213 East 121st St., New York City
May 21 - June 30, 2019
Organized by Kyoko Sato
By MARK BLOCH, July 2019
After a decade in Chelsea and a decade on the Lower East Side, WhiteBox has moved to East Harlem. Following two exhibits featuring Latin-X talent, “Waiting for the Garden of Eden” and “Differing Facets - Distinct Futures,” WhiteBox is now showing several videos by Ko Nakajima.
Settled into its new East Harlem location, WhiteBox Harlem is presenting an installation representing three decades of work by the boundary-busting and experimental Japanese filmmaker, Nakajima in collaboration with Collaborative Cataloging Japan (CCJ) and XFR Collective, who have helped restore these groundbreaking videos to make possible this first major survey of Nakajima's work in New York after a few previous hints at his talent around town.
WhiteBox has been featuring some ambitious Japanese art exhibitions since curator Kyoko Sato joined the WhiteBox team two years ago. A recent press release reminds us that over the years they have “had the privilege of working with numerous talented artists from all over Asia.” Here we can witness the multiple screenings by Nakajima from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, an avant garde master at work at the height of his experimental powers, thanks to Sato and the curatorial skills of WhiteBox Artistic Director Juan Puntes.
Through a grant from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, WhiteBox Harlem showed some ten videos beamed into seven video monitors as well as onto on two large projection areas—one screen at the north end of the large space and one at the opposite end—exclusively for Nakajima's Mount Fuji, a 1985 video created using early digital technologies. All of the other works are from the early 1960s to the mid 70s.
The ten videos, imperfectly culled from my stream of consciousness experience of the ethereal installation, are:
1--Anapoko. Ko Nakajima, Japan, 1963, 16mm transferred to digital file, 8:38 min.
In Anapoko, a full frame target that appears about halfway through the eight minute feature: purple, brown, undulating and machine-generated, with handmade art over it, in blue, black and purple. An organic vector shape penetrates the hard edged form. A snake-lizard creature abruptly eats something on a dark red background. Dots then move through its "body." Circles appear, reminiscent of the Japanese flag, in blue, white and red, emitting halations, while the white and pink backgrounds move and vibrate rapidly.
In 2018, an organization called Collaborative Cataloging Japan created a 2K digitization of this seminal work by Nakajima. After his graduation from the Tama University of Arts, the artist made this work in which he drew directly onto a 35mm film. Without the necessary funds to make proper animation, Nakajima, unphased, invented what he called “kaki-animation” (writing-animation).
His intention was to submit it to the important Sogetsu Art Center’s Animation Festival in the early 1960s—a hub for experimentalism in animation as well as space for avant-garde art, film, and dance in Tokyo.
Where does Nakajima fit into the history of experimental moving-image art? He comes originally from photography, but he was very interested in animation, eventually joining the Japanese Animation Association.
At this time he also frequented Studio Zero, the formative mainstream animation/cartoon production company of the period with members Shinichi Suzuki, Jiro Tsunoda, Fujiko Fujio, Nobuhiro Aihara and other important videographers and animators.
He occasionally gives workshops and lectures about the history of Japanese animation with references to lanterns dating back to the Edo period in the early 17th century and even to 1000 BC in the Jomon Period, the earliest historical era of Japanese history.
Nakajima is also known for taking some rare photographs of the “Psi Zashiki Room,” a studio-cum-installation-work by Yutaka Matsuzawa, the avant-garde artist and conceptualist, who was a Nakajima colleague.
2- Seizoki. Ko Nakajima, Japan, 1964, 16mm transferred to video, 4:10 min.
Seizoki (1964), also hand drawn on existing film, can be shown as a multi-screen with up to three screens as it was here. Nakajima produced Seizoki by painting directly on the film between screenings. While both Anapoko and Seizoki used this method, Seizoki was presented between the featured animations at the Sogetsu Animation Festival in 1964. Originally on 16 mm, it was later transferred to video.
White eyeballs on red backgrounds turn into red and purple rectangles, then zoom in toward abstract, technical drawings, painted and scratched over, with green growing out of a background in whites, pinks, oranges, and greens growing, then with color oozing out of the frame as if through a tube, then speech bubbles, or red and orange fish, appear. Original footage of pedestrians on the street break through the blinding white light and give way to cars seen from above, all with overwhelming, blinding light and color. Four figures with green heads appear then transform into a colorful spaceman figure, a white and red stickman, changing colors, pink and green, resolving to pink and purple with S-shaped intestines and later a flower on his head. Finally the little movie ends with yin and yang forms, spinning shapes like sixes and nines.
This film gives a different impression on the floor where it is shown again and looks different further away than it does up close. I see it repeatedly but never can quite coherently fathom its imagery with my left brain. The installation and screening event of these rarely-seen works by this Japanese video art pioneer, available for public viewing in New York City for the first time, is a rare treat as I let the bright colors just wash over my consciousness.
