Konoike Tomoko: The Restructuring of Mythology?
(Independent Curator / 2011 International Fellowship Researcher, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Korea)
In this exhibition, Konoike Tomoko's first solo show in Korea, the artist reexamines a mythological
visual language, or through the act of "seeing," creates enigmas for our era, indicating the current
need to revise the subjective perspective; i.e., one's personal view of things.
I would like to begin by explaining the mythological context that Konoike references in her work. In
Japanese mythology, there is a three-legged crow called the yatagarasu. Familiar to many as the
symbol of the Japan Football Association, the bird is worshipped as a divine messenger or an
incarnation of the sun. And just as the yatagarasu evokes other creatures with more than the usual
number of legs, Konoike's depiction of a six-legged wolf calls to mind mythical images related to a
spiritual belief in wolves that has existed in Japan since ancient times. Her new work Dark Crow, a
fusuma (sliding door) painting that depicts a crow with human legs, is similar in its use of the bird as a
motif. Moreover, Konoike's other new works include mountains, another object of worship in ancient
times, which along with the sea are synonymous with sublime nature. And just as, for example,
animism and a multitude of deities are based on the idea that god is omnipresent, the half-human
beasts and anthropomorphized creations portrayed in Konoike's work are not an objectification of
nature or an object of worship but a representation of a unified way of thinking that is a part of us.
The concept of the sublime, inextricably linked to beauty, is derived from large and awe-inspiring
elements of the natural world. Sublimity not only brings us pleasure and joy but fear and confusion. It
is impossible for us apprehend the essence of a sublime entity, as it is something that is by definition
intangible and enigmatic. Human history is an ongoing series of encounters with such entities. As we
confront and pray to these things, we learn to come to terms with their enigmatic qualities through
our survival instinct and intellectual curiosity.
Two new works in this exhibition, Donning animal skins and braided grass and Hidden Mountain Shining
(both 2011), are emblematic of Konoike's enigmatic and sublime creations. Since first showing a
mirrored sculpture of a six-legged wolf in a solo exhibition at the Ohara Museum of Art in Japan in
2006, the artist has continued to develop her use of the material. This has led to one of her most
notable installations, Earth Baby (2009), a rotating, mirrored baby's head, and the wolves and
mountains that appear in this exhibition. The mirrors, segmented into small pieces that cover the
body of the work, are produced by carving a line on the surface of the material with a diamond cutter
in a manual operation that calls for a concerted effort. The smaller the pieces are, the more directions
the viewer's sightline is repelled due to the angle of the lighting. This diffused reflection creates a
complex visual distance between the motif and the viewer. The motif that we attempt to see is
shrouded in a diffusion of light and further deified as something intangible. And just at the moment
that our sightline approaches its target, the view is dispersed into bits and pieces, forcing us to
restructure our perspective and reconsider what it is we are looking at.
Another of Konoike's most significant creations, an animated work called mimio, expresses the
process through which children come to visualize the world, as depicted in the wanderings and
adventures of a wondrous creature called mimio. A child's vision is a series of awakenings achieved
by fumbling around in a brand-new world. A baby, for example, might stare fixedly at their right
hand but remain unaware that the limb is actually connected to their body. One day, however, they
suddenly come to see this enigmatic object as part of their physical form and acquire the ability to
actively move their arm. By becoming aware of the things that we see, hear, and touch, we come to
understand their meaning. Without this ability, we would spend our days engulfed in waves of
meaningless information and noise.
Our era is said to be overloaded with information and filled with chaos, but to people of the past, the
"present" was also surely every bit as chaotic. In order to shed more light on the art-historical context
of Konoike's work, I would like to mention Okamoto Taro (1911-1996), an avant-garde artist who is
perhaps best known for Taiyo no To (Tower of the Sun), a gigantic sculpture he created for the Osaka
Expo in 1970.
Konoike attaches special importance to Okamoto as a pioneer whose artistic practice was rooted in a
primitive, indigenous form of creativity. Okamoto's interests, which centered on the ornamentation in
Jomon pottery, and the ancient, traditional cultures of Okinawa and Tohoku, are closely connected to
the age in which postwar Japan underwent rapid development. A variety of social currents and a
glorification of technology, which prompted miraculous economic growth; political struggles waged
against state power by students and workers; and the exploration of and conflict regarding identity in
Japanese art gave rise to countless avant-garde art groups and domestic forms of conceptual art
between approximately 1955 and the early 1970s. While at the forefront of these trends, Okamoto was
also viewed as a heretic. This was due to the fact that instead of directly referring to politics or
questioning the inherent nature of Japanese art, he displayed a radical form of creativity that was
linked to the transmission and survival of indigenous culture. Avoiding a relativized view of things,
indigenity can be seen as the cultural character of a particular region. The ability of this culture to
survive is a direct reflection of its vitality. And this ability, one of Okamoto's focuses during this
turbulent period, remains essential today.
