This one is really from the Vault. It was printed in the Melbourne art magazine Agenda, in about 1989 or so. The totally irrelevant picture I have chosen to illustrate this is not of Weary’s art, but since Man City beat the Gunners 4-1 yesterday I thought it amusing that when I searched ‘weary’ this picture turned up, with the caption ‘a weary Arsenal…’ Apologies, but the image that illustrated this piece in its original form will be retrieved when I’ve dug still further down into the swamp…
‘Visiting Faraway: an installation by Geoff Weary at the Art Gallery of NSW’
- by John Hutnyk
There is no way that the ‘main event’ could be ignored in this tale.
In a room tucked away beneath the Guggenheim collection, which dominates attendances at the NSW Gallery this summer, Geoff Weary’s video installation waits for an audience. Weary had been artist-in-residence at the time when Emperor Hirohito was slowly dying, in hospital and in the national press, an event which had its significances in all parts of Japan. Now Weary is located down under the visiting treasures of American Art collection, and Japan is somehow again made ephemeral in the process. Given a basement-like room in which to set up his elaborate commentary upon his ‘residence’, Weary’s video rolls over and over, and while it doesn’t immediately offer an easy set of linkages, it is nevertheless not too strange to attribute a narrative intentionality to the arrangements. People want to tell stories about Japan – making meaning of the enigma. Yet how we construct the ‘empire of signs’, as Barthes called it, raises questions about storytelling and fidelity of representation that deserve more attention. In Weary’s room a few people enter – the door is hard to find – and sit before his ‘Faraway’ – a Sony large-screen video projector, two Bose hi-fidelity speakers and some twenty-three black and white images arranged upon the walls. At various times across the last month three videos have been shown over: ‘From Occupied Japan’, ‘Faraway’ and ‘House of Whispers’. I saw the third of these, secreting its messages from a Japan that seemed so much more distant than the masculanist European glories haphazardly collected upstairs. The Emperor and wartime Imperial Nippon is remote in place and time, and yet the economics of ‘whispers’ – a suggestive piece of video set in the Tokyo stock exchange – could, perhaps should, be so much closer to us than the ‘valuable’ art of Mondrian, Modigliani and so on – for all the influences of the ‘east’ that might be traced in those works. Slamming the American Imperialism of the Guggenheim, however, is another project.
Weary tells us a story. There are seven photographs of world war two airmen, there are seven photographs of coins, and there are seven civilian faces, five of these quite obviously evocative of ‘youth’, or perhaps the ‘future’ of Japan. There is a larger photograph of the Emperor, and another large piece which is the front page of the newspaper which announced his death: ‘The Emperor died at 6.33 am today and the 55 year old Crown Prince succeeded immediately to the Chrysanthemum throne’. In the catalogue essay, Spivak’s comment that money resembles writing as a ‘sign of a sign’ resonates further here in the context of the empire of signs. All but one of the coins in the photographs are caught spinning, over and over; the seventh, in the centre, is one of those coins with its centre chopped out – a device of old mints to extend coinage without producing further coins – as if the centre of value has been removed and spent elsewhere, and yet there remains a currency in Japan. The Emperor is important even at the stock exchange, site of the economic ascendancy of the nation, even as the coin is clipped in this way. Clipped coins are of a different, more convoluted order, but they are still money. Why then have they become so strange, so exotic, in this context?
Weary has the exchangists tell a story. In the video we watch accountants accounting, inscribing value upon small sheets, scribbled wealth. Money in its most abstracted and international form in the stock exchange – yet still strange, mysterious. Hands gesture signals to the stock board – to buy so many units, to sell so many others, to wave goodbye, to wipe away a tear – the hands dance in their language of value. The writers inscribe. And each interlude away from the exchange – to the landfilled area of Tokyo bay, to the world of T.V. advertising – ends with a staggered frame effect which resembles flicking through the pages of a book (wasn’t this the form of the most originary animations?). Figures of exchange value are superimposed over a shouting face. The camera presumes to read for us, making its images into text, through writing, through pages, and alongside the text of the death of the Emperor, the text of the war and the text of value in ‘faraway’ Japan. The contradiction of the money form which can make equivalences of everything all over the globe appears in its strangest manifestation in the very forum of international money. The stock exchange should be the most familiar of places for us, the point at which we can calculate equivalences, since money allows us to do so – but here we cannot.
Then Weary tells us a fishing story. Amidst the stock exchange scenes the editing has included a coloured sequence shot on the reclaimed lands of Tokyo bay. Many people are fishing, a small fish is caught, the city is ‘faraway’ in the background. What is value here? Across this sequence the music is ‘traditional’, everything else had been Bach violins (Partita in D Minor). Is fishing valuable? As a pastime or as commodity, another coin has been clipped, on land reclaimed, as if at some point Tokyo reclaimed this as its centre, not yet constructed, developed, not yet part of the city, and still resonant with the music of an older Japan. The huge wealthy urbanity of the metropolis, with which cinematography so likes to conjure up images of our own future, is presented from afar, from a reverent distance perhaps, so as not to succumb to the imperialism of icon building where the building of Tokyo as Empire becomes the sign of world value. Yet if Weary does want to avoid, as it says in the catalogue, ‘the Western postmodernist definition of Japan as an archetypical cultural other’ and not enter into ‘a mindless unproblematised celebration of Japan’ as the exemplary sign-scape, then his city has to be built from some other position than that of the seduced voyeur of the traditional value of the gesture. Fishing rods and close-ups of hands may entail a fidelity with ‘what is’, but the cliché of the Tokyo-proto-metropolis remains. And this is what can feed Tokyo into the gluttonous exchange machine of the money-for-cultural-difference relation – even the strange can be calculated and commodified finally – coins can be found to represent its enigma. As we so often find, stereotypes work precisely because they are stereotypes, reductively meaningful, and capable of working their effects even at a distance, even under criticism. For all Weary’s ‘other’ Japan, it is Japan as other that is presented in very conventional ways. Mysterious again, the place cannot be demystified under Weary’s signs of money, or of Emperor, nor of fishing.
There is a story here that is difficult to tell. The camera – both video and photographic – begins to read for us, but we are also drawn over to ‘faraway’ Japan. Voyeurs of our own impressions and failures of comprehension – Japan becomes a story since it is difficult to tell, because it resists our conventional narrations. Yet we can gain a purchase on this, since our stereotypes of the war, our iconic image of an Emperor, the all-transmutable value of coins and the whispered values of the stock exchange only become stories through our sitting before these images across time. Wandering around the Guggenheim is not very different from this, but the time-based arts of Weary tell in so many different ways than the paintings in the main exhibition that it is inappropriate to compare, and yet unavoidable, because to visit Weary is, usually, to have already visited the Guggenheim. Value asserts its priorities again, the Emperor is dead but Weary’s Japan story remains faraway buried beneath the grand history of ART upstairs, and buried beneath the gestures of avoiding clichés, avoiding our constructions by making an object of construction – Japan as a sign of a sign of value – even as it might allow us to speak of more than this. It is always important, I think, to look at context and its conditioning effects, and ask where value is to be found, who has put together the collection, and how. The Emperor is dead, the coin is clipped, a hand inscribes the exchange, yet the same old imperialisms abound. Upstairs the punters pay money to see the booty of American collectors, and value is left in a spin.