I can put forward an alternative point of view. Something that questions the dominant popular culture, something that disrupts the status quo. I feel that that has always been my responsibility as an artist. The way we consume and interact with moving images in 2018, is vastly different from just 13 years ago (the fifth generation iPod had the ability to playback video, launched in 2005). That’s an incredibly short timeframe. Seeing moving imagery on a miniature screen has enormous implications for the way we see the world. A theatrical experience is like going to the opera or the theatre, whereas looking at your mobile device on your way to work is like eating fast-food on the street. Yet, as producers and consumers of these different types of media, we need to understand the subtle and not-so subtle differences between these screening/consuming opportunities.
CM: What do you think attracts you to this “presence of the human hand” in your work? Why is it important that the human aspect remain intact? Is it because you’re worried about locating the work for your audience or connecting in some ways to them? How do you maintain a balance between this “humanness” and the technical polish of your pieces?
MO: I try to have the presence of the human hand in most of my projects as the works quite often look at or explore human relationships and I guess non human relationships—whether they be ghosts, animals, etc. I think because I work in multi-media I’m skeptical when the work gets too ‘technical’ where it just then becomes about the technology versus a conversation between the aesthetic or the formal elements of the work and the conceptual/critical rigour. It’s hard and a fine line to balance. I work with content sometimes that’s hard to predict or control and then work within a frame of technology that can often capture, or flatten the liveliness of the material. I learn from each work, each project. I still explore and experiment with the form so in that sense it can feel raw versus technically polished.
CM: My interest in taking this opportunity to be in conversation with yourself and Louise was to bring more visibility to the Japanese Canadian women making art in this contemporary present. In my undergraduate years, I really looked to both your works as I felt there were not many Japanese Canadian women working in visual culture and moving images. I had to seek out and dig for work that had happened in Vancouver at the time of the late 1980s and early 1990s particularly around identity politics. I saw your work Displaced View first through an exhibition curated by Paul Wong called Yellow Peril Reconsidered. At that time in Vancouver there was a strong Asian Canadian group of writers, artists, activists, and scholars that I was starting to get involved with. I know that when you were starting out this wasn’t the case. I had read recently in the interview with Nikkei Voice after receiving the Governor General’s Award and you had said that you looked to the work of Aiko Suzuki. Since you had invited me to participate in the Tributaries: Reflections on Aiko Suzuki project in 2009 I was able to understand the significance of her work as an artist, activist and a creative force of a vast repertoire of artistic projects. And I think to continually look back at her work as a Japanese Canadian artist is significant for me, is it still for you?
MO: Although Aiko’s been gone for thirteen years (1937–2005), she continues to be a presence in my life. In the early 1980s, I recall Aiko and Jesse Nishihata were the only Toronto-based Japanese Canadians I knew who were working in the arts. Jesse was a documentary filmmaker
who made the first film about about the Japanese Canadian World War II experience, Watari Dori: Bird of Passage (1973). I sought him out because of this film as I was trying to figure out my project, The Displaced View. He was very kind and generous and would always invite me to meet various artists visiting from Japan.
Aiko was special. Her reputation preceded her as she was so respected and knowledgeable about the Japanese Canadian community. She appeared to have mastered the balance between community activism and artistic integrity. Although I had known Aiko slightly for years it wasn’t until I found out that she had cancer that I really got to know her. I imagined that time was running out and I wanted to make sure that her legacy was somehow preserved. In 2003, Aiko was preparing a retrospective at the Gendai Gallery in Toronto. I asked her if I could document the installation of the exhibition. Luckily, she agreed, and we spent hours together driving up to the gallery, running errands and getting to know each other. Through the process we discussed her long history of art production, community involvement, and the everyday concerns of being as an artist.
She had a tenacious hold on her identity as an artist. She moved though her life embodying her artistic self. Her complete devotion to her work, her passion for discovery and fearlessness of spirit is something I have rarely encountered. She was incredibly generous with her time, her thoughtfulness and mentorship. Aiko belonged to a generation of artists that preceded me. I can only imagine the struggles she encountered as a Japanese Canadian artist, never mind dealing with barriers as a woman and a mother.
Although the configuration of the art world has shifted since the 1960s and 1970s, there continues to be gender disparity, racial inequity, and heated discussions about cultural identity and appropriation. In some ways it feels like a bit of a throwback to the identity politics of the 1980s and 1990s. I sense that it is different but it’s difficult to determine if I’m just seeing things through more “mature” eyes or if the arguments and discussions have really advanced from those early days. One could observe that positions have become more polarized, but one could also say that the polarization is simply more visible, more vocal than in the past.
I would be very interested to hear your perspective on things. As a young artist finding your way in Vancouver in the 1980s, why was it important to seek out Asian-Canadian artists? What were you hoping to find and how does your identity and community involvement manifest itself in your work? I understand that these are enormous questions that as artists we may only begin to try and answer though our practice.
