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How to Use Women's Body at Ota Fine Arts

by Monty DiPietro

If one were to compile a list of things taboo in Japan, it would read a little like a catalogue of Yoshiko Shimada’s subjects over the last ten years. Shimada, 41, has addressed feminist politics in general, the Korean sex slaves Japanese media euphemize as "comfort women" in particular, and even (gasp!) the Emperor. It could be a result of the several years Shimada lived in Berlin, where art activists are as welcome and common as big frothy steins of beer, but this is one Japanese female artist who is driven to an exploration of the "difficult" issues that many of her compatriots would prefer to avoid.

This time around Shimada turns her sights on gender issues in a show featuring her work and the work of seven other artists. Curated by Shimada, "How to Use Women’s Body," is now showing at Ota Fine Arts, an independent gallery in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward.

The mixed media exhibition uses sexuality as a springboard from which the participating artists jump into what Shimada terms the "gray zone of identity" defined by sex and nationality. Shimada is showing a piece she made two years ago, "1945," a meter-tall red Valentine’s Day heart, frilled in silk, that frames a sepia-toned photograph of the artist dressed as American Gen. Douglas MacArthur. There is a corncob pipe her grinning mouth and standing at her side is BuBu, an ex-Dumb Type artist, who is decked out as Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Other work from the pair finds Shimada playing the American GI, posing with a coquettish BuBu in front of a chain link fence.

BuBu has some of the same photographs here that she did for her last Ota exhibition, which was a disappointing effort by performance and video team "The Biters." These feature the rotund artist, model, and self-described sex trade worker mugging for the camera in garish gear, and are joined by a series of bananas in the panties photographs by Lulu Hou, which are fun but facile.

Behind a black light curtain and in the Ota’s walk-in-closet-sized side room is Shulea Cheang’s contribution, a video installation. The piece consists of a ceramic vessel, about the length that would accommodate a small child or a large carp. Projected into it from overhead is a video image of a woman lying in a bathtub. Her hand moves down between her legs, begins to fiddle around, her legs commence to shaking, and the water is churned, then she is still for a moment, before the video loop starts her up again. The clip is an excerpt from Cheang’s new adultish feature-length film, "I.K.U.," which was produced by Uplink and premiered at the Sundance film festival last year.

Masturbation is also the subject of the an extensive do-it-yourself information center at the gallery, which is being operated during the run of the show by a pair of Kyoto University students who work under the name "FROG" (Feminism and Radical Onanie Group). The show is rounded out by contributions from Diane Torr, and several big photographs from the token guy, Ernesto Pujol, who gets into the spirit by dressing in a nun’s habit for the self-portraits.

Shimada, who is comfortable with the labels "feminist" and "anarchist," and who has worked with BuBu for the last few years as an advocate for sex trade workers’ rights, has mixed feelings on the topic of today’s young Japanese female:

"Those young kogyaru and enjo kosai girls, in a way, they are using their bodies to be something else and so they are breaking away from the very traditional representation woman. I’m not saying I’m encouraging them to be what they are, but we can’t deny their decisions, even if they are stupid. I think what we should be doing is educating them to think more about their own bodies and their own sexuality rather than catering to other people’s sex fantasies."

The treatment of gender issues is underdeveloped in Japanese contemporary culture, but if any of those kogyaru and enjo kosai girls are seeking a little artistic insight into new styles of sexual identity, they might find "How the Use Women’s Body" a nice place to use as a starting point.

Until March 31, 2000 at Ota Fine Arts in Ebisu (3780-0911), pictured is "1945" (1998), mixed media, by Yoshiko Shimada.
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