Bert Winther




BUT JAPAN                                                                        KENZO OKADA



The eighteenth-century products of Chinoiserie and later Japon-isme record the fantasy and curiosity as well as the ignorance and arrogance with which Europeans and Americans regarded East Asia. Though doomed by ignorance and arrogance, is there perhaps a shred of hope in the capacity for fantasy and curiosity in this historical process of arrogating the other through the req­uisites of self-interest? The pagoda roof lines built into European and American parks and the forms of furniture in the eighteenth century, the adoration of Van Gogh and Frank Lloyd Wright for Ukiyo-e prints included moments of wondrous cultural displace­ment. Tracing this genealogy of representations of Asia to early postwar America, shortly after the United States had concluded its seven-year Occupation of Japan, we find Ad Reinhardt ex­pressing his enthusiasm for classical Chinese landscape painting: »The >mountain water-scene< elements,... become standard, ab­stract pre-fixed forms and are piled on top of one another into towering systems that grow boundless and infinite, and seem to >correspond< to the vastness and majesty of nature and the uni­verse ... They are complete, self-contained, absolute, rational, perfect, serene, silent, monumental, and universal.« The words have a visionary quality; it is as if Reinhardt's metaphysical powers enabled him to look so deeply into a Chinese landscape painting as to see straight through its particularities of style, brushwork and topography and see his own implacable abstract painting on the other side. Along with fantasy and curiosity for the Chinese painting the humanity of the Chinese painter is lost in the flames of ascension to universality.

Reinhardt was a member of what might be called the Orien­tal Thought« generation of American art; he and many of his col­leagues were under the spell of a romantic strain of Orientalism represented by such authors as D.T. Suzuki, Ananda Coomaras-wamy, Alan Watts, Eugene Herrigel and Arthur Waley. Artists reading their texts in the 1950s and 60s discovered an ideologi­cal apparatus which supplied a gratifying resonance to their own abstract imagery. Rarely did their work come to resemble the Asian antiquities which they could see in American museums; rather their concern was with artistic principles such as a spontaneous approach to image production and the conception of the artist's role as an extension of nature. Indeed, they were under the spell of the modernist ethic of »originality« and could not af­ford to allow their work to seem dependent on the culture of a time and place other than their own. The »0rient« was a source of profundity to be harvested and reconceived by the individual genius of the modern artist. Abstraction was thus an alchemical, transformative and hegemonic incursion into the rich mysteries of subjugated cultures of the world. In the manner so passionate­ly articulated by Harold Bloom, »influence« on the production of art from Asian culture as from any other source was something to be transcended by originality.

The intellectual bifurcation of cultural history into the all em­bracing polarity of the »West« (focused on a Greco-Roman past and a hubristic American present) and the »East« (focused on a Sino-Japanese past and their subalternized present) was a per­suasive paradigm to many people in the early postwar years. But in the maelstrom of decolonization, this comforting convic­tion has been destabilized by massive dislocations in the topo­graphy of self/other. Economic and political migration to the me-tropoles generated large flourishing centers of »exotic« culture in the very same communities where academic centers of Orien­talist learning had long been established. The essentialist view of identity has often been an oppressive force constraining individ­uals to align themselves with one basis of cultural authenticity regardless of their pluralistic social experience. From the heights of academic scholarship, the barrios, Chinatowns and African American communities were disregarded as inauthentic rem­nants of the greater heritage of Hispanic, African and Chinese civ­ilizations. But among the individuals schooled in the academies of the metropole were an increasing number whose parentage, race, language skills, surname or other coordinates of identity gave them cause to reverse the self-other directionality inherent to the scholarly methodologies of ethnography. Thus, academic strategies for positioning the exotic other were reconformed as the intellectual foundation of a discourse of self in an often hos­tile environment. Moreover, as more and more members of histor­ically marginalized communities have become authoritative spokespersons in diverse fields of specialization, the apprecia­tion of their right to transgress essentialist constructions of iden­tity becomes an obvious imperative. What the culture of racism obscures and what the multiculturalist movement should seek to insure is that all artists schooled in American art academies regardless of identity affiliations, can initiate their careers with similar access to a range of heritages such as African sculpture, Renaissance art and Song Dynasty painting.

