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Fluxus on a tourist visa - click opera
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Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 10:12 am
Fluxus on a tourist visa

Showing Joe and Emma around Pro-QM, I started browsing the enormous Fluxus Codex, a sort of encyclopedia of the movement compiled in 1988 by Jon Hendricks. At €100 it was way too expensive to buy, but I did what I usually do at Pro-QM, scribbled down names to google when I got home. These mostly involved the names of the many Japanese women in Fluxus who weren't Yoko Ono.

Back home, I got very interested in the experience of one of these artists, Chieko (Mieko) Shiomi, related at length in Into Performance: Japanese women artists in New York, a 2005 book by Midori Yoshimoto, large chunks of which are available to read online thanks to Google Book Search. Shiomi's 1960s experience not only points up the contribution of Japanese women (other than Yoko Ono) to Fluxus, it's emblematic of the way Japan and New York tend to energize each other artistically.

As Midori Yoshimoto narrates, Chieko Shiomi was born in 1938 into a well-to-do family in Tamashima, a small town near Okayama. After a BA thesis on Webern at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, she joined improvisation group Ongaku alongside the young Yasunao Tone (I documented my own meeting with "cute, compact, beamy" Tone here).

At a 1961 concert Shiomi interpreted an IBM punch card by playing theremin and blowing bubbles while Tone smashed pottery and other members of the group "played" planks of wood with drills and saws. Throwing keys into the air at a Group Ongaku meeting made her realize that "time itself -- the duration of time that is not necessarily realized as sound, but can be just a physical sensation or an action" was as interesting as music.

Shiomi visited the Tokyo apartment Yoko Ono shared with then-husband Ichinagi in 1963 and saw event cards written by Fluxus artists, including George Brecht. She made Endless Box, a nested series of boxes. When she met Nam June Paik, he was impressed by the box and encouraged her to write to George Maciunas in New York. Maciunas liked the box idea and asked Shiomi to make reproductions, which he distributed with his Fluxkits. In 1964 Maciunas published Shiomi's Events and Games, 23 score cards in a small plastic box. He urged Shiomi to come to New York, providiing her with her air fare by buying ten sets of Endless Box for 20 dollars each. (Yoshimoto doesn't say whether any romance was involved.)

"Chieko Shiomi and Shigeko Kubota arrived here in New York, very nice girls," George Maciunas wrote to Ben Vautier in July 1964. "Brought many news from Japan activities. New compositions." These were often on score cards. A piece called Mirror instructed: "Stand on the sandy beach with your back to the sea. Hold a mirror in front of your face and look into it. Step back to the sea and enter into the water."



Shiomi was welcomed to New York by the Asian Fluxus coterie already installed there: Ay-O, his wife Ikuko Iijima, Nam June Paik and Takako Saito. They laid on an onigiri supper. She was chaperoned by Shigeko Kubota, a friend who had also contacted Maciunas. Shiomi had been uncertain whether Maciunas was "a trustworthy person", but he was generous and helpful, finding Kubota and Shiomi an air-conditioned apartment on Sullivan Street and helping them furnish it, carrying furniture up the road from his own place on his back.

Maciunas' loft on nearby Canal Street was "like a small publishing office or a family factory". Soon the girls were set to work cutting out paper and pasting labels. They were also, they discovered to their dismay, expected to cook for Fluxus dinners for large numbers of artists.

Shiomi continued making and performing actions at "happenings" in New York. In Disappearing Music for Face she "conducted faces", making smiles slowly vanish from the faces of people, replaced by more neutral expressions. Music for Two Performers involved introducing two strangers who shared a birthday, then asking them to stare into each other's eyes, pour water from one cup into another, and so on.



Shiomi fell out with Maciunas for a while over the format of Spatial Poem No. 1, a mail art project involving maps and flags. ("Write a word (or words) on the enclosed card and place it somewhere. Let me know your word and place so that I can make a distribution chart of them on a world map, which will be sent to every participant.") Although it was a trivial argument over whether to include newsprint in the map, Maciunas considered expelling Shiomi from Fluxus. The over-reaction suggests something more personal was involved. Shiomi's tourist visa also ran out after a year in New York. So she returned to Japan, and piano lessons in Okayama, with only her mail art projects to keep her in touch with the wider world.



