When Kenji Kajiya and I began our discussion in autumn 2005 about starting a project that eventually became the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art, we were both graduate students in the United States majoring in post-1945 American art. Although our focus was not postwar Japanese art at the time, our training in Western modernism, especially the north-American methodology of historical research, taught us the importance of oral history.
I conducted a number of interviews during my research for my dissertation examining the global rise of American art in the mid-1960s, with a specific focus on the role of Robert Rauschenberg as a nexus in the transnational community of modern art and as the first American winner of the Venice Biennale’s Grand Prize. My central thesis was that the global dominance of American art constituted not so much a one- way street of cultural imperialism as a reciprocal, cross-cultural phenomenon.
As my thesis was fortified by research at institutional and private archives as well as by my personal interviews, I noticed that there was virtually no public archive of modern and contemporary art in Japan that anyone could access, let alone an official programme of oral history related to the field – so did Kenji, from his own research experiences. And so we felt it urgent to launch such a project. Moreover, it was beyond our humble capacity to establish something like the ‘Archives of Japanese Art’, collating a comprehensive archival collection including ephemera, manuscripts, and documentary photographs. We thus decided to start with collecting something immaterial – something valuable but inexpensive: voices of artists, critics, gallerists, and whomever was involved with the Japanese art scene – and importantly, to make the transcripts available to any interested party.
Upon our return to Japan, we recruited curators and art historians of our generation, which led to the founding of the Oral History Archives of Japanese Art in December 2006. After a preparation period, we started conducting interviews in August 2007 and launched our website in 2009 to make the transcripts available on-line. Currently, we are a group of twelve members in Japan and four members based in the United States with the members in Japan holding meetings twice a year to discuss the interview list and which interviewees to approach that year. As of October 2012, transcripts of 40 interviews and two symposiums, and the members’ writings on our activities can be viewed from our website.
When we founded the Archive, we read key literature on oral history, held meetings to discuss and compare interview methods, created a list of potential interviewees, and devised an interview manual. Although our interviewee list is continually revised depending on the availability of both interviewees and interviewers, the list was predominantly informed by a chronological perspective, for we were keenly aware that we were fighting time. During our preparation period, one important artist after another passed away.
The basic set of questions we prepared also echoed the chronological and biographical framework. Beginning our interview with biographical questions seemed to us the most straightforward way of having an interviewee narrate his or her own history, as opposed to a more thematic approach focusing on specific ideas, projects, or periods, which is more commonly found in exhibition catalogues and magazines. As for interview technique, we decided to adopt British social historian Paul Thompson’s methodology, making our interview ‘half-structured.’ That is to say, we prepare a list of questions in advance and begin our interview based on the list, but we let interviewees deviate and talk about what they think is important. When an interviewee deviates too much, we can always go back to the ‘structure’, organised in chronological framework.
One example of the richness of oral histories is the very first interview we conducted, which took place in August 2007, with Shiraga Kazuo, a member of Gutai Art Association who was known for his foot painting. As an Archive policy, we usually ask a specialist to be the lead interviewer, in this case, Katō Mizuo, a Gutai scholar and curator, with myself as a second interviewer.
Katō: After the austerities, you have made it a habit to chant sutras before you paint.
Shiraga: Yes, Fudō is enshrined [in my studio]. Seated before it, I recite Fudō’s ‘true words’ [shingon], after chanting a sutra – the entire Heart Sutra. If the recitation is too long, I will be too tired to paint, so I recite the Heart Sutra and the true words seven times, and I begin painting. Katō: Is it necessary?
Shiraga: I feel uneasy without it; I don’t feel like painting. After this chanting practice, I feel at ease. I feel I can ‘entrust it to Fudō.’ I think this is what the true tariki hongan [achieving the original vow by relying on others’ power] means.
This is a critical reference in thinking about the difference between the automatism of Shiraga and that of American action painters such as Jackson Pollock, for Shiraga’s work has often been considered a derivative of Abstract Expressionism. In fact, Reiko Tomii, who contributed a long essay to this catalogue, quotes this passage and stresses the importance of Shiraga regarding himself as ‘being let to paint.’ Granted, as Shiraga believed in the universalism of modernism just as the Gutai leader Yoshihara Jirō did, we need to be cautious of cultural determinism in interpreting such remarks by the artist. Still, this kind of spirituality behind the practice of modern art is something that Asian contemporary art might have in common, which can be explored further in the future.
We acknowledge that one needs to be careful when using interviews as historical evidence. An interviewee may give ‘wrong’ information because the human memory is prone to editing and factual mistakes. In reality, often written documents just do not exist and even when they do, the interviewee’s account based on his or her memory can often open up a way to add a more diverse and nuanced understanding to the established narrative of the past. In some instances, we can learn what did not happen and why it did not happen. This way, oral history interviews can destabilise fixed interpretations of a historical event by showing multiple viewpoints and possibilities.
On a theoretical level, it has to be asked why our Archive limits its activity to the field of ‘Japanese’ art. The issue was raised at our first symposium in 2009: feminist scholar Kitahara Megumi pointed out the danger of uncritically accepting the nation-state as a given framework. In her opinion, it is necessary to call into question the time and geography that has been described as ‘Japan’, as it is very much a product of modernity. While I entirely agree with her reasoning, I would like to clarify that our Archive’s activity is determined not so much by the supposedly fixed geographical or political entity as by a loosely defined cultural category. For instance, our interview subjects include foreign artists residing in Japan, as well as non-Japanese individuals involved in the field of Japanese art.