3,4,5- Biological Cycle (1971-1982), Biological Cycle No. 3 (8:11)
After his animation experiments in films with Anapoko (1963) and Seizoki (1964), Nakajima took interest in the digital processing of film over multiple iterations spanning many years with the arrival of video and the electronic signal processing technology, as seen in the work Biological Cycle (1971-1982) of which WhiteBox presented Parts 1, 2, and 5 across three monitors.
Based on 16 mm film which was shot in a studio with his family and birds, effects were then added as different iterations were developed. Later, the work was transferred from film to video and the digital effects were added. Finally the one inch video was transferred to a digital file with the total lasting 8:11 min.
He is known internationally for this animation Biological Cycle, which incorporated film animation techniques with video special effects.
He created the first work in the series, Biological Life (1971), by copying manipulated film footage onto video, then further manipulating the work with a video synthesizer.The Biological Cycle project begins with a person on a stationary bicycle when a bird appears, a peacock. Next the screen divides into four peacocks, as some wavy, very 70s processing morphs the scene into a human figure. The bike ride in place continues, eventually quickly becoming a yellow pregnant woman against pink and red background, then a yellow person over green and blue. The bike rider is replaced by another figure with waving arms, then the pregnant woman with an umbrella switches back and forth with the bicycle, shifting through cycles of yellow, purple, and light lime green.
These scenarios repeat, reminding me of the scale and easiness of the Korean video pioneer Nam June Paik-created images of dancer Merce Cunningham from that same era, (Nam June Paik was an admirer of Nakajima) with three screens projecting a single figure on screen in colorful silhouette, riding bike in place, then a robot, then the yellow pregnant figure, then the person with flailing hands in green and blue.
Later I see, projected on a screen at the north end of the gallery, the guy on the bike, then the bird walking behind it. Yellows, purples, light greens, very bright colors, lime greens in high chroma pinks and greens and blues, reds and yellows and bright blues combine in a winding motion in front of the pregnant belly and her umbrella, then with hands in motion, as she zooms out beyond the frame.
If these three fragmented works are actually considered one body of work, representing the 1970s, and are then combined with the two from the '60s, all recently preserved and made available by CCJ and XFR Collective. Their stimulating effect make a nice compliment to Nakajima’s involvement in the video collective Video Earth Tokyo and their engagement with cable access television in Tokyo at a dynamic moment in the 1970s in which Nakajima’s role as a content provider is married to his vision regarding process and distribution of the video image.
6,7- Video Earth Tokyo. Video Earth Tokyo Interviews of Ikeda and Shimoda CATVs, 1971, ½ inch open reel transferred to digital file, 25 min.
In 1971, while he was creating and processing colorful videos, Ko Nakajima also established the pioneering video art collective Video Earth Tokyo, using portable video recorders to document local communities, social life, and performance experiments of collaborative experiments with the intention to cablecast locally. Two works from Video Earth Tokyo presented here have never before been screened in the USA. These digital transfers open up the unfamiliar history of 1970s Japanese cable access activities and Video Earth Tokyo’s documentary practice. Nakajima used one of the earliest available portable video recorders to document Video Earth Tokyo performance pieces and teach the new technology.
Video Earth Tokyo members created works, broadcast works on cable television, and participated in international exhibitions and the first computer graphics conferences, then emerging.
Two videos document panel discussions about the collective, one in black and white, one in color. Subtitles narrate the scene along the bottom. Nakajima explains that they had “cameras hanging around so we handed them out to the local elementary school and eighth graders. We told them to record what whatever they want and that if they wanted it to be broadcast then they could bring it to us so we could play it on our channel.” The collective broadcast simple images of kids playing basketball or drawing in a classroom drawing. “It seems like they are making pretty good use out of it,” Nakajima says. The images are commonplace today but at the time it was unusual for kids, now in their 60s, to have access to this technology and see themselves on television so readily.
Nakajima also explains his work in “broadcast culture” describing cable stations in Japanese cities like Ikeda and Kyushu “and several other cable TV studios around the country. They are all individually doing their own thing.” Nakajima speculates on increasing viewership, engaging the local audience and how content from geographically separated cities might be used to cross-pollinate ideas and participation.
“They only air the episodes once a week, on Thursdays… the whole town is involved… how do you produce content that (is) interesting for your audience?”
Nakajima summarized his philosophy for the future which involves real life participation, not just treating the audience as props: “I believe that television is too divided. There is always a clear division between who is appearing and who is filming, especially on the major networks… For us the idea is that our viewers are the subject and they should be appearing on the episodes. The population is currently 32,000 in Shimoda. My wish is that every single person appears on our show at least once, showcase their hobbies, athleticism—whatever they want, whatever they want to share—with the world. By having these people appear on the show, we have a fully functioning community access television. People will see for themselves.”