But there were other Japanese Fluxus artists in the same boat, people who'd been to New York and wanted to continue their work in Japan. Flux Week at Gallery Crystal in Ginza in 1965 involved Shiomi and Tone and Takemitsu. In Water Music ("Let the water lose its still form", read the score) Shiomi played with water in a children's paddling pool covered with a white cloth. She anticipated Pole and Markus Popp by several decades when she played a waltz record covered with glue, then dropped water on it, allowing some bits of the grooves to play. Her Falling Event was perhaps the inspiration for Laurie Anderson's "Walking and Falling".

In 1970 Shiomi became a housewife and mother, and found it difficult to continue her artistic work -- something which doesn't seem to have stopped Yoko Ono, but vast wealth may have had something to do with that. In 1990 she broke her retirement to record and release a Requiem for George Maciunas on a C31 cassette, played mostly on synth and sampler. It formed part of a Fluxus retrospective at the Venice Biennale. When the 40th anniversary of Fluxus came up, Shiomi made a record called A Musical Dictionary of 80 People Around Fluxus, a series of 80 musical portraits. Here's the fourth:

Michael Berger (mp3 file, 45 seconds, stereo)

25CommentReply

sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 09:20 am (UTC)

"An onigiri supper"? For some reason that detail interests me. A bit like having a welcome meal from Europeans in 1960's Tokyo of cucumber sandwiches. "Is there a main course?" You wonder, but think it best not to say anything. They probably can't afford tuna.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 09:28 am (UTC)

"Supper" is probably the wrong word -- it was a party.

"A welcome party with Japanese rice balls was held for them by Ay-() and his wife," Midori writes.


ReplyThread Parent
sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 09:33 am (UTC)

That sounds potentially saucier!


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 12:48 pm (UTC)

Onigiri can be pretty extravagant. Season the rice with lots of furikake, then fill them up with grilled meats that have been marinated in Japanese sauces, then wrap the onigiri in ajitsuke-nori ... those would be pretty amazing onigiri.


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
sarmoung
sarmoung
The Empire Never Ended
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
Re: forgot to log in.

Photobucket


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 09:44 am (UTC)

The Rutgers University Press blurb on the back of Midori Yoshimoto's book is a bit sweeping, implying that patriarchy and sexism existed more in Japan than America, and that women like Shiomi were "enlightened enough to leave", which for me ties in directly to the "we don't like the way you treat your women" style of chauvinism.

"Unusually courageous and self-determined," says the blurb, "they were among the first Japanese women to leave their country -- and its male-dominated, conservative art world -- to explore the artistic possibilities in New York."

What Midori's text actually describes is rather different. First of all, the "conservative" art world in Japan that people like Shiomi were "escaping" involved people of both genders playing theremins, improvising and staging happenings. In other words, it wasn't very conservative at all. The men who moved in that world were people like Yasunao Tone, and they were happy to admit women as equals.

Secondly, Shiomi was terrified to fly to New York and took a lot of persuading by a man, George Maciunas -- including getting her plane fare paid. Is that really "courageous and self-determined"?

Thirdly, the art world that Shiomi escaped to in New York, though it was certainly as advanced as the Japanese one (no theremins though) was one in which the women -- and the women only -- were expected to cook for the male artists. Midori could as easily be described as showing Shiomi arriving in a more patriarchal world than the one she left behind in Japan. I'm sure Group Ongaku didn't demand cooking skills.