The question of a national framework is more often than not an issue of language. Certainly, it makes sense to conduct an oral history interview in the interviewee’s native language. This method, however, limits the audience to a specific community, if the native language is not English. One solution is interpretation or translation; an important model is actually offered by Asia Art Archive (AAA), whose collection covers multiple countries from East to South Asia. In 2010, their website launched a project titled ‘Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980–1990’, which includes video interviews with more than seventy practitioners who form a considerable list of major players from this crucial period. The excerpts of these interviews are offered with English subtitles. Jane DeBevoise, who wrote the introduction for the project, expresses a similar concern to our Archive: original documents from the 1980s are disappearing. AAA needs to collect voices from the period and there are few materials in English on contemporary Chinese art.
Of course, I do not embrace the ‘Empire of English’ (this phrase is more than a rhetorical metaphor in Asia, where English has become one of the official languages in many countries as a result of colonisation). Japan was also a once-aggressive coloniser in Asia, which imposed the Japanese language on neighboring countries. As Benedict Anderson argued in Imagined Communities, language is an essential ingredient for nation-building and nationalism. To a significant extent, our experiences of modernity have been defined by a nation and its chosen or imposed language. If so, these intertwining factors – the nation and its language(s) – are two necessary evils, around which we structure oral history projects.
Therefore, I propose to use the national category despite our desire to transcend it, that is, as a tool to effectively organise archival activities, while being always conscious of its implications and limitations. Thus envisioned, we may be able to imagine an oral history archive of art in Asia by collaborating with archives in other locales, if we treat history as a plural subject. By sharing oral histories of art in Asia, we can start thinking about whether there is anything at all that could be called an ‘Asian’ experience in art or ‘Asian contemporary art’ as a category. The system of ‘art’ that we share today has always been in conflict with local value systems, because it has in effect emerged and matured in the West and was imported to Asia. By collecting voices of Asian artists and presenting them to a larger audience of the world, it may be possible to de-centre the West-derived value-system of art and show alternative ways of creating and discussing art.
While this is quite an idealistic vision so far, our Archive will continue to make an effort to make a difference in the locale in which we are based. Our contributions are already felt here and there, for instance through the connections our activities have created between scholars and museum curators who specialise in the same field but have not had chances to collaborate. (In the past, interviews conducted by museum curators in preparation for an exhibition were not made public, if parts were incorporated into the exhibition catalogue). By involving both museums and independent curators in the project, our Archive has already enriched the literature in the field. We believe that the continuation of this process will further contribute to the enrichment of scholarship on post-1945 art in Japan, Asia, and world at large.
This essay is based on a paper I presented at the 6th Asia Museum Curators’ Conference that took place in Bangalore, India, in October 2010. I would like to thank India Foundation for the Arts in Bangalore and the Japan Foundation, which organised and sponsored the event.
1 | My dissertation, which I submitted to Yale University in 2007, was revised and published as The Great Migrator: Robert Rauschenberg and the Global Rise of American Art, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2010.
2 | I interviewed several individuals involved with the career of Rauschenberg both inside and outside the United States. The interviews included the art journalist Calvin Tomkins in New York, who wrote a detailed report of the 1964 Venice Biennale; Pontus Hultén in France, who promoted the post- Abstract Expressionist movement
in Stockholm as the first director of the Moderna Museet; and Ushio Shinohara in Brooklyn, who challenged Rauschenberg with his ‘imitations’ of Coca-Cola Plan during the American artist’s visit to Tokyo in 1964.
3 | There are a few small art archives in Japan: while the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo holds some materials on post- 1945 Japanese art, holdings at the Research Center for the Arts and Arts Administration, Keio University include personal papers from the estates of Takiguchi Shūzō and Hijikata Tetsumi, as well as materials from the Sōgetsu Foundation Archives.
In addition, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art in Kobe just opened its new annex in November 2012, Yokoo Tadanori Museum of Contemporary Art, which is preparing to open the artists' archives to public.
4 | The term and method of oral history itself has gained public recognition in Japan. While Mikuriya Takashi at the University of Tokyo, who has interviewed notable politicians and former prime ministers in Japan, leads the practice in the field of political science, Japan Oral History Association promotes it from the sociological and historical point of view. For JOHA, see http://joha.jp/.
5 | For the transcripts and information of our Archives, see http://www. oralarthistory.org/index_en.php.
6 | Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978.
7 | This interview turned out to be extremely important, because it was the last interview Shiraga gave before his passing seven months later. It was also the first time Shiraga’s devotion to Buddhism was introduced in detail to the English-speaking audience. It became the first interview that was translated into English, with an excerpt published in the catalogue of his first solo exhibition in the United States at McCaffrey Fine Art in New York in 2009.
8 | Kazuo Shiraga: Six Decades, McCaffrey Fine Art Gallery, New York, 2009, pp. 72–73. English translation by Reiko Tomii. The translation is now uploaded to our site: http://www.oralarthistory.org/archives/shiraga_kazuo/interview_02_en.pdf
9 | Reiko Tomii, ‘Shiraga Paints: Toward a “Concrete” Discussion,’ Kazuo Shiraga, p. 26.
10 | ‘Materials of the Future: Documenting Contemporary Chinese Art from 1980–1990.’ AAA website, URL: http://www.aaa.org.hk/en/programmes/programmes/materials-of-the-future-documenting-contemporary-chinese-art-from-1980-1990/search/keywords:materials-of-the-future/period/past
11 | How it can be done is a completely separate question. Conducting an interview in English with an interpreter is one method, or translating an interview from a local language into English is another. Either way, we need to be aware that the process
will inevitably risk flattening out the richness and diversity of Asian experiences in one way or another and strengthening the status of English as a ‘universal’ language.