Kenji Yanobe was born in Osaka Japan
in 1965, and received his MA at Kyoto City University of the Arts in 1991.
While still a student Yanobe traveled to Europe to see the ‘great masterpieces.’
He returned less than impressed, not because the work failed to meet his
standards, but rather that he felt that they bore no relationship to him.
So he explains, “Europeans are Christian and have a different background
from Japanese people,” Contemplating this difference further and citing that
he had no grounding in the European or American traditions of art, he instead
refers back to his childhood. He asked himself, “When I was young, what excited
me? It was things like animation, like science fiction. I was really excited
by this culture. I wanted to try to look for the idea of beauty in this culture.”
He continues by posing another question, “Why am I so excited by the Godzilla
movie?”1 The enthusiasm expressed with Godzilla illustrates
Yanobe’s own interest in the Japanese catastrophic imagination, but this
excitement also might say something about unfinished business: that Japan
is still dealing with its catastrophic history and it is the Godzilla narrative
that assists in that process. While it is not just Godzilla that captures
Yanobe’s attention, but rather the whole tradition of post-atomic narratives,
it is Godzilla nonetheless that is emblematic of this whole tradition. One
of Yanobe’s most known works is a piece called Foot Soldier (Godzilla),
which is the bottom torso of the Japanese monster. Perched above the torso
is a seat from which Yanobe can operate his animatronic sculpture, and in
a sense become Godzilla.
Yanobe’s acute sense of humor is matched only by his engagement with post-atomic
issues. His environmental suits reflect his interest in Japanese animation,
each looking as if it were a prototype for an episode of Star Blazers
(known in Japan as Space-Battleship Yamato). And while there is an
unmistakable sense of humor present in Yanobe’s work there is also paranoia,
and an obsessive focus on the catastrophic.
Included in the Collapsing Histories exhibition is Yanobe’s Cinema
in the Forest, which features a child-sized survival suit, and has become
something of a trademark for Yanobe. It is the artist’s sense of humor that
makes his work so appealing and curiously emotive. The playfulness that
we find in his work, we might infer, is derivative of 1970s Godzilla films,
which despite their campy character always attempted to deliver some social
cultural message. And moreover, the playfulness of his work - the central
feature is a dollhouse-like structure that only children are allowed to enter
- references the significance of narratives directed towards younger audiences.
That sense of excitement that Yanobe expresses when seeing a Godzilla film
is yet another manner in which we perceive history even as youngsters. Narratives
about the past, about politics and social issues are not reserved to the
discipline of History alone, and in fact the discipline itself (i.e., as
subscribing to the ‘rules of evidence’ and objectivity) is a fairly recent
development. Traditionally ‘history’ has been presented in the form of genealogy,
myths, plays, poetry, religious chronicles, and what Yanobe does in his work
is to reveal the history in contemporary narratives. The excitement that
we feel when for example watching Godzilla is recognizing even unconsciously
that there is 'more to the story'; that these stories embody History not
according to the ‘rules of evidence,’ but rather a visceral history. It is
very fitting that Cinema in the Forest be exhibited in the context
of the Daigo Fukuryu Maru Exhibtion Hall, because behind all the campy Godzilla
films lurks March 1, 1954.
1. Kenji Yanobe cited in Alvin
Lu, "Doom Patrol," San Francisco Guardian (March 12, 1997).