TOKI - TIME
Festival exhibitor at Molde International Jazz Festival 2008: Christine Istad, TOKI - TIME
"The others" – travels in time and space
Written by Janicke Iversen
Throughout the period of art history from the end of the 19th century onwards, artists have been interested in investigating cultures and phenomena outside the sphere of their own lives. Not only ethnographic and sociological studies, but also visual arts have made a major contribution to conveying and interpreting encounters with "the others". The resulting art movement is termed exoticism; for Europeans this has been synonymous with studying areas of Africa and Asia.
Exoticism of the past and present
Paul Gauguin was one of the first modern painters who broke with motif conventions when he travelled to Tahiti at the beginning of the 1890s. His meeting with the "simple" and "primitive" culture there inspired him as a painter and led to his famous allegory Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? But at home in France, his pictures met with opposition and were regarded as irrelevant. German and Danish painters at the beginning of the 19th century met with a similar reaction when they went to West Norway to seek out the dramatic landscape along the fjords. For them, the "exotic" meant conquering the forces of nature in harsh, northern climes in order to document what was considered at the time as wild, inhospitable and crude nature. Manifestations of encounters with "the others" have in other words often met with to scepticism and a negative reception.
In the 19th century, expeditions to far-away places were a hazardous business, but today, most destinations are easily accessible. For this reason, you might think that a curiosity for " the others " would have dwindled, especially since information about alien places is easily available via the internet and TV. But no: easy travel has on the contrary opened up opportunities for exploring unfamiliar cultures – also in artistic terms. Two examples of Norwegian artists whose work has clearly been shaped through meetings with "the others" are Mette Tronvoll and Vegard Moen. Whereas Tronvoll's photographic art studies human lives and folklore in Greenland and Mongolia, Moen's photographs question China's transformation and rapid expansion from an unbending communist regime to flourishing, westernised commercialism. Eline Mugaas and Knut Åsdam are two further artists who base their works on encounters with other societies. Though their works consist of European and American urban landscapes, the different social codes and cultural conventions they depict challenge our perception of our own self-understanding.
The concept of exoticism has therefore taken on a different meaning today; it is no longer only distant cultures that are the object of artistic investigation. The two concept artists Gardar Eide Einarsson and Matias Faldbakken are two cases in point. For them studying " the others " means examining sub-cultural phenomena within Western culture, i.e. a closer look at our own, regulated social conditions. By scraping at the surface of conventional society, they reveal cultural deviations that appear just as alien as Gauguin's Tahiti paintings did for Frenchmen at that time.
Encounters with " the others " have changed in character and method throughout history. Whereas the first artists who sought out alien cultures were mostly interested in studying nature and living conditions from a romantic and symbolic perspective, contemporary artists tend to take a more critical angle. Herein lies a paradox: whereas exotic art in the past was regarded with scepticism as degenerate or vulgar at home, contemporary projects incorporating impulses from abroad are considered interesting and stimulating and the messages they convey have an increasingly critical sting to their tail. Artists no long travel abroad to document romanticised and sublimated perceptions of " the others " lives and society, but to criticise international developments. In this way, exoticism has more and more in common with what can be termed "universal, sociopolitical art", which looks at our own social conditions in relation to the global situation. But not all artistic projects are directly related to specific political, social or cultural issues. Today's art may well employ poetic effects, but at the heart of most works lies a criticism or other serious questions about our self-perception in the light of different social and cultural contexts.
Meeting Japanese culture
Christine Istad's latest project belongs to this diverse field of artistic investigation. Through her repeated visits to Japan, she has made this country and its culture the subject of her artistic research. She has even learnt Japanese in order to deepen her understanding of the Japanese people and their social conventions.
Like a modern-day archaeologist, Istad uses the camera lens to dig deep into Japan's cultural history. She has made long journeys by train and on foot within Japan's borders; she has followed the routes of pilgrims' wanderings from temple to temple and studied religious rituals and mystic traditions. Other layers of history have been unveiled by means of tea ceremonies, gastronomy and language. She has also examined and documented the aftermath of the atom bomb at Hiroshima through processed photographs of the famous Atomic Bomb Dome. These have been developed as a room installation in which sound recordings from the square by the dome constitute an essential part of the work. The sounds of people and birdsong point to the will to live that defied the ultimate attempt at extermination in 1945.
