- Deactivating the Future:Sawaragi Noi’s Polemical Recoil from Contemporary Art
Futures in Contemporary Art
“The world that is here now,” writes the Japanese art critic Sawaragi Noi, “has nothing to do with the future. At least, it has no direct connection to it because, as the word ‘future’ suggests, it cannot be made to exist at the present moment even if one were to try to make it connect. … That is why when we deal with things that make up this world, we impose a relation with the future, sometimes out of desperation but most likely out of habit.”1 This is one of the concluding remarks in his book Art Comes From Nowhere (Nannimo nai tokoro kara geijutsu ga umareru), published in 2005. The world is transformed into a heap of junk once the link to the future is lost, a condition that the critic imagines as, “an infinite accumulation of the past.”2 Sawaragi, an influential art critic with a background in philosophy, who is largely responsible for preparing the discourse that the artist Murakami Takashi has appropriated as part of his Superflat rhetoric, is drawn to themes of severance and uselessness, artists and works that do not establish a futural horizon or posit a coming community–in other words, he looks for art without a moral imperative or altruistic motive. Instead of trying to understand contemporary art through a series of global connections forging a more expansive world, he ruminates on disconnection, an ostensibly isolationist view that some would certainly find romantic, or worse, a symptom of the stereotypical Japanese inwardness.3 Yet his drifting away or evasiveness may offer us a critical insight into one of the frames of contemporary art that acts as a theoretical conduit between the well-established centers of art and sites that were once secondary, such as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Notions of connectivity and futurity may drive the discourse of contemporary art today but Sawaragi’s criticism seems to suggest that not only are they specific to a particular value, they may very well function as a mechanism of exclusion. Could this violence be mitigated or even reversed simply by expanding the size of the network or the art world? [End Page 318] Or would it be possible to think about the shape and the narrative of “contemporary art” without relying on connectivity?
Sawaragi does not reject globalization but he seems to regard this “turn” with suspicion, or at least appears to hesitate before this argument. In his book Japan/Contemporary/Art (Nihon • Gendai • Bijutsu, 1998), he wonders whether the terms of politics and violence have indeed shifted significantly enough to warrant such optimism. Especially from a Japanese perspective, the notion of “the contemporary” (gendai), designed to forge a more active traffic between Japan and the rest, appears to deny difference and permits coloniality to remain unresolved. If our attention must indeed turn to “global art,” then, the very language we have used to understand the terms of condition should also be carefully examined. Sawaragi’s attempt to recalibrate the historiography of postwar art through which contemporary art has been narrated must be read against the grain of art criticism in the 1980s that looked to unifying principles of art obtainable in the near future. To deactivate that optimism, he resuscitates postwar works that elicit nihilism to offer a more pessimistic view, which needs to be placed in dialogue with a broader community of discussants who seek to picture global contemporaneity using an image of a well-connected network.
The troubling use of “contemporary” that conceals historical remnants and installs developmental narrative is the target of attack in Japan/Contemporary/Art, a book of collected essays that became the basis of the exhibition Sawaragi curated in 1999 called Japan Year Zero (Nihon zero-nen). The critic ruminates on the very impossibility of writing a postwar art history as long as the term “Japanese contemporary art” used to evacuate politics and history remains firmly in place. Immediately, the book title Japan/Contemporary/Art pries apart this label (“cuts apart” might be more appropriate here, in this instance, where the spacing of the original title, Nihon...