Reaching beyond the oppressive telos of essentialist identity and appreciating further that »today we are socialized less through an indoctrination into tradition than through a consumption of the cultural«,4 Harold Bloom's anxiety of influence withers to irrelevance. Rather the connoisseurship of almost accidental juxtapositions of divergent cultures and the cultivation of the in­sights enabled by hybrid interpositions holds as much relevance for artistic composition as to cultural and artistic identity. That which is learned from other cultures is not a hermetic ingredient smelted into an originary alloy, but is re-presented as a frag­ment retaining the scent (and politics?) of its former context. Thus, when motifs of Asian culture began to appear in the art of Jon Kessler in the early 1980s, the diacritica of otherness need not be sublimated in the manner that Reinhardt's abstraction had transcended its inspirations in Chinese painting. Indeed, Kessler's complicated electrified kinetic constructions featured signifiers of Asian culture like actors on a stage: bamboo, gar­den rocks, Buddhist icons, ikebana, Chinese furniture, bonsai. There were other New York artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Larry Rivers and Julian Schnabel who occasionally introduced Asian motifs into their work during the 1980s, but perhaps none did so as insistently as Jon Kessler. It was as though he tempo­rarily discovered his own voice in the language of another cul­ture and took delight in practicing his new tongue.

Following Craig Owen's analysis of the appropriation of subcultures by the avant-garde, one might regard Kessler's ap­propriations from Asian culture as a recuperation of difference which, in a process of self-confirmation, rendered that difference innocuous.5 But his warm twittering machines allow another interpretation, that of the sort of enchantment with elements of -the identity of the other which produces yearning to escape the boundaries of self. The self/other relationship is capable of a complex intertwining of self-interest and empathy for the other: »The self reaches for the veil of the other trembling to see itself. The other slips beneath the skin of the self and becomes its de­sire and its terror.« What is the other that Kessler's construc­tions contend with? Kessler grew up in the suburbs of New York City and did not take his first trip to Asia until 1987 after he had already completed many major works with Asian motifs. He says that his first strong impressions regarding Asia came from Japanese monster movies and cartoons on television, Chinese restaurants, Chinatown and Japanese electronic products and that he pursued an interest in Asian garden design. This last in­terest is the only one which might overlap with the themes which appealed to the artists of the Oriental Thought generation. But the fact that the garden rocks, bonsai and ikebana which appear in Kessler's constructions are plastic simulated objects suggests his distance from the artists of the 1950s and 1960s. They were drawn to notions of nature associated with Asian philosophy which suggested a relationship of harmony between the artist and nature and an escape from the catastrophic premise that progress develops as a fruit of the conquest of nature by man. But Kessler's plastic spot-lit bonsai tree and his garden rocks hoisted like stage props on chains represent nature that has been supplanted by its simulation. Not only is nature mediated through the formal traditions of a remote culture, it is further synthesized by the commodity needs of mass production, marketing and retailing. As if proving Lyotard's claim that da­tabanks... are nature for postmodern man,« the cultural proces­ses through which nature is represented seem to hold more im­portance for Kessler than Taoist and Zen ideals of closeness to nature. Moreover, he is most likely to have encountered the pro­ducts of these processes as commodities in the Chinatowns of America. To be sure, the simulations of Asian heritage found in the United States have their counterparts in the bazaars, arcades and department stores of Hong Kong and Tokyo. But the fluidity and tangibility of their commodity status which funneled them along trade routes enabled by diaspora and commerce in exoti­ca is an indispensable element of their found context. My em­phasis on the location of such objects as plastic Chinese flowers purchased in New York in the latter stages of a multilevel cultur­al process is not intended to reduce them to trivial brie a brae. It is true that in the Babylonish commerce of styles where »ltalian« and »Japanese« are neighboring fast food stalls in a shopping center, the orientalized veneer which differentiates one product from another may be nothing more than a marketing ploy. Nevertheless this does not diminish the potential of such commo­dities to be marketed and consumed as powerful symbols of identity and many a household is affiliated with its community by the flags on the souvenirs on its knick knack shelves just as surely as the wealthy garner identity with trophies from Soho galleries.

