The Veil Before the Gaze Is Japan
Anita Jensen’s visual language unravels fold by fold
Motto: Conceptuality. Perfection. Exoticism. Beauty. Distance and time. Concealing and revealing.
Based on photographs and painting, Anita Jensen’s art is deeply affective; in exhibitions it even engenders a bodily experience. The large works, often consisting of many parts and spreading out in space, also create a sense of disorientation, at least in my mind. I find it difficult to overcome.
Meticulously finished down to the last detail, the pictures seem at first familiar, yet something intervenes between them and me, thin matter, like a veil. The montages, screens, scrolls and kimono-shaped installations must be opened slowly, spreading them out piece by piece, fold by fold.
As a viewer, I am metaphorically in space-time, and the veil I mentioned is not just matter. It is something that resides between me and the montage, between me and Japan. For the underlying framework of Anita Jensen’s art is in Japan, in its old, multi-layered culture whose past is alive in a technological present. The montage format used by Jensen in her works is a familiar one from early 20th-century European avant-garde films. It consists of two or more juxtaposed and interlinked details, images or signs. The details are like Japanese ideograms, and more. They are Jensen’s interpretations of what and how Japan, which has had considerable influence on modern Western art, means to her personally. It is about experiences, and emotions.
From the viewer’s perspective, montage opens up possibilities for new and surprising interpretations. The act of viewing a montage involves a back-and-forth motion, the passage of time, alterations in the form and space of the works, and constantly changing combinations of images and text. A story is constructed, changing and developing in many directions at once.
A Concealing and Revealing Veil
I too have my own Japan, derived from books, objects and a few journeys. Japan is abundance in things small and large, ranging from the ‘Lost in Translation’ moods of gigantic Tokyo hotels and bullet trains and superimposed views of skyscrapers and rock gardens to lakeshore tai chi exercises and robots at a world’s fair. But above all it is about encounters.
Japan is first and foremost a place of controlled visuality and communication. Interaction is conveyed initially as strange and gradually recognisable ideograms, as body language, gestures, sounds, but also as reserve and silence, closeness and distance. What initially seemed strange, faraway exoticism has become to signify something familiar, a connection, a commonality.
With Jensen’s art I have journeyed in a similar intermediate state. As if I had moved along on a bridge, in space-time, from one indeterminate place to another, neither there nor elsewhere, but here. I am once more journeying in the Japanese word that gave the title to an exhibition in Helsinki a long time ago. It is ‘ma’, an ambiguous concept that denotes both space and time and their interconnectedness, but also life and death, night and day, a ceaseless cycle.
Alongside Jensen’s works, my interlocutor has been the French philosopher Roland Barthes. In his book Empire des signes (1970), he deconstructs the signs of Japanese culture bit by bit, fold by fold, so that the veil is drawn aside almost completely. Yet Barthes reminds us right at the start that his book is not about any exotic cultural opposition between West and East. Instead, at its heart are signs that are used to constitute difference, analyse, yet also to strive for communality, interaction.
Signs make themselves usable through lived life, experience and knowledge. And that is also how I think about the works of the Helsinki-based Anita Jensen. They are her view of the world as a language of images. The montages spread out before me first as a kind of jigsaw puzzle of countless details. What needs to be solved is the experience and knowledge in space-time.
What, then, is the veil between me, Japan and Jensen’s pictures? It arises in part from our culturally determined habits. I write and read this text from left to right, but the Japanese read images and writing from right to left. A story proceeds one detail at a time, and long before we can even try to define its meanings, we must know the signs.
Some of the signs in Jensen’s works are from ancient Western or Japanese art. Some are from non-contemporaneous photographs and films or from details of their arrested movement. There are people in the pictures, fragments of mushrooms, plants and flowers, leaves, seeds, shoots, or moving image abstractions. There is something complex, mysterious and unspoken in the whole. It is alive and lifeless, it is nature, but also culture and concepts. Carefully controlled colours, such as red and black, have their own meanings in every culture. The veil both conceals and reveals.
The veil that obstructs my clear vision might well be contemporary technology. Some of Jensen’s highly finished pictures are printed using the new Fotosec method. The photograph is laminated directly onto a thick acrylic sheet, which seems to absorb the elements of the picture down into its depths, leaving a reflecting, captivating sheen on the surface. On the other hand, the pictures also give the impression of characters entering upon a stage. As if the picture were a performance from somewhere mysterious, timeless and placeless.
For the artist, it is not so much about a veil that obstructs vision as some kind of a theatrical curtain. It conceals something, such as emotions, and it may require some courage to pry it open.
Let me interpret again. When the curtain rises, the alien, initially unfamiliar thing revealed to us seems horrible yet fascinating at the same time. Now it no longer elicits aversion, but becomes familiar, lets you approach and begins to work on you in the polysemous works.
As an art theorist, I refer here to Freud’s concept of ‘das Unheimliche’, which has been transposed from psychology to the interpretation of art history and contemporary art. Initially, it was employed to underline surrealist criticism of modernism that played with strangeness and impurity. Since then, the concept of the uncanny, as it is translated, has also been employed to analyse older art as well.
In her works, Anita Jensen presents and juxtaposes as equals images, objects and figures, lifeless and living things from different time periods. Her method tests her own subliminal mind, her own unconscious which also implies an aspiration to construct a perfect combination. According to Jensen, what is meaningful to her, may also be meaningful to the viewers of her work.
