Typologies of Desire
Identity. In her art work, Anita Jensen looks into Japanese culture as an object of the inquisitive Western “I”, but also as a subject in its own right, entangled – like we are – in a frantic enterprise to fill the world with order, endow it with meaning, and organize it hierarchically. For her, thus, Japan stands for the perennial territory traversed by Western artists in their journeys of self-discovery and enlightenment, but it also comes out as an ancient culture in a process of intense self-formation, forging new identities in contact with Western values and technologies.
Otherness. The eyes of the Other unsettle when they suddenly turn, come close, focus on the viewer outside the picture, and return the look. There lie the twilight zones of Self, known and unknown – in the smooth oval shape of an oriental woman’s eyes arresting, filling with longing and anxiety. One sees the apparition of one’s deepest fears, of otherness within, the inscrutability of one’s desire to let go, surrender to chaos, give up all control, and yield to the deadly stranger handing out pearls and charms. The desire to see – and to be seen – splits the body, tearing its members asunder and leaving it in pieces. How does it feel to be dissected by the omnipotent eye of the foreigner? Is it to be injured, or perhaps lured? What kind of pains and pleasures are hidden behind the Gaze, moving from point to point without respite until everything from finger tip to toe, from north to south and east to west is named, fixed and still, graven on paper?
Gold abounded in Jensen’s earlier works springing from her late 1990s’ travels to Japan. The color of gold signifies hunger. The essence of gold is barbarian; civilizations feed on it. Dismantled from modernist mythologies, Western art has emerged as a material practice intimately wedded with European power politics in other continents. Dreams of unimaginable treasures of gold and power egged white adventurers on to penetrate all corners of the globe. The secrets of earth and sea were laid bare and native inhabitants lost their souls onto the pages of illustrated chronicles printed in Europe for the European audience.
Then, following the same trails, came the priests, scientists, and – artists, equipped with an increasingly sophisticated armory of imaging technologies. That is only one part of the story, though, since the practice of representation marked not only the object but also the subject, locking them into each other and making them forever gyrate inside the system of photographic meaning. The Orient and Occident were born as twins and polar opposites to each other.
The colonial ghosts of the Camera haunt Anita Jensen’s prints. Both of her techniques, printing and photography, carry the burden of being the means by which Europeans endeavored to gain control over other people. Stone Garden, the series of bipartite photographs, shows vintage images of Japanese gardeners and carriers taken by the French biologist and traveler Hugues Kraft in the late 19th century. Below these exquisite historical documents we find some photographs of Finnish rocks, singled out, plain and recognizable like the Moose Head of Huittinen. Juxtaposing the notions of Finnishness as natural, a-historical, and the Orient as conspicuously regulated by arcane traditions, cultural codes, and hierarchies, the series challenges both constructions.
While we, as spectators, can perhaps identify with the gaze of the photographer zooming in on hardy Japanese workers who pose for the camera, our position becomes severely compromised in front of the image depicting Hugues Kraft himself. On the one hand, reclining on a litter carried between two half-naked natives, Kraft appears as the master symbol of white privilege; on the other hand, the entire composition of the image makes him look like prey carried home by proud hunters. Displaced from his native environment like the sea shell captured on film, he, too, becomes an object of voyeuristic pleasure, uneasily vacillating between “us” and “them.”
Yet, what slips outside of the representational conventions perforates the boundaries of a coherent self. There is some absolute value in this encounter with difference and absence of mutual understanding, as Jensen’s images seem to insist. For perhaps the only universal human attribute is the universal longing for meaning, or hunger for meaning, like the hunger for gold. That’s why the Other becomes neutralized over and over again, turned into a fetish that hides that which is lacking in oneself. In an uneasy equilibrium, both the colonized and the colonizer can inhabit the same body.
Black background sets off the perfect face of a cinematic idol, which stands for the altar of the spectator’s narcissistic identification as well as an offering in itself. In unison with classical Euro-American cinema, mid-20th-century Japanese films and TV-shows engaged the spectator to identify with the figure in the image whose ideological meaning was organized through the representation of ‘Woman,’ that is, the discourse of essentialized femininity. The Japanese actress Tamao Nakamura’s elegant fan photographs (reproduced as part of the series Nature in the Eye of the Beholder) thus evoke coded cultural and social structures, Western and Japanese similarly, which produce gendered meanings in visual pleasure emanating from the love affair between the camera and the ideal self. This love affair is embodied by a movie star.
Jensen’s photopolymer gravures command full attention to the sensitivity of the actress’s face so as to displace simple sexual objectification. Stereotypical ideas about Japanese women associated with the geisha, a high-class professional entertainer, and the musume, a child-like mistress adorable for her innocence and self-abnegation, become moot as a multiplicity of social classes, gender configurations, and female identities take shape through the actress’s body. Regardless of how carefully the spectator studies each of her gestures, though, the meanings of these acts linger in the air, eschewing a Hollywood-like resolution. Thereby the direction and significance of her desire remains obscure, devoid of the fixed co-ordinates that locate the white woman in the “man-made” scheme of nature. This ambiguity perhaps explains why in Western narratives an oriental female has frequently been constructed as a mystery,
As a sinister counterpart to the images of the Japanese actress, we find natural forms reduced to fine art and Darwinist anatomy in the lithographic drawings by Ernst Haeckel, a 19th-century scientist and explorer, whose obsession with transforming organic life into grotesque ornaments verges on geometry as well as pornography. Equally reified, women and nature seem to fall into the same category of seductive and dangerous “other.” But the woman’s face and the ornament of nature, posed next to each other, also conjure up other, very different pictorial traditions, namely European modernism and the Japanese erotic woodcut shunga.