Considering that this same process of consumerist identity construction pertains to Jon Kessler, two points bear emphasis:

1.      as an artist he is under pressure to communicate a re­
markable individualistic identity such that his products will tend
to be viewed as synecdoches of his spiritual, physical and in­
tellectual biography and

2.  although he is not himself Asian, his achievement of such
a public identity depended in part on his use of Asian commodi­
ties intershuffled with elements from other contexts. In view of
the history of Orientalism described by Edward Said, this was a
bold and naive transgression of the politics of identity. Yet Kes­
sler demonstrated that the process of artistic filiation can devel­
op on an even horizon without prerequisites of ethnic identity.
Moreover, though the opposite conclusionis just aslikely,
perhaps his works can support the idealisticproposal that
»difference which honors the Other«   is within reach. Rather
than corner the other into a representation of strategic conven­
ience, he deployed signifiers of Asian culture as images of an
open heterogeneous self.

Perhaps the clearest paradigm for the social conditions which enable this heterogeneous model of selfhood is to be found in the restaurant business where highly visible images of nationali­ty abound. The names of restaurants as well as their advertise­ments, interior decorations, menus, signage, worker's uniforms and, of course, the food itself often fulfill the semantic function of associating the business with one nationality or another. Restau­rant nationality is configured in ad hoc and unpredictable pat­terns determined by marketing strategies interwoven with self expression. For example, the Japanese owner of an expensive Russian restaurant in Tokyo has worn a Russian folk costume daily for decades and a text on the menu assures customers that she spent her youth in Moscow. A Mexican fast food restaurant in New York changed hands and the new owners were Chinese but continued serving Mexican food until the tacos gradually evolved into spring rolls. The nationality of Kessler's sculptures is similarly constructed through paradoxical formulations of per­ceptions of nationality: his installation »Taiwan« is made with parts from Chinatown in New York (and includes an image of Mao, the arch-enemy of the government in Taiwan) and his wall piece »America« is made with Etruscan souvenirs from Rome, the dark glass of a limousine window and a cozy wallpaper pattern.

The appreciation of Kessler's heterogeneous self-discoveries in the cultures of others, however, is inscribed with a great ur­gency. In Kessler's border-crossing must be read an invitation to others to transgress these borders with equal ease. Neither Kes-sler nor I can script this crossing as it is experienced by those who have been historically marginalized from institutionalized monocultural identity. The following is from Lawrence Chua's narrative of an Asian American's traumatic experience of a curio-shop of Asian exotica.

»At first he is not fully attentive to the wares he is wandering around, fingering listlessly. He is instead preoccupied with the gaze of the older man behind the counter, Thorn, who regards him with piercing indolence, counting the money for his employ­er, a ruddy-faced man named Smith. Trying to concentrate on the store's inventory of Sino-kitsch and bric-a-brac, he counts among the shelves a four-faced Buddha whose skin is the color of his own ... there is something disruptive about the way they have crossed borders: of space, of culture, of time. They are not all for export only, but their position implies that these are not for local consumption ... he loses the idea of reclaiming some lost subjecthood, of re-entrenching himself in the cultural superiority of his grandfather. He feels free now to concentrate on hybridizing something new, confusing and impure.«

In the interminable cycle of appropriation and re-appropria­tion, Kessler's work beckons to the artist who stands on the verge of feeling the freedom to hybridize »something new, con­fusing and impure.«