Istad's art focuses on current Japanese culture by depicting modern urban structures where hi-tech developments and almost synthetic social conditions create a society that seems alien to our western eyes. Whereas Istad uses a conceptual approach, other artists employ different means to convey similar themes. A case in point is Sofia Coppola's film "Lost in Translation" from 2003, which uses narrative structures to analyse the disillusioned and restless lifestyle of Tokyo citizens. Both Coppola and Istad expose the state of mental unrest arising from this frenzied society and both employ a form of aesthetic dilatoriness in their iconic presentation of these hectic phenomena. Both Coppola's film and Istad's photographs circle around eternal questions of identity and existentialism.
The role of media
Different media and strategic techniques are used to convey interest in " the others " as a form of artistic expression. At the Molde Jazz festival exhibition, Istad uses photographs and video works, including installations and audio effects. The photographs' wealth of detail can be perceived as a close look at Japan's hypermodern urban structures, while the video works present a more subtle depiction of nature's inherent and charged atmospheres. Several of the video works can be interpreted as meditative and heavily symbolic references to religion and mysticism. This mythical atmosphere is reinforced by a musical soundtrack inspired by Japanese music traditions. Composed by the trumpeter Arve Henriksen, the sound creates an almost seamless transition between the musical and visual imagery.
Istad takes the concept of "study" seriously by presenting close-ups and sections; in other words, she uses the camera lens as a magnifying glass in order to highlight fragments and details, comparable to the minute findings of an archaeologist. The motifs examine ephemeral and often tiny fragments of landscapes and urban societies; phenomena that are usually regarded as insignificant are presented by Istad as an essential documentation of history or momentary incidents. Both her photographs and video works are analogue and refer in real time to the place depicted. The motifs are not manipulated but nevertheless appear abstracted due to their detailed form. It is not immediately obvious what the pictures are about and the observer is free to choose from the associations that arise from the works' titles and visual appearance. Istad's long-standing and meticulous methods of revelation can be regarded as an interpretation of Japanese cultural history per se.
Those familiar with the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami's dreamlike narratives may recognise a parallel world in Istad's pictures. Just as Murakami conjures up strange series of events in relatively everyday lives, Istad's visual studies have a similar effect. The pictures are concrete but at the same time intangible. They contain layered structures, but also visual obstacles that give "the story" a new direction. Just as Murakami's narrative style creates mental pictures that are gradually revealed, Istad's photographs become easier to understand as the observer allows herself time to study them.
TOKI - TIME
At the cutting edge between culture, nature and history, Istad introduces "time" as a navigational tool. The title of the exhibition, TOKI, is the sound of the Japanese word for time and is a key to interpreting both her video and photographic works. The concept of time is also a key aspect of her approach to Japanese heritage, where complex cultural traditions are blended with modern, urbanised societies. A nation that most people today connect with enormous buildings and efficient technology is at the same time the bearer of a rich cultural heritage that is still kept alive. In this way, history runs side by side with a futuristic social order. The term "time" also refers to the artist's approach to her own project and her acceptance of a foreign culture. Istad has stated that it took weeks before she found her feet amongst " the others " and their unfamiliar habits and customs. Istad's artistic project demands a particularly critical eye, but also humility and respect – and in a similar way to Gauguin, she asks difficult questions on behalf of us and the Japanese: Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?
Art and the festival
As in previous years, parts of the festival exhibition have been taken out of the gallery and into the Molde Jazz arena. In Romsdal Museum, one of Istad's video works is on exhibition in the old chapel. In the midst of the commotion of the festival, it seems appropriate to show a spiritual, zen-like experience in this historical, sacred place. We and " the others " come face to face; the past and present come together and bridge cultural differences in an apparently uncomplicated harmony. However, under the aesthetic and soothing visual and auditive surface, there smoulder grave questions that neither Gauguin nor Istad can answer; instead, they encourage us to ponder on our own existence.