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Parasophia: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture 2015

By Becca Voelcker  |  Kyoto, 14 April 2015

Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art

Shinkansen trains snake into Kyoto Station. Under the first shy blossoms of spring, pilgrims and tourists visit shrines, temples and palaces⎯some with selfie-sticks, others with coins to make a wish.

In his 2007 film Transmission, Harun Farocki focuses on hand movements and gestures of visitors to sacred and memorial sites, including St. Peter’s in Rome, and the Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany. The film’s title makes us think of how sites act as mnemonics and transmitters of emotion. Farocki films people photographing, kneeling to pray, or touching carved memorials⎯and thereby delineates human communication with and through place.

Harun Farocki, Transmission, (2007). Video still
Transmission is one of the many contextually apt pieces that form Parasophia: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture 2015, the first large-scale international exhibition of contemporary art to be held in Kyoto. Although not site-specific to the festival, the film resonates with Kyoto, a city steeped in memory and religion. Transmission also engages in a conversation with the artworks around it, and this conversation might, very loosely, be categorised as one concerning history, memory, change, and knowledge.

Over forty artists are participating in this two-month ‘conversation,’ and sharing 10,000 square meters of space across Kyoto. As Parasophia’s artistic director Shinji Kohmoto explains, the festival’s title was chosen for its suggestion of alternative types of knowledge and wisdom (Sophia deriving from the Greek sophos, ‘wise’). Such categories of knowledge are neither rigidly ortho (as in orthodox) nor hierarchically meta, but para⎯as in parallel, at once equal but different.

Parasophia certainly offers a myriad of alternatives: alternative takes on politics and history, Japanese identity, artistic practice, and collaboration. Kyoto itself is a kind of alternative city to Tokyo, having once been Japan’s capital, and having maintained a proudly independent identity ever since⎯including its contemporary art scene. Although the first of its kind, Parasophia joins Kyoto’s existing cultural activity that thrives between independent galleries, and institutions including Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art, Kyoto Prefectural Gallery, and the National Museum of Modern Art. Back in 2003, Kyoto Art Center staged a small but ambitious Biennale, and in some ways, Parasophia can be seen as a continuation and expansion of it.

A sign dating from the period in which Kyoto Museum of Art housed a US military battalion, which is currently on display as part of Parasophia.
Parasophia’s main site is the Municipal Museum of Art, a grand and now softly shabby brick structure that opened in honour of the Emperor in the years before WWII. Post-war, it was occupied by the American military. This varied history has inspired several pieces in Parasophia, the building itself is given an entry in the exhibition catalogue. A military ‘Shoe Shine Service’ sign still hangs in the museum basement, and is viewable throughout the festival, alongside a slideshow of historical photographs.

Koki Tanaka, Provisional Studies: Workshop #1 “1946-52 Occupation Era and 1970 Between Man and Matter” (2015)
Upstairs, Koki Tanaka’s installation and series of events use the high-ceilinged gallery space that once served as the American barracks’ basketball court. Interested not only in rejuvenating history so that we can reinterpret it, Tanaka also encourages us to realise history’s continuous, unfolding impact on the present. Right up until 2012, the US battalion once stationed in the museum continued to be based in Japan, on Okinawa Island. Working with local high school students (who, if born some 75 years earlier, would have been conscripted into the Japanese army) Tanaka has organised basketball practice and games, as well as a lecture about issues relating to war and the US’s ongoing military presence in Japan. His project also explores the museum’s re-emergence into the art world in the decades following military occupation. According to photographs of a 1970 group exhibition Tanaka found in the museum’s archives, Christo visited Kyoto and covered the museum’s floor in fabric. Tanaka’s project therefore also includes a live event using fabric, in homage to Christo and the museum’s unfolding exhibition history.

Berlin-based duo Hoefner/Sachs is investigating the museum’s history too, through remnants left over from previous exhibitions. Museum Casino (2015) reconfigures one of the museum’s entrances into a little house of umbrellas, each umbrella labelled with an exhibition or date.

Hoefner/Sachs, Museum Casino (2015)
Delving into history is also crucial to Stan Douglas’ six-hour film Luanda-Kinshasa (2013), on show on the ground floor of the Municipal Museum of Art. The film imagines a scenario whereby Miles Davis’ experimental and commercially unsuccessful album On the Corner becomes a hit. In Douglas’ version of history, inspired musicians jam for hours in a replica of Davis’ studio. Crucially, there is no trumpeter⎯and so Davis and his arguable failure are only present through absence. The most interesting aspect of Douglas’ film is its sheer length and repetitiveness. Seemingly endless musical variations wind us into a maze of reinterpretations and parallel possibilities.

Exhibition view of Stan Douglas, Luanda-Kinshasa, 2013. Single-channel video projection, 6 hr. 1 min. (loop), color, sound
Failure and reworking something over and over are also crucial to Icelandic artist Ragnar Kjartansson’s film A Lot of Sorrow (2013-14), which captures American band The National playing its three minute, twenty-five second song Sorrow live at MoMA PS1, repeatedly and continuously for six hours. Through repetition, change, fatigue, and euphoria, parallel versions of one song offer an insight into collaborative performance and endurance.