Extremely popular in the 18th century, the unabashed shunga prints celebrated sexuality as a powerful life force symbolized by an exaggerated visualization of both male and female genitals. When shunga images were imported to the Victorian era Europe, their meaning changed from mass-produced commercial entertainment to exotic pornographic art, secretly collected by writers and artists who interpreted them in the context of artistic and moral values of their own time period. Under the pressure of Western influence, Japan eventually acquiesced to prohibit shunga, and the representation of sexuality assumed strictly metaphorical forms akin to early modernist paintings in which exotic fruit and flowers often marked genitalia.
In the series Casting by Nature, the opposition of cultural construction and reified nature falls irrevocably through as we are seduced into becoming devotees of theatrical artifice animated by cross-dressing. “Only a man can be a perfect woman,” a line from David Cronenberg’s film M. Butterfly, turns into its polar opposite when we see a beautiful Takarazuka-like actress in her captain’s uniform, sternly looking into the distance. Contrary to Kabuki, in Takarazuka-theater both female roles (musumeyaku) and male roles (otokoyaku) are played by women. Otokoyaku actresses, in particular, are fanatically supported by female fans, whose pleasures of looking do not evidently reflect the desires and needs of heterosexual masculinity. In the strictly gendered, male-dominated Japanese society, Takarazuka makes space for female subjectivity and spectatorship, creating something akin to the “female gaze” debated in feminist film theory.
By way of androgynous fantasy, the female impersonator of a male protagonist allows the woman spectator to take the position of power and strength denied her in traditional Kabuki, for example, which relies on a highly caricatured version of femininity. The glossy photographic finish of Jensen’s images, nevertheless, seems to distract facile interpretations based only on sexual difference. Although fetishism, voyeurism, and narcissistic identification quite obviously also characterize these images, the type of pleasures they induce constitutes an active, inquisitive, self-generating female desire, not reducible to prefabricated notions of same sex romance or a desire to simply play the object of someone else’s desire.
The same blackness from which the female idols appear also gives birth to a series of sea shells, perfectly shaped and symmetrical in their liquid beauty. The sea shells reach out and spiral like galaxies, alive and dead at the same time, or curl up around the hidden interior reminiscent of a woman’s body, inviting and terrifying. These clichéd associations reveal exactly what they are to conceal: there are no mysteries in nature. The mystery is in the eye of the beholder, inside the pulsating darkness where imaginary species breed, pushing out teeth, lips, ears and scaled skin, and reproduce narratives of human nature, always gendered and culturally specific.
Red is the color of hidden pleasures, carnality, and transgression. Red blood of recognition saturates the battle field of knowledge and power, sexual par excellence and circumscribed by moral configurations. On the stage where obscene acts are played out, the artist is a liminal creature, like the Japanese actress, both adored and defiled for her extraordinary skill of mediating between here and hereafter. She is adored as an embodiment of Amaterasu, the life-giving goddess of the red sun, and reviled as an immoral spectacle, a human mine churning out raw material for the reconstruction of good and evil.
The series Collector Unknown calls forth and deconstructs the ultimate idiom of desire, embedded in the politics of collecting and exhibiting non-Western objects. Rather than expressing the history of their own formation, a disparate array of artifacts is appropriated to articulate the imaginary collector’s world view and possessions. Framed in red, some thinly glad Victorian models lounge next to sea shells, frayed Chinese-Japanese dictionaries, African nose rings (found at the Mission flea market), and other curio that lampoon the serious business of displaying cultural heritage.
Originating in a book called EVA, European Classic Nude (published in Japan in 1998), these erotic photographs seem to testify that the Japanese have indeed learned to perceive women’s bodies through Western eyes – titillating, immoral, and vain. Obscenity is one way to know the origin and the end of the evolutionary narrative that projects the forbidden area of the self onto otherness. Potential agents of disarray, the women’s bodies threaten to overwhelm and spill out of control, unless carefully organized in front of the camera. Thus modeled, they become part of nature morte, dead nature, together with fish skin, false teeth, and all other things that waver uneasily between human and non-human.
If collecting culture cannot guarantee wholeness, continuity, and meaning, as implied in Jensen’s works, then where do we stand in the encounter with the eyes of the Other? Jensen, in reflecting upon the historical underpinnings of her own art practice, does not offer a shortcut around the fissures and contradictions of representing otherness. Instead, her way to redress the problem seems to intertwine two registers – the image and the narrative – in order to challenge the power of the artist’s gaze in constructing illusions of truth. A beautiful example of this would be one of her earlier works, Kimono for Daddy (2000), which contained her own family story through her father’s photograph embedded inside a massive painting. Colored in gold, black and red, the work as a whole connoted the T-shape of a fanned out kimono, recalling the body of a Japanese woman as well as the body of the artist herself.
Asta Kuusinen and Yukako Uemura
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Konttinen, Annamari and Seija Jalagin, eds. Japanilainen nainen kuvissa ja kuvien takana. Tampere: Suomen Japanin Instituutti, Vastapaino, 2004.
de Lauretis, Teresa. Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.
University of Helsinki, Finland
Lecturer in Japanese Language
Institute for Asian and African Studies
University of Helsinki, Finland