by a beautiful Genet-like floral pattern is strewn on a chair and positioned across from a box of candies, a juxtaposition that parallels the artist’s own fantasy of an encounter with an AWOL American soldier who offers him a stick of Doublemint gum (a brand only available from American military bases in Okinawa). Thus, seemingly American objects become Okinawan in this context.

Viewing this installation at Daniel Reich Gallery, the viewer will first encounter a fence made of yarn, through which one escapes into an imagined Okinawa through a hole into leaving the confines of the American military base to visit Heiwa street, which offers local fare such as the three-stringed sanshin instruments (similar to the banjo and a link between the Chinese sanxian and Japanese shamisen), traditional Bingata fabric made in workshops, a drumming dance called the eisa, and American fare. Clandestine meetings across cultural, literal, and metaphorical boundaries render the jumble of barriers as ineffective as the fence of yarn in isolating and containing people. Human curiosity and furtive excitement of cultural difference conspire to encourage commingling despite social and legal sanctions. Furthermore, Miyagi’s yarn “barbed wire” also recalls the motif of traditional fishing nets.

Aspects of fluidity, diffusion, and pain come together in Miyagi’s “The Cocktail Party” in an equation of human identity construction. The installation also fuses and confuses roles, notions, and pleasures. (For instance, the Ryukyu glass, a post-war icon of Okinawan design, was initially crafted from recycled Coca Cola and 7-Up bottles after World War II.) “Transactions” between the artist and the fictional AWOL U.S. serviceman—whether illustrated with a watch or a stick of Doublemint gum—amplify patterns of racial, national, and economic privilege. Ultimately, they define those involved in the transactions. Ironically, the sweetness of Coca Cola and Doublemint represent the embittered subservience of a colonized, conquered, and ignored people.

The Cocktail Party

by Futoshi Miyagi

Through June 10,, 2009

Daniel Reich Gallery

537A West 23rd Street, NYC 10011

No comments: