GAT 023 Yamamoto Hiroki
East Asian Contemporary Art and the Legacy of Colonialism

Hiroki Yamamoto, Shed Light on the Unwritten History, 2014,
Art project, photo by Kakeru Okada

Yamamoto Hiroki earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of the Arts London, Chelsea College of Arts, and from 2013 to 2018 was a postdoctoral fellow at The Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN). Following stints thereafter as research fellow at the Asia Culture Center (ACC) in South Korea, and postdoctoral fellow at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, since January 2020 he has been assistant professor at the Tokyo University of the Arts, Graduate School of Global Arts. In his paper “Addressing Transnational Legacies of Colonialism in East Asia”—also the subject of this talk—published in Media Culture in Transnational Asia (Rutgers University, September 2020), he introduces the practices of Shitamichi Motoyuki, Okamoto Mitsuhiro, Koizumi Meiro, and Shimada Yoshiko as examples of addressing those legacies in contemporary Japan. “Socially engaged art” has become more and more controversial since the 2019 Aichi Triennale. The following is an excerpt from the talk by Yamamoto, a scholar of cultural studies and practitioner of socially engaged art.

Edited by Ishii Jun’ichiro (ICA Kyoto)

Removing “colonialism of the mind”

It is sometimes said that “colonialism has ended,” but aspects of it remain in the world today as very real problems. In particular, thinking about “the legacy of colonialism in East Asia,” I sense that to an extent it still restrains our perceptions and ways of thinking. I have spent some time thinking about how we can confront these issues, how we can create a future that is more just, and how art can be involved in this process.

Humans are not necessarily independent of history. For example, though I was not alive during the war, this does not mean that I am cut off from that history. I sometimes like to think of myself as someone imbedded in that history.

Various disciplines, such as sociology and international relations, have each addressed in their own way the question of exclusive discrimination based on nationalism, but I began researching it because I was interested in art and thought I could contribute something different from these other disciplines.

There has been rigorous debate about post-colonialism in India and other former British colonies, and in a sense one could say the debate originated there. At the same time, because it is a field that has inevitably developed mainly in the West, in thinking about East Asia, I began to have doubts about whether it was acceptable to simply apply its theories and knowledge as is. I ended up thinking this was “troublesome.” To give one example, there was a sociologist in the field of Black Studies by the name of William Edward Burghardt Du Bois who said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” But, as seen in the example of discrimination against Zainichi Koreans (permanent ethnic Korean residents of Japan), the problem cannot be thought of merely in terms of appearance or skin color. Rather, to the extent that there is no such clearly discernible index, in some cases the problem has been rendered invisible.

The Indian researcher Ashis Nandy talks about what he calls “a second colonization,” which in simple terms is “the colonization of the mind.” Even when the kind of colonialism that actually restricts and controls people’s bodies has ended, the kind of colonialism that restricts people’s ways of thinking and frameworks for viewing things remains, and as long as people cannot remove this structure they cannot truly break away from colonialism. Of course, the former rulers should bear most of the responsibility for this, but as a Japanese person born in Japan, I was interested in whether it were possible to make artworks that aided in the removal of this kind of “colonization of the mind.”

The world that exists today is not inevitable

For Palas Por Pistolas (Shovels For Guns), artist Pedro Reyes visited a part of Mexico where gun-related crime was rampant and collected guns from police and local residents, which he then melted down to create shovels. As to what happened next, in a move reminiscent of Joseph Beuys, the shovels were used to plant trees. To me, this project exhibits several characteristics of socially engaged art. Firstly, it involves “practical social change.” Actual guns are recovered on an ongoing basis. At the same time, it turns guns, which symbolize death, into trees, which in a sense symbolize life. I consider this, the “use of symbols to tackle human perceptions,” to be one of the strengths of art.

During the discussion with art historian Miwon Kwon, it was mentioned that in the 1990s there occurred a “transformation in site-specific art.” Originally, the term “site-specific” was used in Land Art and Minimalist art to refer specifically to the geographical properties or morphological characteristics of a particular location. Gradually, it also came to include the historical and social context or the indigenous people of a site as important elements. My discussion also touches on these things, in that I look at the distinctiveness of a location from the standpoint of its history of colonialism.

And so I am interested in the kind of influence Japanese colonialism and the politics of the Cold War era that were a kind of successor to it has had on the entire region of East Asia and how art has addressed this.

Something else I want to tackle is the fact that Japanese contemporary art, being work based on pop art and subcultures, which is not necessarily a bad thing, tends to have an extremely apolitical image. Of course, I don’t think for a moment that art has to be political, but I want to shatter this kind of image of the “weakness of the social nature” of Japanese art, and to this end I’ve assigned myself the task as a researcher of writing in Japanese and English about various practices.

Yamamoto Hiroki

Cultural researcher, artist
Born in Chiba, Japan in 1986, Hiroki Yamamoto graduated in Social Science at Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo in 2010 and completed his MA in Fine Art at Chelsea College of Arts (UAL), London in 2013. In 2018, Yamamoto received a PhD from the University of the Arts London. From 2013 until 2018, he had worked at Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN) as a postgraduate research fellow. After working at Asia Culture Center (ACC) in Gwangju, South Korea, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Design, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Hong Kong until 2019. His publication includes The History of Contemporary Art: Euro-America, Japan, and Transnational (2019,Chuo Koron Sha).

* The talk was held October 24, 2020