ASCJ 2009

SUNDAY JUNE 21, 1:00 P.M.-3:00 P.M
Session 37

Producing Japanese Visual Modernity, 1920s-1930s

Organizer: Kari Shepherdson-Scott, Duke University/ Waseda University

Chair: Chinghsin Wu, University of California, Los Angeles

1) Younjung Oh, University of Southern California / University of Tokyo

Dream of Mass Utopia: Avant-garde Art and Department Stores in 1920s Japan

2) Chinghsin Wu, University of California, Los Angeles

Machines and the Arts in 1930s Japan: Rationality as an Ideal Modernity

3) Kari Shepherdson-Scott, Duke University/ Waseda University

Modernity in Manchukuo: Representations of a Japanese, Urban Ideal

Discussant: Nancy Lin, University of Chicago

Discussant: Olivier Krischer, University of Tsukuba

Producing Japanese Visual Modernity, 1920s-1930s

Organizer: Kari Shepherdson-Scott, Duke University/ Waseda University

Chair: Chinghsin Wu, University of California, Los Angeles

The 1920s and 1930s was a crucial period in the development of the meaning of modernity in Japan. Influenced by the growth of an urban mass culture, the inundation of pictorial representations that drew on international circuits of imagery and representational practices, and the reconstruction of Tokyo following the disastrous earthquake of 1923, the “modern” in Japan had far-reaching social and artistic impact. Modern subject positions were reconstituted in new urbanized spaces in both Japan and its colonies. There, they were embedded in a complex socio-aesthetic matrix shaped by the circulation of new signs, symbols, bodies, commodities, industry and capital.

This panel investigates some of the visual cultures that exemplified a new, direct engagement with contemporary, everyday life. The new spaces, art, and images that emerged at this time were instrumental means in the production and negotiation of “modernity” for the newly constituted metropolitan subject. From the department store as the converging site of avant-garde art and mass consumption (Oh) and the production and reception of images of the machine and machine aesthetics (Wu), to the constructed images of Japan’s colonial urban projects in Manchukuo as escapist utopia (Shepherdson-Scott), this panel seeks to explore some of the visual cultures that contributed to the dynamic development of modernity in Japan during this period.

1) Younjung Oh, University of Southern California/ University of Tokyo

Dream of Mass Utopia: Avant-garde Art and Department Stores in 1920s Japan

Appearing at the turn of the twentieth century, the department store introduced the concepts and practices of modern living in Japan by symbolizing a new social dimension of consumption. Not only was the department store a key agent of Japan’s consumer capitalism, but concurrently it was a major venue for artistic activities of self-proclaimed Japanese avant-garde artists. The most radical avant-garde art groups in the 1920s such as Mavo, Action, Bunriha, and Sousha regularly held their exhibitions in department stores and frequently created designs for store advertisements, magazines, shop windows, and buildings. Avant-garde artists opposed pure aestheticism and thus sought to eliminate the autonomous and elitist notion of “fine art” by reintegrating art into the praxis of everyday life. To expand the realm of their artistic practice, avant-garde artists exploited the new exhibition venues such as department stores rather than display their works within official art exhibition spaces. Nonetheless, how can we interpret the seeming incongruity of avant-garde artists’ collaborations with department stores whose capitalist nature would seem to directly contradict the proletarian and revolutionary sympathies of the artists? My paper will address this question by examining both the department store’s reputation as a cultural institution that shaped vision of modern daily life and the avant-garde artist’s belief in the democratic potential of nascent consumer culture within the context of their common dream of mass utopia

2) Chinghsin Wu, University of California, Los Angeles

Machines and the Arts in 1930s Japan: Rationality as an Ideal Modernity

This paper examines the theory of machine aesthetics in 1930s Japan in the discourse of its conception and its application to the arts. Starting from 1929, Japanese art critics and artists began to take notice of a new form of art that was related to the beauty of machine. In their view, this mechanical expression or the machine itself held the promise of a new way to transcend the conventional formalism of the past and create a new format, not only for creating art itself, but also allowing art to be more involved in society.

Inspired by, but different from art of the 1910s and 1920s, when Italian Futurism and Russian constructionism emerged, Japanese trend toward mechanism in the 1930s did not simply embrace mechanical beauty, but sought a more balanced portrayal that would treat the machine as a logical, rational, and scientific object that could modernize art. This new format or new concept of machine aesthetics emerged simultaneously in different genres of art, such as fine arts, applied arts, literature, films, photography, and architecture. Meanwhile, this mechanical idea often crossed the boundaries of the traditional definitions of each genre and blurred the distinctions between them. This paper investigates understandings of the machine and the mechanical in 1930s Japanese art, including machine as an object in the arts, the influences of machine aesthetics on the arts, and the close ties between machine aesthetics and proletarianism.

3) Kari Shepherdson-Scott, Duke University/ Waseda University

Modernity in Manchukuo: Representations of a Japanese, Urban Ideal

Kari Shepherdson-Scott, Duke University/ Waseda University

The developing space of the city played an important role in the production of Japanese modernity. This was especially true in the years following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. However, hindered by various legal and economic concerns, urban planners were unable to fully realize their transformation of Tokyo. On the other hand, planners and bureaucrats perceived Japan’s puppet state of Manchukuo (1932-1945) as a “blank slate” which could be developed without constraint. Their vision, coupled with the desire to develop new spaces for population overflow and industrial development, led to an ambitious, continental building boom.

My paper investigates the possible meaning of these spaces for an urban demographic still living in Japan. I focus upon images of the new Manchurian capital of Xinjing in Manshū Gurafu (1933-1944) – a monthly magazine that was distributed to major urban centers in Japan – to first identify the means used to laud the new buildings, parks, and wide boulevards. Then, I investigate how the subject of these images began to change in the late 1930s, a time marked by war and pressure for Japanese continental emigration. In contrast with the themes of self-sacrifice in the metropole featured in contemporaneous magazines such as Asahi Gurafu, Manshū Gurafu presented to its readers a picture of middle-class life on the continent filled with leisure, prosperity, and consumption. These images not only obscured ongoing violence on the continent but also posited the ideal urban modernity of Manchuria as an escapist safe haven in a time of conflict.

Discussant: Nancy Lin, University of Chicago

Discussant: Olivier Krischer, University of Tsukuba