Edited at 2008-08-01 09:54 am (UTC)


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 01:16 pm (UTC)

One of the reasons that sort of commentary from the blurb got around is because the Japanese women themselves said as much. And they are still saying it:

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/06/08/BAM110PROV.DTL

It's a different question whether they were right to say so then and now but I'm not sure you want to readily assume that women were accepted as equals by the likes of Tone just because they were allowed to participate.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 04:22 pm (UTC)

That blurb was either written by Midori Yoshimoto or is paraphrasing things said by Midori Yoshimoto in the book. Blurbs on the back of books from academic presses aren't often known for their editorial tone or introducing original, independent content into a work.

Also, I doubt the schlub intern working on that blurb really cared enough to spout their own theory on Japanese women's place in the 1960s art world to come up with brand new content. It seems like those ideas you have a problem with are Midori's own.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 04:50 pm (UTC)

I think the book has been glossed to emphasize some notion of cod-feminism which wants to say:

* That most Japanese women are "submissive".
* That a few are "feisty", and it's these ones who leave Japan.
* Because Japan is "conservative".
* That these "feisty" women are "self-determined", in other words not only exceptional but individualistic.
* That these exception, individualistic women (who are almost as courageous as men, specifically as Western men) are much braver than ordinary Japanese women, the majority of whom are not just submissive but cowards.
* That the West is radical and the East is conservative.
* That Japan needs to change, but America doesn't.

Do you see where that kind of thinking is going? It actually encodes all the prejudices it superficially seems to be eroding. It privileges maleness above femaleness, Westernness above Easternness, individualism above collectivism. It proposes a meritocratic hierarchy in which equality of opportunity allows some "exceptional" individuals to rise to prominence. By celebrating these exceptions, it implicitly condemns the majority.

Imagine, if you will, a gloss on the same facts, the same biographies, which said that these were typical Japanese women, not really very different from other Japanese women, and that they were behaving according to a collective genius particular to Japanese and particular to women. In other words, that they were good not despite what they were, but because of it.

Edited at 2008-08-01 04:53 pm (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent

(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 05:26 pm (UTC)

Where do you get the idea that the book or the blurb argues that "Japanese women are 'submissive'"? Your quotation from the blurb doesn't say that and I haven't heard Yoshimoto say it either. If it's not courageous to be among the first to set out abroad, what is it? There's no implication that not to have done so was weak or submissive. No-one gets called a coward even indirectly so I think you are overstating your case.

In the end, though, it is undeniably Yoshimoto's stance that the Japanese art world is less open to female artists, is conservative and ought to change. You might not agree with her view but it is the view of a Japanese woman and not some cultural supremacist.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 07:37 pm (UTC)

I was saying the general picture being painted in the blurb ties in all too easily with the notion that Japanese women are "submissive" -- in the big picture, that the feminine condition is problematical in the East but not in the West. I find this tantamount to whitewashing.

I think probably the move from the family bosom in Tamashima to Tokyo would have been -- was -- as liberating for Shiomi as the move from Tamashima to New York. We have to make sure we're comparing like with like. Don't compare Tamashima with New York, compare Tokyo's avant circles with
New York's avant circles.

The US and Japan have conservative mainstreams and radical fringes, and the big jump in such societies is to go from the mainstream to the fringe. If Yoshimoto is implying that Shiomi wouldn't have found the same kind of liberation within Japan -- and didn't in fact find patriarchal oppression in New York -- the facts of Shiomi's biography as she tells it clearly contradict that.


ReplyThread Parent
imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 07:45 pm (UTC)

...And my big point is basically that we need to get from the point where we say "Isn't it great that she achieved all she did despite being born a teeny, tiny, weak, timid Japanese woman!" to the point where we say "I can see why she achieved what she did: it's because she's a Japanese woman."

If you look at Shiomi's work, there are all sorts of themes -- respect for nature, surrender of the individual personality, a certain restraint, a benign interest in quiet and marginal things -- which come directly from her Japaneseness and her femininity. Which are there because of that, not despite it. I think those qualities are travestied if you then try to pass her off as "an extraordinary individual" who succeeded by throwing off the shackles of gender and nation, blah blah blah.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 08:23 pm (UTC)

Shiomi something meaningful that she did. She dropped some dye in a bucket, stacked some boxes. I mean, so what?