Imperfections and repetition connect Kjartansson’s and Douglas’ pieces with Susan Philipsz’ sound installation The Three Songs (2015), audible at Kyoto’s Kamo River Delta. Philipsz drew inspiration from this site because it connects Kyoto’s commercial and sacred districts, and therefore symbolises the city’s parallel identities as former national capital and continued spiritual one. It was also on these riverbanks that a shrine maiden once practiced singing and dancing with an exclusively female troupe, and that kabuki theatre originated. In these senses, Philipsz singing is an imaginative reanimation of a historical site. 

Susan Philipsz, The Distant Sound, 2014. Three-channel sound installation. Exhibition view, Moss, Norway, 2014. Photo by Eoghan McTigue. © Susan Philipsz
Site-specific, and sung in a precarious, amateur voice, Philipsz’ installations share some similarities with Dutch artist Joost Conjin’s makeshift, adhoc activities, which have included constructing a plane, and travelling through Eastern Europe in a homemade wood-fuelled car. Conjin films each adventure, capturing his inventive, improvisatory, and collaborative spirit. His films are screening upstairs at the Municipal Museum of Art. For seating, visitors can clamber upon two huge wooden boxes, which feel at once like stages and the grounds for Conjin’s next construction. 

In an adjacent room, Taiwanese artist Hong-Kai Wang is also showing work made in a collaborative, open-ended manner. In Wang’s case, however, the project is less about travel than situation⎯specifically, that of her hometown, Huwei. Huwei was once the home of a thriving sugar industry, built during Japanese rule. Wang has collected audio recordings made by Huwei’s residents and, through video, archival documents, photography and sound, presents an exploration of the changing face of the sugar industry, Taiwanese identity, and Japanese power overseas.

Sugar is also a focus of Thai artist Arin Rungjang’s film and sculptural installation at the Municipal Museum of Art. In Golden Teardrop (2013), Rungjang weaves together narratives from Thailand, Japan, Portugal and Greece, constructing a loose and delicate work about memory, trade and historical change. A sculpture of hundreds of brass teardrops hangs near the projection, referring to a Thai dessert made from egg-yolk and sugar, called golden drops, which was perhaps Rungjang’s Proustian madeleine for the film and its title. 

Arin Rungjang, Golden Teardrop (2013)
Rungjang’s sculpture catches light thrown from the projection, reflecting it in many little sparks, manifesting all the voices in the film. Film researcher Alex Zahlten, who divides his time between Kyoto and Harvard, uses the analogy of many little mirrors to describe the multiple perspectives on Japan apparent in Asian film since the 1950s. Zahlten has selected fifteen films on this theme for Parasophia, screening them at the Museum of Kyoto Film Theatre, under the title Mirrorball on Asia. A curated programme of films that takes in various political perspectives is a valuable component to any festival, but seems particularly relevant in light of Parasophia’s aim of presenting parallel, alternative takes on history, Japan, and various forms of knowledge.

Saudi Arabian artist Ahmed Mater’s 2013 film Leaves Fall in All Seasons is composed of multiple, parallel views too, this time in the form of mobile phone footage shot by immigrants working on construction sites in and around Makkah, a spiritual centre undergoing rapid modernisation. Filming from atop cranes or amid mounds of demolition, the workers sent their footage to Mater via Bluetooth, as evidence of the change they were seeing and making.

Ahmed Mater, Leaves Fall in All Seasons, (2013). Video still
A feeling of change also imbues Alan Sekula’s slideshow Waiting for Teargas (1999-2000), on show near Wang’s piece about Taiwan’s sugar trade. Sekula shares a proximity to Wang in more than one sense. Although not included in Parasophia, Sekula’s most famous film, Fish Story (1989-95), is an exploration of the international politics, labour and globalisation that shape the fishing industry. It displays the same multifaceted approach to the fishing industry as Wang’s does to sugar. While showing Fish Story in Seattle, Sekula photographed street protests against the 3rd World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference being held there the same week, and 81 of these photographs form the slideshow at Parasophia. Although the change here is that of political protest and not large-scale construction work, as in Mater’s film about Makkah, Sekula’s approach to his subjects feels equally collaborative. In a wall-mounted statement Sekula explains he eschews a zoom lens or flash, so as to be part of the crowd of protesters. 

Sekula’s piece complements those around it, and sits well with Parasophia’s approach to its location⎯not least the Municipal Museum’s military chapter, and the discussion of global power and dispute it opens up. If walls could speak, the Municipal Museum of Art would be a flurry of voices and languages. The same can be said for Kyoto in general, with its varied history, and visitors who bring cameras and coins⎯and innumerable perspectives. Some come as pilgrims, some as tourists, and until May 10th, some might come with an alternative reason altogether⎯to visit Parasophia—[O]

Parasophia: Kyoto International Festival of Contemporary Culture 2015
7 March 7–May 10, 2015

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