“Thank You Joseph Beuys,"Grace Exhibition Space, May 9, 2009
Being in a room with Arai Shin-Ichi is something like being in a room with a coyote; misunderstanding is a given, but reciprocal inquisitiveness guarantees a good time. Since the early 80s Arai has been performing discrete performance pieces that chart moments in globalization, Japanese history, and intellectual culture upon the metaphorical pincushion of his body. Grace Exhibition Space scored the pick of the litter recently when it exhibited Arai Shin-Ichi, A Petit Retrospective: Works from 1999-2009.
For the show Arai re-performed five pieces, some of which have been seen in places like Toronto, Canada; Chengdu, China; and Cardiff, UK. His performances usually begin with a brief monologue in Pidgin English. Following this, Arai uses a limited range of activities, gags, and bodily abuse to literalize what might have been understood in the monologue. In Viva! United States – for Herbert Norman, Arai pays homage to Norman’s statesmanship and his study of Japanese pre-war democracy while getting a Coca-Cola and ketchup shower from two members of the audience. Arai throws himself against the gallery walls, smeared with red paint in Viva! Invasion and Puppets, which charts 1930s Japanese monarchic-imperialism against China and 1950s Chinese communist-imperialism in Tibet. Happy Japan! seems to quote Shigeko Kubota’s vagina paintings or Keith Boadwee’s butthole paintings as Arai squats and “shits” red paint onto a canvas, then smears it with his bare ass to create a Japanese flag. And in Viva! Globalization for Tanaka Mitsu, Arai struggles to explain his connection to Japanese women’s lib leader Tanaka Mitsu with the aid of Mickey Mouse pajamas, a toy rifle, pink paint, and porn.
Thank You Joseph Beuys opens with Arai explaining how he once met Joseph Beuys in Tokyo, where Beuys signed his bag (or back—it was hard to tell from his pronunciation), how the Japanese thought Beuys was something of a gonzo, that his professor Konishi Yasu studied under Beuys, and whether or not Arai still thinks about Beuys. Throughout, Arai’s demeanor is kind and humorous, almost suspiciously gracious, cheeky even. The subtlety of this introduction re-engulfs you in the mental state of “trying to understand,” which primes you to pick through the coming antics with a much finer comb. On the table before him is butter, wasabi, soy sauce, a black fedora with a red cross, and a wooden bunny rabbit on a string. Behind him stands a chalkboard with “Free International University” and other phrases written in Japanese. Along the wall are roughly twenty 3” x 4” photocopies from Manfred Leve’s book, Leve Sieht Beuys. These he would later eat.
Arai’s creative bloodline begins with Japan’s Neo-Dada. This loose association of artists, many of whom worked with Fluxus, spawned a generation of Japanese artists as interested in experimentation and subversion as the Gutai group, but altogether more internationally motivated. When Arai donned his Japan Overseas Cooperative Volunteers uniform in Happy Japan!, which he also wore while teaching art in Zanzibar, the roots of his concerns bear themselves. Like Beuys, Paik, Maciunas, or Yoshihara, he questions how a person, group, or nation communicates around language, especially in an age where Disney, Coke, and Babelfish can do it for us?
During Arai’s monologue, Jill McDermid, the organizer and creator of Grace Exhibition Space, assists him by pulling down the Leve Sieht Beuys photocopies one by one and glazing them with butter and honey. Arai takes the wooden bunny from the table and, approaching the relics left by Happy Japan!, he jokingly explains the piece to the small toy. Then, moving behind the table, he takes off his shirt and dips one of the photocopies into the wasabi. He shovels the dripping mess into his mouth and holds it inside, without swallowing, then draws a small Beuysian pictogram or phrase (in Japanese) on the chalkboard and turns back to the audience with the words, “Thank you Joseph Beuys.” He repeats this process, and by the time he is halfway through the photocopies, his mouth is completely full, toner-blackened snot is shooting from his nose onto his belly and his ritual “thank you” is reduced to rasping morphemes. Roughly ten more to go and portions of the audience are already visibly nauseated. After his last “thank you,” he bows and leaves the room.
Following the performance, Jill brought out a cake, and we all celebrated Arai’s 50th birthday.
Our bodies receive the brunt of everything—even influence. Much more than the site of globalization, the body is globalization’s bed. We sleep between the march of progress and the stiffening corpse of history. Arai, like Beuys, reminds us we sometimes need to change the sheets.