Japan is famous for its breathtaking nature. Cherry blossoms, mountains, cranes; the image most people of the country is of a serene, gentle place, where everything is delicate and beautiful. In Chikako Yamashiro’s exhibition Shapeshifter at White Rainbow in London the viewer is exposed to the natural side of Japan, but it is not as delicate as we might be expecting it to be.
In Trip to Japan, 2004, Yamashiro stands in front of what looks like the gates of a governmental building, holding a sign and shouting facts about her hometown, Okinawa, to passers by. Okinawa is the southern-most island of Japan that comprises less than one percent of its landmass. That said, it is home to 26,000 U.S. troops and 75 per cent of all American military personnel stations in Japan, occupying 20 per cent of Okinawa’s land. The film of the young Japanese woman standing alone, almost ignored by the traffic moving passed her, may be an illustration of a sense of voiceless-ness experienced by the native inhabitants of the island. In the clip Yamashiro tells the viewer historical and geographical facts about Okinawa, perhaps to divert attention away from the American presence and towards a Japanese one.
Trip to Japan is one of three films shown on 90’s style box television sets that stand on plinths, accompanied by headphones that allow the audience to listen to the videos more intimately. These films comprise a series titled OKINAWA TOURIST, 2004, where Yamashiro questions the dominant historical accounts of Japanese and American occupation on the island where battles between the United States and Japan took place at the end of the Second World War. In I Like Okinawa Street, 2004, the artist has filmed herself eating ice cream in front of a military base in a performance that mocks how touristic explorations of a place – Okinawa Tourist is the name of a tourism operator on the island – can gloss over socio-political truths. The third-part to the trio of films Graveyard Eisa, is probably the most powerful, whereby Yamashiro has staged and filmed a traditional Okinawan dance in a graveyard as an illustration of how the U.S. military presence continues to permeate life on the island.
Projected onto a larger screen Seaweed Woman, 2008, shows the artist floating in green water with green vegetation covering her face. As the film progresses the water turns from blue to green when Yamashiro appears. At first her face is clear, but as the waves cover her face her body becomes home to weeds that appear like a beard across her skin. The film was taken in the sea off Henoko, an area that was once famous for its blue coral, but was built over despite unanimous domestic opposition to construct a new American military base. In the performance Yamashiro becomes a creature of the sea whose body symbolizes Okinawa’s subjugation at the hands of Japan and the United States. On the adjacent wall film stills of the video have been displayed at various stages of occupation by the algae and hung like a wave that rises and falls.
Around the corner from her own filmed performances, Mud Man, 2016, is a video in which the Yamashiro has removed herself from the roll of performer. In a new purpose-built cinema dozens of figures have assembled in Jeju, South Korea as well as in Okinawa and have been covered in mud. At one point during the film, subtitles that accompany mixed Korean and Japanese languages reads: Everyone here has wings/But they are useless I would tear them off if I could. The actors in the video are stopped from moving because they are pelted with mud. The landscapes of the two islands are first shown free and untouched, until all at once they are covered in a substance that overcomes them and its inhabitants, who cling on to each other as the mud dries over their bodies. The film is a continuation of the artist’s use of employing natural elements as a metaphor to the political and social status of Okinawa.
While Shapeshifter seems like a performative exploration into the natural side of Okinawa, and while in some ways that can be argued to be true, it is also a deeply political, and deeply nuanced comment on the island’s social and political relationship with the military stationed there.
Chikako Yamashiro: Shapeshifter is on display at White Rainbow, 47 Mortimer Street, London W11 8HJ until 28th April 2018