Nakajima advocates a desire “to have as many people come tell their story… for the 32,000 people to be on the show and run the show. That’s my vision.” Finally he ties it into his work as an artist by stating “I want our channel to play the role of the gallery to showcase people’s passion.”
Nakajima’s vision is clearly exporting his own enthusiasm to larger communities. This is clearly visible here in the content and in the interest in distribution and producing. He does so at a scale that is typical of the times and is a precursor of the overwhelming selfie age we live in now in which each citizen is at the center of his own broadcasting network. Nakajima does this on a personal level, somehow, without the soul-crushing immensity of the entire planet that we are all up against today. His videos, though immersed in the cutting edge technology of the times, and his approach has a manageable, upbeat, folksy quality. This screening makes that clear.
8-Shokutaku Ressha (Video Picnic), 1975, video, 8 min. (3:45 min. excerpt)
The pioneer of networking, video art and computer animation also provided a black and white documentation of Video Earth Tokyo members engaging in early performance art, cooking and eating a meal during a subway ride. A group of people innocently wait for a subway or commuter train to pull into the station. The train pulls in. The Japanese people already inside the subway car, skeptical strangers, are invited by the new riders, reasonable looking characters in shirts and ties, to join in, as a table is created in the middle of the car from a large piece of wood covered with a table cloth. Bottles of wine are opened, pineapples are cut up and a feast is created. Smiles abound. A lot of camaraderie is experienced and a festive atmosphere abounds. When the commuter train arrives at its destination, the meal is cleaned up and the Video Earth Tokyo members exit the subway.
9-Video Earth Tokyo—A Graveyard and a Beggar, 1975, ½ inch open reel transferred to digital file, 12:10 min.
An interview with a homeless woman who lived in the Aoyama cemetery. The video was shot by a student of Nakajima, Michael Goldberg.
10- “Mt. Fuji” (1985) (20:00)
Finally, in the opening of Ko Nakajima’s film “Mt. Fuji” (1984), Nakajima brings the iconic Mount Fuji depicted in two dimensional photographs to life by bringing the viewer inside and around a Mt. Fuji–themed Rubik’s cube. Images of Japan’s highest mountain in different seasons and at different times of day are moved across the screen like chessmen, while more nature images — the mountain and views around it — appear in rectangles passing through the cube like envelopes being dropped into mail slots. Soon the interior becomes a face of another cube, which hovers in front of even more cubes, as the small, digital images of Mt. Fuji spin and float, deconstruct and reconstruct to the slightly ominous sounds of stringed instruments.
This video was created in the mid 1980s when Nakajima was well-experienced in the processing of images in new and interesting ways. Here he demonstrates a love of nature and utilize an Asian sensibility, tackling ancient worlds with an immersion in state-of-the-art technology. Nakajima moves from the tectonic plates under the mountain to the clouds, looking down into a 3D model of Mt. Fuji from above. He visits the surface of the water and sees the mountains and the woods on the mountain and the branches of the trees from every possible angle. In this video Nakajima takes us on a journey through Japanese culture by exploring Mt. Fuji, a national, enigmatic Japanese myth and real place at the country’s center.
In addition to a close reading of Nakajima’s videos, it would also be timely to consider the history of WhiteBox entering its third decade in a new locale.
Before he was an artist and art organizer, WhiteBox founder Juan Puntes did theater in Spain. He was an emigré by choice in 1973, coming to the USA to avoid being drafted into Francisco Franco's army.
After a period in Rochester, NY as a factory worker then as a social worker in Black and Puerto Rican communities, he attended art school at the Boston Museum School and Tufts University where he received a BFA. Puntes trained and showed as an abstract painter in what he calls “the age of the death of painting.”
In 1983, through a Museum School teacher, Friedel Dzubas, an AbEx artist associated with Color field painting and Lyrical Abstraction, Puntes eventually met Philip Pavia, the driving force behind the 8th Street Artists Club (known as the Club), and became his protégé for two decades.
In his post graduate days at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the first and oldest art museum and art school in the United States, a new space was envisioned and created to step "outside the white box gallery" in Philly’s Old City. Puntes ran the new space for a year while working on an MFA in sculpture. He then met Osvaldo Romberg, a Russian Jewish artist, curator, and professor who had emigrated to Buenos Aires and then worked in Philadelphia, New York, and Brazil. The two transplants hit it off and together fathomed a similar artists’ run space that would provide New York with a forum where much art that was not otherwise being manifested in the NYC arena could be showcased via talks, performances, and open forums.