As the Cold War era came to a conclusion in the late 1980s, the idea of constituting Japan as the new primary Other was given play in the American media. During the »trade war« with Japan, Japanese culture became the subject of representations which sensationalized the threat of difference measured against an assumed American norm. The Japanese public education sys­tem, for example, was described in extreme terms plotted as a stern warning to faltering public schools at home. In this environ­ment, Kessler, who by now had traveled to Japan several times,

found himself drawn to popular Japanese culture. Unlike accli­matized residents and those who can read Japanese language neon, the visitor to Tokyo districts such as Shinjuku or Shibuya finds him or herself inundated with a powerful sensory spectacle of colliding and unintelligible symbols. The commercial spaces of shopping arcades, department stores, train stations and amuse­ment districts are densely electrified with sounds and images. From this thunderous and often beautiful scenography, Kessler collected particular objects: glossy plastic models of food dis­played in restaurant windows; artificial »autumn leaves« which flutter from branches mounted on telephone poles during fall months; synthetic fabrics printed with high resolution photo­graphs and displayed as interior decoration; and motion detectors which trigger kinetic and audio advertisements at the approach of a potential consumer. Succumbing to the delights of this technology of desire, Kessler explored their aesthetic effects and put them into service as the nuclei of works of art.

At this writing, Kessler is working on a piece which features an image of the Japanese star Sakai Noriko. She debuted in 1987 at age sixteen and was carefully groomed to serve the en­tertainment convention of the teen idol singer. She kept her hair cropped short, sung cheerful songs in a lively rhythm, and made sure that no rumors would surface about her having boyfriends. Following the advice of her handlers, when she became twenty-two this year she made the transition to a more mature charac­ter: she grew her hair long, began singing moody ballads, and announced that she had a boyfriend (thanking her fans for their blessing). The image of this young woman, designed and market­ed with the precision of a new automobile model, is the focus of intense passions and fantasies in the minds of her Japanese fans. This image, we might say, lives up to the full implications of the word »idol«. Kessler's recontextualization is a radical de-racination which will rechannel its idolatrous power out of the control of the managers who had it framed. Perhaps the full power of this revisionary presentation would be realized only when shown in the context of Japanese popular culture where it could administer a subtle yet wrenching and subversive torsion to corporate-design idolatry. One is left savoring the possibility of a startling recovery by Sakai Noriko's fans of the image re­sulting from the prism of Kessler's othering tactics.


1)     These words of 1966 were spoken by the Japanese painter Kenzo Okada who moved to New
York in 1950. Sumio Kuwabara, Kenzo Okada Exhibition (Tokyo: The Seibu Museum of Art,
1982), p. 18.

2)  Rob Wilson, "Theory's Imaginal Other: American Encounters with South Korea and Japan« in
Masao Miyoshi and H.D. Harootunian, eds. Japan in the World (Durham, NC: Duke University
Press, 1993), p.328.

3)  Ad Reinhardt, "Cycles through the Chinese Landscape", Art News, December, 1954. Also in
Barbara Rose, »Art as Art«: The Selected Writings of Ad Reinhardt (New York: Viking Press,
1975), p.215.

4)  Hal Foster, "Readings in Cultural Resistance" in Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics
(Seattle: Bay Press, 1985), p. 159

5)  Craig Owens, »The Problem with Puerilism" in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power
and Culture (University of California Press, 1992)

6)  Thomas McEvilley, »The Romance - A Paradox" in Art & Otherness: Crisis in Cultural Identity
(McPherson & Company, 1992) p.151.

7)  Conversation with the author, August 20, 1993.

8)  Thomas McEvilley, "Opening the Trap" Ibid. p.68.

9)  Lawrence Chua, "Bull in the China Shop" Godzilla: The Asian American Arts Network (New
York: Artists Space, 1993) pp.9-11.