For Yoshinori Niwa’s second solo show at Edel Assanti, the Japanese artist presents a series of video works and installations that shine a light on the complex relationship between countries, between governments and their citizens, and between objects and the past. Focusing upon Taiwan, China, post-Soviet Europe and Japan, the titles of the works are self-explanatory and open in contrast to the show’s themes of the limits of the language, and the barriers of states and government.
In the first video ‘Asking Taiwanese People to sing the national anthem of the Republic of China while listening to the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China’ sees Taiwanese people recite the national anthem of ROC (Taiwan) with musicians, dressed in Chinese military uniform playing the music of the PROC (China) at alarming levels and random intervals. Though the video feels comical initially and the reactions from performers is to giggle and carry on, the overbearingly frosty relationship between the two states is evident. The use of nationalist music comments on internal propaganda and public influence. Sitting next to the video is the score for China’s anthem presented in white ink on a red background, the colour red chosen for its obvious links to China.
Opposite is a neon sign that reads ‘Towards a beautiful country’ a phrase often repeated in speeches, interviews and policy by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The lettering of the phrase however is shakey and dissonant, as if the meaning has become blurred through repetition. The deteriorated style of sign reminded me of Guy Fawkes’ signature after torture, showing how the written word contains its own history.
In the next room is ‘Requesting people in Taiwan who I met by chance to declare that if they die, Taiwan will disappear’ in which people on the streets of Taipei are asked to say ‘If I die, Taiwan will disappear’. The video is charming, seeing each reader react with surprise, humility or humour to the task. Everyday Taiwan is on display here, the people, camerawork and delivery aren’t stylised and the video focuses on the participants and life at street level. Niwa comments on the idea of the expiration dates for nation-states, culture and identity. Is a country sustained by citizens, its language, its diplomatic status? The complex relationship to China is ever-present. Terminology has sparked controversy between the two nations, let alone disputes on trade and political recognition.
Another video ‘Forcing people to speak about something they don’t understand’, sees Niwa’s girlfriend reading out a policy speech made by Abe from 2016, in Japanese but spelt phonetically in her native language. Though the presumably inelegant delivery is lost on me as a someone who only speaks English, my first reaction is a similar disassociation of language and sounds similar to Brian and Karl’s viral ‘How English sounds to non-English speakers’ video. The wider intention of the pieces draw on language as a barrier despite modern technological advances in communication, hinting at further purposeful obfuscation via political ‘unspeak’ from politicians.
The final piece ‘Resending postcards sent during the Cold War’ to the intended recipients, is a video that sees Niwa in his home in Vienna buying postcards at the local second-hand market. Hundreds if not thousands of personal messages that never found their recipients sit in boxes every Sunday, many of which are lost forever when the streets are cleaned up at the end of the day. Niwa buys what he can and attempts to resend the postcards through the Austrian postal service. The perfunctory way the clerk handles the task of processing post that is sometimes over 70 years old is calm and indifferent and speaks to both the apathy and formality of bureaucracy. The wall opposite, covered in a small selection of these postcards hits home that this really is a generation lost to the Cold War, where people separated from families and friends were unable to communicate again. This is a depressing history given the endlessness and ease of communication today.