“Osvaldo imbued in me a fascination for historicity,” Puntes says now about the SAS: Seminal Artist Series, created in 1998 to feature little known, under the radar, or momentarily ignored influential artists. Survey exhibitions began with with venerable Vienna Actionists Herman Nitsch and Gunther Brus, and eventually covered Carolee Schneemann, Michael Snow, Dennins Oppenheim, Braco Dimitrijevic, Naoto Nagakawa, Alison Knowles, John Cage and Aldo Tambellini. Ko Nakajima's current video installation is thus Puntes' and WhiteBox's first SAS showcase in their new East Harlem digs.
Puntes stopped making art two years after WhiteBox’s NYC inception in 1998, when the non-profit space opened shop in early Chelsea. WhiteBox spent the next 10 years paving the way for a new art scene in Chelsea when there were very few galleries and DIA was the only other not-for-profit organization. During its first decade, WhiteBox built a reputation for producing shows and and initiatives that developed engagement among their diverse audience, which attracted cutting edge art as well as residents of local low-income housing communities and even the Bayview Correctional Facility, a women’s prison across from Chelsea Piers in Manhattan.
Next, before the mass exodus of galleries to the Lower East Side, WhiteBox was again ahead of the crowd, becoming an institution in their space on Broome Street off the Bowery, presenting contemporary art in the spirit of the downtown avant-garde, while sustaining support and gaining exposure for lesser known artists. WhiteBox has always has been counted on to take the pulse of the world, expressing and questioning the tenor of the times, and always with deference to the historical record.
“With Raul Zamudio as my partner in crime, our social and political/humanistic roots led us to take upon ourselves the curation of a string of socio-political commentary shows” involving multigenerational sets of local and international artists. With a loyal following of gallery workers, interns, art professionals and a dedicated board of advisors, WhiteBox has continued thrive in a commercial art world that is constantly hurling obstacles in the way.
Many of WhiteBox’s shows have been of note. Dating back to Plural Speech in the late '90s which was nominated “Best Group Show” by the International Art Critics Association, WhiteBox has also became home to such shows as When the War is Over, Make America Great Again on Election Night 2016 (with Martha Rosler VJ-ing election results and the Living Theater’s first English reading ever of Albert Camus’ 1935 play "Revolt in Asturias") as well as ahows like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and White Anxieties last year on Broome Street. In 2015, when Pussy Riot was awarded the fourth annual WhiteBox/Richard Massey Foundation “Arts and Humanity Award,” (previously given to Ai Weiwei, Karen Finley, and Martha Wilson), Puntes simultaneously curated Recycling Religion alongside Russian art dealer, activist, and former political adviser Marat Guelman, who was evicted from his Moscow gallery for raising money for political prisoners.
So in its third incarnation, WhiteBox in East Harlem will continue its mission to stay relevant with local and international talent. Puntes still wants “to raise awareness of the power and potential of art, outside the market place marquee.” He looks forward to continuing to engage with the East Harlem community, with an emphasis on artwork springing from distinct resonant geopolitical axes: alongside emerging art and projects emanating from Asia with Sato’s help, WhiteBox Harlem is now exploring the Latin American-Latin-X community vis-a-vis artists and audiences from Africa and the Caribbean. He calls it a “conscious choice to honor Our Welcoming Republic's great ethos.”
WhiteBox’s inaugural show in East Harlem was the Latin-X group show, “Waiting for the Garden of Eden” followed by “Differing Facets - Distinct Futures” curated by Lara Pan with artists Michelle Jaffe, Charles Juhasz-Alvarado and Arnaldo Morales as part of WhiteBox’s “In The City” collaboration with the Frieze Art Fair. Puntes and company have a history of effective collaboration with other institutions.
WhiteBox has established the “Firehouse Lit Lounge Sunday Salon Series” as a forum for voices from and for the communities of Harlem and the South Bronx. Puntes, Zamudio and the poet Edwin Torres founded the series as part of their first Harlem show and hired The Dizzie Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience Band to inaugurate the space. They started the literary and educational salon series as an homage to great Puerto Rican poet of East Harlem, Pedro Pietri.
WhiteBox has taken the large space on 121st Street, next door to the sophisticated David Richard Gallery, which specializes in abstract art. They are slowly making the transition to the new neighborhood. “In the gilded age of ‘Art as a Great Commodity’ and fifty-thousand-dollar-a-year-art-school-tuition and the luxuriousness of The Shed, East Harlem is a tough stone to break,” Puntes said. “We’re not in Gavin Brown nor The Wallach Art Gallery (at Columbia University) territory—yet.”
In a recent article, The New York Times divided Harlem galleries into two camps, East and West and referred to WhiteBox’s “Waiting for the Garden of Eden” exhibition as “thought-provoking.” Indeed it was. So is their installation of Ko Nakajima’s video works. For twenty years, WhiteBox has battled the odds as a non-profit staying ahead of the crowd to bring fresh, revelant art to the public.WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
view all articles from this author