This is certainly so. I will give you an example of a detail that gradually guides us into Jensen’s works. In one work, I see wilting flowers, often pink, that seem to be in arrested motion. I presume them to be cherry blossoms. They might be, but not necessarily, because the flowers in some works are photographed details from 17th-century Flemish paintings. I know that in that context as well, the brushstrokes captured in the picture remind us, within their cultural frame, of impermanence, which in a Japanese context may be interpreted differently. Impermanence also implies rebirth, the present is repeated once more.
The Stereotypes of Interpretation
A detail in another work is a staged 19th-century studio photograph of two women in kimonos, taken in Yokohama. The women’s faces are painted, as is the blossoming cherry tree on the backdrop. The picture can also be seen as a stereotypical depiction of the Japanese, characteristic of its time; the same idea has subsequently been repeated in Western modernism. Two stereotypes are linked together.
The persons sitting in the old photograph that Jensen used in her work are not women, individuals living an ordinary life, but masked and dressed-up characters from a play. In a Japanese sense, they might be men or even geishas perhaps, living and transitory persons, of course, but that connection is now closed off. A character is a cypher – cultural, exoticising and also mythical. But what about flowers and geishas side by side? The quiet session of the two masked figures is calm, yet I sense something oppressive about it. I reject stereotypes. The picture of two sitting women is part of a larger whole, within which it is joined by red anatomical textbooks folded into drapes.
The female figures in the picture are not necessarily geishas, but rather characters in a play recorded in a photograph, their faces whitewashed into writing-like masks, as Barthes teaches us. Writing is signs the meaning of which is definable.
European modern art has been influenced a very much by the way artists, most of them men, who were interested in Japan in 19th-century France, interpreted the signs that arrived here as woodblock prints on tea packets. In their works, the artists devised parallels and meanings that evolved into a distinct Western imagery. They fixed their subjects, women and flowers, on canvas, thus weaving them into each other as if they were insects, butterflies or other collectible rarities pinned onto a board. Women were decorations, planted in a corner of the studio or laid out on a bed, and in their nakedness equal to other exotic decorations, bibelots.
Although these paintings from the 1860s–1880s can be interpreted within many other frameworks as well, formally the distance is not long from them to the parallel between photography and theatre Roland Barthes so often wrote about. Theatre has a link to the cult of the dead as it appears in different cultures, in which actors expresses themselves both as a living and a dead body. For Barthes, ‘photography is […] a kind of tableau vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead’, as he formulates the idea in Camera Lucida (La chambre claire, 1980).
Gold Mends the Broken
Anita Jensen is undeniably aware of the traditions of Japonism is Western (post)modernism. In the constant repetition of motifs in her work, I see an underlying context of surrealism and also pop art. Like Japanese culture, Andy Warhol’s serial works often touch upon death, and also sexuality.
Everything is almost too perfect to be true. A myth unravels through precisely those things that are not expressed directly. It is the fracture, the wound, that often touches us in art. Kintsugi is a Japanese technique and distinct art form that Jensen applies in her work. In kintsugi, a broken object and its fractures are mended, often with gold. The fracture, the breakage is not covered up, on the contrary, the wound-like flaw becomes emphasised. For the Japanese, this makes the object even more interesting and beautiful.
In Camera Lucida, Barthes uses examples to discuss the punctum of photography, the point of interest that draws the eye to culturally and socially determined signs and conceptual meanings. It lands on a random detail which is not obvious. It is instead something unnatural yet essential at the same time.
Jensen has titled one of her series Punctum Albums of Life. It is based on pictures from old family albums that depict the everyday life of ordinary Japanese people. The artist’s choice fell on pictures that contained some random detail which struck her, pricked and touched her. To define that state of emotion, she began using photographs in her work, joining them to other pictures, thus giving the totality a meaning that alludes to the transience of life. One might in fact talk of several meanings, because the parallels and links between signs can be interpreted in so many ways.
When I look at the works, I may initially think about visual signs that draw my attention by their details, and which from a Western perspective I read as being grotesque, repulsive and ludicrous. But something that is strange in my eyes can in fact be nothing but an obstacle to an attempt to appropriate nature by naming it. In a Japanese framework, it can instead be about a transition in space-time, the gradual decomposition of the body, the transformation of life into lifelessness, but also about rebirth.
It may be futile to speculate any longer whether the Parisian artists who in the 19th century were intrigued by ‘pictures of the floating world’ on tea packets, were also part of this shift.
The conceptual apparatus of ma also includes himorogi, the place were kami, the spirits, alight. Such sacred places in Japan also include the water-defining rock gardens. What in a picture seems like arrested motion in a film still, is not static. In a cyclical world, the now is continuous.
I wish to thank Anita Jensen for our discussions.
Marja-Terttu Kivirinta PhD, art historian, art critic, academic writer, journalist
Barthes, Roland 1970. L’empire des signes. Éditions d’art Albert Skira S.A. Genève.
Barthes, Roland 1985. Valoisa huone. (La chambre claire). Kansankulttuuri. Helsinki.
Haapala, Leevi 2011. Tiedostumaton nykytaiteessa. Katse, ääni ja aika vuosituhannen taitteen suomalaisessa nykytaiteessa. Kuvataiteen keskusarkisto 22. Valtion taidemuseo. Helsinki.
Kortelainen, Anna 2002. Albert Edelfeltin fantasmagoria. Nainen, ”Japani”, tavaratalo. Suomalaisen kirjallisuuden seuran toimituksia 886. SKS. Helsinki.
”Ma” – tila-aika Japanissa. Helsingin kaupungin taidemuseo. Helsingfors stads konstmuseum 27.2.–3.5.1981.