“CAN WE TALK ABOUT MAVO?”
A Makeshift Platform of the Japanese (Contemporary) Art Topography for All Dada in Japan
When it comes to the quote by Antonio Gramsci, “The point of modernity is to live without illusions, while not becoming disillusioned”, the Korean Dadaist and poet Yi Sang(1910-1937) failed to be a modernist. He lived with illusions of modernity and became disillusioned with Tokyo. I think, however, that this failure is a crucial key to speak about the modernity that Korea underwent in the course of the Japanese colonization (1910-1945), while I ask myself if we have really talked over it up to now.
Yi Sang first came to Tokyo in Autumn 1936. He stayed in Tokyo for about 6 months until he was arrested under futei senjin—“rebellious Korean”, “malcontent Korean”—in mid-February 1937. He died in the Tokyo Imperial University Hospital in April of the same year. His residence was at Jimbocho, 3-chome, 10-1-4, in an area that is well-known for second-hand book shops and belongs to Kanda area where the avant-garde movement flourished in the 1920s. He came too late to see the movement. He was a bilingual writer in Japanese and Korean—the first collection of his poems published in the magazine “Chosun and Architecture” in 1931 was entirely written in Japanese. During his stay in Tokyo he wrote several pieces, and one of them is an essay, “Tokyo”. In his “Tokyo”, he began with “Marunouchi Building”: “The ‘Marunouchi Building’—more commonly referred to as Marubiru—I had envisioned was a magnificent affair, at least four times larger than this ‘Marubiru.’ If I go to New York’s ‘Broadway’, I might suffer the same disillusionment. At any rate, ‘This city reeks of “gasoline!”’ is my first impression of Tokyo.”
To become knowledgeable is today to risk oneself. In the constant flux of knowledge and information, it is a great challenge to have a keen sense of critique and be aware of one’s own perception. Yet how does one stay positive in order to push oneself to question? What does contemporaneity of knowledge mean? By stressing an action for a need of understanding, the re -ing of researching encourages not fearing to trace a path to the past instead of heading for the future. Moreover, researching implies a gesture of everyday life by looking for, looking at and attempting to find out. It is a commitment of everyday practice. Having researched Mavo, the Japanese avant-garde collective of the mid-1920s, and their activities, I attempt to call the modernity that they perceived and experienced into now in order to practice my history consciousness.
It gave me a more interesting opportunity that the radical activism of Mavo has been ignored and not institutionalized in Japanese art history either by its contemporaries or post-war: I was able to take an alternative angle to see Mavo which proclaimed itself as an interpreter of Dada in Japan. Without climbing the mountain of the history of the avant-garde in the West, one would take an advantage of this shortcut, as if all Dadaists had suddenly reappeared this summer in Tokyo, such as the visit of the Dada monster, a creature from another planet. That is to say, Mavo, and Dada in Japan, addresses different questions in terms of “historicizing the avant-garde,” and it calls for now. It is neither to produce a nationalistic discourse, nor to be read in a global context. Rather, it is an impossible task that needs to be carried out. I pay attention to the mindset of Mavo, that they were conscious of the nature of the implantation of Dada—and the modernity—in Japan and intentionally confronted themselves with it at the same time. In other words, they knew what kind of weapon they had and its contradiction in the “modern” Japan.
It was by a coincidence that I had a book “Mavo” in my hand on my arrival day in Japan and there was the Dada 100 Anniversary organized by the Embassy of Switzerland this summer in Tokyo. However, I have to admit that the event was not intended to contemplate Dada in Japan and, thus, did not provide the threshold of the translation between Mavo and the contemporary art scene in Japan, while Dada was dealt with in a serious manner in a few venues: Mavo was still read as part of the “global” Dada movement that arose at the beginning of the 20th century. I need to emphasize that here, Dada does not refer to Dada mounted in the art history of what defines “modern” and the standard periodization, but its mind, radical thinking and urgency that the “contemporary” claims from us. These cannot compete for “an image of your Dada art work and win a trip for two, to the birth place of Dadaism”.
I take my investigation of Mavo to open the process of it and involve the action of the investigation in giving a platform for rethinking knowledge and thus, to create knowledge. By inviting publicly for participation in the platform and constructing a makeshift ‘Library’, researching is used as a main tool to produce this co-effect on the creation of knowledge. It is an open process to find out how to activate a library, not alternatively but radically, that is to say how to ‘Library’. The platform on which a panel discussion will take place takes the form of this ‘Library’ and is built on the process of text collages, daily findings and collections of books by participants. A deliberate misunderstanding, mistranslating and mistransferring are used as a critical method, while a performance of a thinking process is exhibited. Addressing a question, what is ‘praxis’ in doing art, I see ‘re-enacting’ as a gesture of archiving in order to bring the performativity and the temporality of the practice of the work into a contemporary social and economic context. By doing so, the practice can be reinterpreted into “contemporary” that “swims against main, and rising, tide of actual contemporary usage”. Therefore, it would be interesting to see if the contemporary art history works in this connection.
This open proposal attempts to experiment with the ‘practice of doing’. While tempted by the aesthetic of Dada in its visual form, I became more aware of their acute perceptions and urgent need for responsibility. And these are “contemporary” sensitivities for an autodidact: Dada is “contemporary” in this sense. Thus, can we talk about Mavo?
I am grateful to the people who have supported me and my research with their time and considerable effort. They were so kind to share their knowledge and insight when I contacted them out of the blue. I thank Florian Pumhösl, Koichiro Osaka, Yoshio Shirakawa, Ken Hagiwara, Yuji Nawata, Hikaru Fujii and Toshiharu Omuka and send special thanks to Mizuho Ishii, Yumiko Fujimoto, Ryota Tomoshige, Yoshinori Takakura, Yosuke Nakazato and Satoshi Ikeda.