We are aware of the fact that the information and the visual elements that surround us only account
for one small part of the world. There are countless histories and cultures that vanish into oblivion
without ever being conveyed and things that disappear without being captured in a net of
information. The current tension-filled state of affairs, therefore, makes a wide-ranging, relative view
of the world all the more important. Paradoxically, if something happens to fall outside of this view,
it becomes significant on the basis of its ability to survive. Art is not instantaneous; it is something
that produces historical meaning over a long span of time. In this context, one might then place
Konoike alongside Okamoto as an artist who is engaged in an indigenous practice.
To Konoike, who was employed for many years in the planning and designing of toys and
miscellaneous goods, work that is devoid of a social function or economic principle is not part of a
true artistic practice. In the past, she has questioned whether art is an effective means of making
inroads into social systems, art institutions, and other customs – in other words, whether it has a
function in society. But after the Great East Japan Earthquake, which occurred on March 11, 2011,
every assumption about Japanese society collapsed. As many artists explored the role of culture, it
became clear that art lacks a material form of immediate effectiveness. This must have also been a
vexing time for Konoike. And this explains why she set out to restructure her own expressive
language by transforming fundamental ideas related to mythology and her awareness of the world
Japan's continuing efforts to reveal its self-consciousness are limiting and unproductive in terms of
interacting with the rest of the world. What is required is not only a closer relationship with regional
communities but a relative outlook.
In the past I wrote, "Konoike's works are a database that is realized through a structure." This
observation was inspired by Claude Lévi-Strauss' notion of Structuralism: A structure is something
that maintains the quality of immutability that emerges when one system (aggregation) undergoes a
transformation to become another system. The artist’s motifs (mimio, the six-legged wolf, and
children's feet) might initially seem to be part of a fantastic story, but they are merely structural
elements that she calls up from a database of work, and contain neither a narrative nor a message. As
narrative is part of a meta-sphere, in Konoike's work there is a consistent framework of "primal
mythological origins" that predates the birth of the story. This framework allows for a relative view.
Today, after witnessing the sudden disappearance of regional livelihoods that were built up over a
period of many years and the collapse of seemingly formidable military regimes in a wave of
democratization, there is no longer any need for an impromptu narrative. Through events such as
these, we have learned that change occurs without warning, and to be suspicious of comforting
phrases meant to resist change. Only the stories that have been told repeatedly over a long span of
history have produced wise, cultural traditions. Myths are the oldest surviving stories. Konoike's
work seems to be founded on the primordial ability to restructure things – something that is akin to
the combining of human and natural elements in mythology. The images that she depicts, however,
are not based on concrete, mythological anecdotes but are subjective creations. Even when forced by
the ferocity of nature or an ideological conversion to restructure our lives, one sees how art can
respond to our era through the development of Konoike Tomoko's visual language, which responds
in a subjective, indigenous, and relative manner.
Myths: you who are looking—what are you looking at?
Just when I initiated production for this exhibition, on March 11, 2011 Japan was hit by
an almost unprecedented disaster. With it, our view on the world drastically changed.
Familiar landscapes trembled violently, and a huge tsunami engulfed cities in Tohoku.
These sights became images and were broadcasted in real-time to the World, the entire
planet sharing the same pictures.
Since Humans first became conscious of the act of “looking,” how many wonders have
we seen? Humans extracted themselves from Nature, and for a long time it has been
considered an object of visual contemplation. However, due to this disaster, Nature as
an object easily broke its boundaries, and forcibly burst into our lives. Furthermore,
facing the invisible threat of radioactivity, we came up against the limit of “seeing.” No,
we can say reality tore it apart and we paid a huge cost. The eyes of the audience, of
“the ones who are looking,” most surely have changed.
After the disaster, we have been ruthlessly reminded that our own bodies are part of
Nature, and before-known sensations are shattered and progressively being reorganized.
Then as we stand before the unfathomable amount of what has been lost, we also feel
the awakening of a strong sensation, somewhat resembling a sense that would have
been asleep in our bodies for eons.
I wonder how it felt in primeval times when words were first spoken and myths were
primary told. What were Humans looking at? Nature had yet to be completely
objectified, and as “I” looked at the landscape one became the extension of Nature,
progressively “marrying” with forests, animals, the sky and rain.
For the present exhibition I choose such “contemporary myths” as my theme, including
works produced after the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami: a six-legged wolf covered in a
mosaic of mirrors reflecting light and the viewers, “Volcano-mountain”, a human mixed
with a wolf, the “Mimio” video animation where the sense of vision of a growing up
child is the main character, as well as the faces of children who gaze at their time,
among others. With a display reminding of a forest lurking in profound, ancient layers, I
want to shake up the point of view of my contemporaries by using a multifaceted
approach. I am confident that this exhibition will become a turning point in my career—
something ended for good, and, yet immature and uncertain, something new has started.
August 29, 2011