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 09:20 pm (UTC)

"...we need to get...to the point where we say 'I can see why she achieved what she did: it's because she's a Japanese woman.'"

But that's what Yoshimoto does say. Her contention is that more Japanese women artists would thrive in Japan if they got the opportunities many instead have to find overseas. To put it another way, given that you believe Shiomi's achievements are down to being a Japanese woman why don't more Japanese women in Japan have her achievements? (leaving the debate about those achievements to others)

She also doesn't regard America as a nirvana - she would agree with your description. A lot of her book deals with the way these sixties artists were also ignored by the white men of the NY art world. WWII memories were still fresh so being Japanese didn't help. Nor did the "geisha orientalism" of many. In fact, you might say that Yoshimoto argues that Japanese society makes talented women into outsiders and it was their willingness and ability to thrive as outsiders which brought them success. She quotes Yoko Ono saying:

"I’ve always felt like an outsider, that people did not understand me. In a way, I created a power as an outsider. I mean, being an outsider is an incredible power, actually. I always think that you should never be in the center. Center is a blind spot because you can’t see anybody. You are being seen, but you can’t see anybody."

I've now read the blurb you are complaining about above. It does accurately reflect Yoshimoto's thesis so I'd take it up with her if you believe she's doing down Japanese women.

My problem with her work is that she doesn't put enough emphasis on how these women were all relatively wealthy and could forge their own way because they had a safety net. She might be right about gender barriers but it could have been as much about money as it was about living abroad that explains how they came to make their mark while other female artists didn't and still can't.


ReplyThread Parent
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 11:01 am (UTC)

Is that a dead pheasant floating in the air?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 11:07 am (UTC)

Yes. "In the first section Shiomi walked up to a water tank on a table and put some crystals of copper sulfate into the water. After the copper sulfate caused an immediate chemical reaction and turned the water a vivid blue, she took the temperature of the water and announced it to the audience through a microphone. Next, while a stuffed pheasant swung from the ceiling in the dark, the four performers alternated sitting down and standing up, with flashlights directed at the vessel. In the last part, they brought chairs to the table, wrote words (specified by Shiomi) on cigarettes, and smoked them after announcing the word."


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electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 11:36 am (UTC)

I have to say it sounds pretty lolzy.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 11:46 pm (UTC)

You crazy girl. It sounds amazing, and the dead pheasant is just this side of perfect. A sly take on the Last Supper (and the first supper -- water into wine), or a time compression of all the suppers we will ever have. An absurdist comment on woman's maternal role as food provider, life as chemistry, and the sexual imagery of the after meal smoke.

Edited at 2008-08-01 11:47 pm (UTC)


ReplyThread Parent
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 11:47 pm (UTC)

Wow, thank you so much for mansplaining this art to me! What with my arts degrees, I can't understand it at all!


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sat, Aug. 2nd, 2008 12:15 am (UTC)

"mansplaining!" lol.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Sat, Aug. 2nd, 2008 12:39 am (UTC)

And I am duly chastened e-witch, and grieved to have offended your petty but obviously sincere gender politics, but I meant no harm. Why is it 'mansplaining' and not me just having a difference of opinion and expressing it to you? I mean does everything, even an innocuous comment -- an expression of appreciation for a piece of art-- have to be seen through the lens of your feminist principles? I would argue that that does as much injustice to my point of view as the perceived insult did to yours.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 01:12 pm (UTC)

Shiomi a better artist than Yoko Ono...


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robinsonner
robinsonner
the maven
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 02:45 pm (UTC)

One could say Yoko's greatest project was The Beatles themselves.


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(Anonymous)
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 11:25 pm (UTC)
open your box

try to stay open


ReplyThread Parent
electricwitch
electricwitch
For anything, oh! she´ll bust her elastic
Fri, Aug. 1st, 2008 11:48 pm (UTC)

Because that's hard, as we all know.


ReplyThread Parent