Exhibition questions otaku response to March 11

October 22, 2011

By SOPHIE KNIGHT / Staff Writer

The Great East Japan Earthquake seemed to shake up the whole of Japanese society, prompting mass soul-searching--except, according to artist and critic Yohei Kurose--in one group.

Leader of subversive art group Chaos Lounge, Kurose thinks that the "otaku," or geek subculture failed to respond appropriately to the disaster.

"Nothing's changed around here since the earthquake," Kurose says, speaking from the de facto otaku headquarters of Akihabara, Tokyo. "The otaku world intentionally ignored the disaster. That's just not right, and it's the reason I'm putting on this show."

The show in question is a pair of installations in Akihabara that will run Oct. 28-Nov. 6 as part of Festival/Tokyo, a series of symposia, performances and exhibitions that started in September and wraps up on Nov. 13.

Otaku media such as manga and anime are considered by critics as as throwaway entertainment that is the antithesis of fine art. But some modern Japanese artists--most notably Takashi Murakami--declare that cartoons and comics play the same role in Japan as art does in the West--to provoke, illuminate and reflect upon social issues.

Echoing this belief, Kurose and his cohorts have designed two spaces that appear to be typical "otaku" establishments at first glance: a game center and a maid cafe. Yet their layouts have been subtly altered to offer a critique--or a "self-portrait" as Kurose says--of otaku culture itself.

For example, during the opening and closing day of the exhibition, visitors to the maid cafe will find themselves behind the bar upon entering, instead of in front of it. To pass out of the cage-like space to the other side, where mirrored walls and female staff await, they must pay a fee.

This zoo-like arrangement reflects Kurose's belief that humans become more animalistic when they lose faith in ideologies, and can then be manipulated through their base instincts.

"The design of the spaces is supposed to violently overturn people's way of thinking," he explains.

Neither Kurose nor Chaos Lounge, however, are anti-otaku. In fact, the group's activities are motivated by the belief that the subculture's favored media--anime, manga and videogames--should be considered on par with art.

"Like art, the subculture reflects what's going on in the society and connects people to it," he says. "And when art stops doing that it's the end of civilization."

Kurose believes anime and manga are indispensable because they provide the narratives and myths necessary for Japanese society to survive, a realization that hit hard after the last tragedy to strike the nation--the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. The subculture's response to that incident, however, was markedly different.

"Back then, anime such as Evangelion reacted to what was happening in society," Kurose says. "But now, it seems that everyone has just continued on leading their everyday lives exactly as before. The subculture that I had thought was full of possibilities didn't even stop and think about the earthquake at all."

Feeling disillusioned, Kurose decided to steer Chaos Lounge's activities in a more critical direction, culminating in the Festival/Tokyo installation.

At its inception in 2010, the group considered itself as members of the otaku community. Fellow founder Uso Fujishiro began holding live events and exhibiting his work in 2008, after which Kurose approached him to suggest the two begin collaborating to express the "deeply postmodern" nature of Japan's information society.

As well as promoting otaku aesthetics as an art form via online and offline exhibitions, the group used digital and manga-inspired imagery in their works to reflect upon the modern tendency to turn everything--including human emotions--into data.

For example, the group's third member, Kazuki Umezawa, makes large-scale collages using miniaturized images borrowed from manga and anime. From a distance, the flurry of colors looks like a digital Monet, mimicking the pattern of data traffic on a web server.

Although the group considered itself part of the otaku community, the unauthorized usage of fan art images in the collages led to their forcible expulsion from the tight-knit tribe.

While Kurose admits that breaking copyright laws is wrong, he points out that Umezawa only used images from fan art websites where the notion of copyright is hazy to begin with, since users simply copy professional manga or anime pictures.

Moreover, left to decide between being an otaku or an artist, he didn't skip a beat.

"Saying I'm an artist allows me to be more critical," he says, "and modern art wouldn't work without criticism."

Yet while he thinks that the otaku community should be more self-critical, he also thinks that art fans need to recognize the value of the subculture. He hopes that his exhibition has the power to convince both sides.

"I want otaku to understand art a bit better, and I want art fans to understand otaku subculture a bit more too," Kurose says.

By SOPHIE KNIGHT / Staff Writer
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Yohei Kurose in front of one of the Chaos Lounge installations now running as part of Festival/Tokyo. (Sophie Knight)

Yohei Kurose in front of one of the Chaos Lounge installations now running as part of Festival/Tokyo. (Sophie Knight)

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  • Yohei Kurose in front of one of the Chaos Lounge installations now running as part of Festival/Tokyo. (Sophie Knight)
  • Arakawa Tomonori Exhibition presented by Chaos Lounge at Tokyo Wonder Site Shibuya in Tokyo, 2010 (Provided by Chaos Lounge)
  • Destruction Lounge*Renewal Lounge exhibition by Chaos Lounge at Nanzuka Underground gallery in Tokyo, 2010 (Provided by Chaos Lounge)

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