Performance artist Michikazu Matsune on Japanese salesmen, the Yellow Peril and how he plays with the expectations of the audience.
The performance Mitsouko & Mitsuko would have had its premiere at this year’s Wiener Festwochen but was postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this project, Michikazu Matsune deals with ideas of fiction and reality, exoticism and the gaze of the other to discover where East and West meet. In conversation with Wera Hippesroither, he talks about assumptions regarding Asian people and culture, his quarantine project Performance Homework as well as languages and routines of internet culture.
Since no live events could take place, the Festwochen published so-called digital gestures on their website as a sort of archive with material from the postponed performances. The post to your project »Mitsouko & Mitsuko« gives insight into your research, with access to five short videos and texts. What do you think of this solution?
We had to choose what makes sense to share at this point and what should be kept for the future. My contribution gives only a brief insight into a great story. We were constantly in contact with each other; how to react to the situation, how to deal with our shows not taking place. There have been various speculations and some shows have been postponed until autumn. Most of the pieces by Austrian-based artists will be postponed to next year’s Festwochen. The director, Christophe Slagmuylder, decided that it is important that local artists are seen in the overall curatorial and international context, which I think is a good thing. The story I am telling with »Mitsouko & Mitsuko« is a global and big story involving Japan, France, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Vienna. It is appropriate to show such a piece within the framework of a large international festival.
In the videos of your digital gesture on the Festwochen website, you slowly unfold and scrunch colorful papers that read »Yellow Terror«, »Zusammenschluss oder Zusammenbruch« or »Amour fou«.
Paper, written words and books are all integral parts of this project. Mitsouko, after whom the Guerlain perfume in the video is named, is a fictional character from the 1909 French novel »La Bataille«, set in Nagasaki during the war between Russia and Japan (1904–1905). This war was very significant in terms of the Asian threat: Russia was regarded as a very strong force, but suddenly this small country from the East was able to defeat it. That was a shocking moment for the whole world. The racist ideology of the Yellow Terror or Yellow Peril emerged from this.
Mitsuko on the other hand, one of the first Japanese to immigrate to Europe, was the mother of Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi, who can be considered a central figure of European integration, since he founded the Pan-European Union.
Pan-Europe was not only thought of as an opposition to the strong country Russia, but the idea of a united Europe was clearly opposed to the ideology of National Socialism. Richard’s text »Zusammenschluss oder Zusammenbruch« dates from 1937, a time when one could feel the tension and the threat: it was the year before the Anschluss. The title is very meaningful, as it can be related to today’s situation with Brexit, Trump, the rise of the right, boarder discussions, etc. Europe is both united and disintegrating at the same time. The atmosphere is surprisingly similar. How Trump blames China for Corona reminds me of the time when people spoke of the Yellow Peril.
During quarantine, you presented the project »Performance Homework«, which features instructions for short performances that can be enacted at home. The titles of the individual exercises are often affirmative, and it almost feels like one could also be reading them on a lifestyle blog, giving us tips on how to be the best version of ourselves: »Make a salad«, »Move!«, »Imagine a better place« or »Finally time to reflect«.
Yes, it reflects languages and habits of internet culture. I try to re-examine the space where the performance takes place, in this case the internet and home. The space and its rules are always elements I consider when developing a project. It is also about making the work accessible. I often think of two kinds of audiences: art insiders and people who don’t care about art. It’s an attempt to reach both of them.
The exercise Sixty Minutes Smiling by artist Anna Witt reminds me of the productivity pressure many of us felt during quarantine.
Anna Witt’s work and several other works were created before the crisis. Either way, »Performance Homework« excites me as a project, with or without COVID-19. At the same time, we understand the project because of the current circumstances we find ourselves in. We look at the work in a different way now. Concerning productivity pressure as an artist, it is nothing new, in my personal opinion and experience. It is always there: before, during and after COVID-19.
How do you relate to your cultural identity as an artist?
I am aware of the expectations and assumptions that people have when they think of Japanese culture or people, or even artists. These images are often wrong, but I’m never free of them. I am forced to deal with these clichés. I consciously rearrange them, twist them, and make fun of them. In the project »Store«, on which I worked with David Subal from 2005 to 2012, the audience could buy performance pieces in a shop. We were wearing suits and imitating businessmen. Me wearing a suit produced very funny images of Japanese salesmen. It was kind of a joke that incorporated the gaze of the Other. I like to play with assumptions like these, in fact, I am forced to make them part of my work. There’s a sense of irony in most of my pieces. Humor is an element I believe in, and it is part of my personality as well as my identity as an artist.
How do you play with these expectations?
Imagination is a decisive aspect of my work. I think of it as very important for the audience. I am continuously interested in an element I often implement, which is the gap between what is imagined and what is actually being realized. Imagination also in regard to expectations. What the audience expects, and what the performance really shows… sometimes, I consciously break with their expectations, and sometimes I just offer what they expect. What exists in your head might be something you will see, or something you will not see. Both is valid, the gap is interesting. It’s like a game.
In »Hello 2111«, you presented wrapped gifts and messages to a future audience. How do you imagine what the future, post-crisis audience will look like?
2011 was the year of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster. Although the idea for the piece had already been developed beforehand, it coincided very much with the feeling of this crisis. Yet, it was of a different kind, a kind of end-of-the-world feeling. I spoke to an imaginative audience from the year 2111, telling them about 2011. When it was time to open the boxes, the performance ended, and the audience from the year 2011 had to and still needs to wait until 2111 to open the boxes. I don’t have a clear imagination of what a future audience will be like. In the same way, it’s hard to imagine how audiences changed over the course of the Spanish Flu Pandemic in the 1910s. There are so many factors that affect us and our society.
Will cultural life return to normal?
I think what this lockdown and sudden change of normality shows is that what »normal» means can differ according to specific circumstances. What we had to go through became normal for a short time: it’s almost like we are entering different cultures. I enjoy learning these different habits and new ways of greeting each other, which you usually experience when you travel to other cultures. We are quickly changing habits and adapting our behavior due to certain necessities. Cultural behavior and habits are indeed adjustable. They can change. The idea of normality has transformed and will keep on transforming, according to the circumstances. Just as we cannot go back to our childhood, we cannot go back to pre-Corona times.