On Sunday November 14th, Asia Society hosted an afternoon symposium on the topic of DiY and collectivity in Japanese art and culture. Panelists Shigeru Ban, Reiko Tomii, Thomas Looser, Yoshitaka Mori, and Yukio Lippit gave presentations and took part in a roundtable discussion on various aspects of Japanese culture and the arts.
Shigeru Ban, the internationally acclaimed architect, was supposed to deliver the keynote speech, but was unfortunately delayed at the airport. He arrived–straight from Tokyo–in effect, to deliver the closing statement instead. He presented his varied and monumental achievements in architecture, including the new Centre Pompidou in Metz, Germany, contrasted against his humanitarian activities, most recently in building temporary shelters for Haitians after the disastrous earthquake. What is most important, he said, is that architects strive for a balance between creating monuments for “rich, privileged people” and using architecture for practical use to help people in need. ”It’s vital to work with the local people,” he said of his shelters, built simply from locally sourced paper chip and beer crates, “so that they learn to build these themselves.”
His images of recovering communities living in buildings made from recycled materials are somewhat reminiscent of YNG’s “A to Z” project in Hirosaki, Japan. As Miwako Tezuka pointed out, this elaborate, community- and volunteer-driven exhibition drew 80,000 people to the small, out-of-the-way town, “gathering people with the spirit of community.” DiY is an important aspect of Nara’s work ethic and spirit, and, as Tezuka pointed out, “creativity through DiY can be a way out…of depression, either economic or psychological.”
As Reiko Tomii, an independent scholar and co-founder of PoNJA-GenKon (Post Nineteen Forty-Five Japanese Art Discussion Group), put it, collectivism in art is “strategic alliances to seek out alternative modes of expression and alternative sites of operation.” Artist collectives in Japan, it turns out, are quite the norm, having been introduced (along with Western art) in the 19th century with artist organizations called bijutsu dantai. She traced the emergence and formulation of the various incarnations of artist collectives from the 19th century, to the Gutai group in the 1960s and “the Play” in the 1970s, through to contemporary groups like Paramodel, Chim↑Pom, and Chaos*Lounge.
Yoshitaka Mori, who came to the event from Tokyo where he teaches at Tokyo University of the Arts, similarly showed the development and roots of DiY in music and pop culture. He located the development of a DiY mode of operation as resulting both from new technologies and from revolutionary stances, situating contemporary DiY groups as direct descendants of the student movement of the 1960’s. DiY today, then, derives originally from Marxist politics, but priorities changed “from philosophy and ideology to lifestyle, music and art.”
Thomas Looser, of New York University, spoke about DiY in the framework of Japanese subcultures and “tribes,” or zoku, like the bosozoku motorcycle gangs. In many cases, he stated, these subcultures may not have much capacity to enact truly transformative social change, as they become “closer to a genre, pre-fabricated but ultimately controlled by the culture industry.” Looser also positioned DiY as contingent on the existence of mass culture, as an alternative to it, or even dependent upon it, as in the case of “mass culture commodities bringing disparate groups together, such as movies.”
The symposium was moderated by Yukio Lippit of Harvard University, who noted that Nara’s work effectively bridges two DiY cultures–that of the 1970′s here’s-three-chords-now-start-a-band DiY punk era, and the 1990′s post-Bubble. With Nara, it’s not just DiY–it’s a state of mind.