CM: It was important for me to learn about what had been done before my time essentially because the work as POC and Asian Canadians were not included into the classical art historical canon. I will have to say though that at the time I was in school, there were many of us Asian Canadian women taking classes—so I had a strong peer group—all of us were eager and hungry to find out more work that we could relate to. I was interested in being able to come up with a language and the context to speak about my work as what I was making didn’t fit into the categories of art making that were popular or visible. I was also flipping over every rock, seeking out the content that wasn’t going to be taught in the institutions at that time. I was doing my BFA in the late 1990s and had been making work particularly around silence and language and was very interested in media (photography, video, archives) and the performance of storytelling.
I was told by many of my teachers to look various works by Asian Canadian or POC artists which I did independently as research. I came across an Or Gallery catalogue on the work of Roy Kiyooka and found an interview with Roy Miki and Roy Kiyooka. I was fascinated by Kiyooka’s usage of the term “interface” which he used to describe the mode of attention he used to make art being an artist that also painted, photographed, wrote poetry, performed. The form informed the content—I think discovering this made me feel like I could be exploratory in the artistic forms. I realized later someone like Aiko Suzuki was also fearless and building work and collaborations by her own means. Later, I took an English literature class with Roy Miki on Asian Canadian literature and I was introduced to the writing of Hiromi Goto, Kerri Sakamoto, Fred Wah, and Shani Mootoo (to name a few). Hiromi’s writing, particularly Chorus of Mushrooms, changed my perception of what was possible for me as a Japanese Canadian artist. Her Japanese Canadian female protagonist in her novel was someone that I could see myself in—and her writing as it traversed back and forth between English and Japanese, between times and spaces, weaving folklore, humour, and everyday life as an immigrant family made me aware that I could possibly go, write and make your own stories.
In my last year of undergraduate art school, Jin-me Yoon had returned from maternity leave and was my professor for a number of classes. This profoundly changed the course of artistic and critical content for me. We framed one directed studies class solely on the research of Asian Canadian cultural productions and in that time I started to re-visit projects that happened in Vancouver around the late 1980s and early 1990s including Yellow Peril Reconsidered, Self Not Whole, Racy Sexy, and the national conference Writing Through Race. I had come across your video work and the work of Louise Noguchi and Aiko Suzuki. I was also heavily involved with the programming committee of the Powell Street Festival Society and was part of a group of organizers bringing in the work of Japanese Canadian artists and writers to the festival. The festival went from operating with volunteers only and to a place where they were eligible for arts funding.
It was important to revisit all these shifts in time, as there was a new wave of Asian Canadian production happening in Vancouver at the time. You started to see more and more sites, galleries, festivals and publications focusing exclusively on this and there was a need to raise what it meant to be “Asian Canadian” in this context of globalization at that particular time. It was a big formative moment for me as it shaped my identity and my involvement in the community as an organizer. I also know it was a time shortly after where I felt like I needed to move away from my identity as an artist that was always bound by Japanese Canadian history—and though I am consistently haunted by it and brought back to it—I try to challenge myself in the formal aesthetics of its representation and in the way the content is received to keep things in alive and relevant in spirit.
Takao Tanabe, Raymond Moriyama and Nobuo Kubota are also Japanese Canadians that have received the Governor General’s Award. I think it’s significant that you are the first Japanese Canadian woman winning the Governor General’s award and when these major milestones occur you can’t help but return back to see all the work you have achieved through your own media arts practice against the odds and barriers that women artists are consistently up against still. What would you like to see in terms of visibility of films by women? What work still needs to be done?
MO: There is no question that over the last two to three decades there has been an increase in the number of productions made by women. This increase is not only visible in the independent scene but also the North American film industries. In Canada, the national not-for-profit organization, Women in View has been tracking the gender imbalance in the media industries since 2012. Not surprisingly the number of women in key creative roles has been quite dismal but there has been a gradual increase in the last few years due to the change in social climate and the advocacy of different organizations. However, in the US tech industries, it seems like it’s a different story. Melinda Gates recently released the results of the study that reveals that over the past decade the ratio of Black, Latina, and Native American women receiving computer degrees dropped from six percent to four percent.1
When I started making films back in high school, I fell in love with the moving image, but I couldn’t conceive of becoming a mainstream director, it was just not a realistic probability and the machine of Hollywood seemed way beyond my reach. From my perspective as a child in the 1970s, Canadian film mostly consisted of NFB produced nature shorts and documentaries. I was drawn towards artist-produced work because it seemed more accessible, controllable and imaginative. I thought that if I could learn and master the tools of filmmaking then I wouldn’t need to rely on people, specifically men, to help me create my visions. This need to understand the tools and the craft behind the art has stayed with me all these years. One of the things that I respect about your work and Louise’s is the great regard you both have for the craft in your art. To me, this is critical in mastering any discipline. I still see young women today intimidated by technology and who rely on their male peers to “deal with the tech”.
We need to encourage all women to gain confidence with technology. In the art world and the media industries, diversity must be fortified by writers, directors and producers. We need stories to be created that support a multiplicity of roles on screen. We are living in the shifting socially conscious time of #MeToo and there is no doubt that social media activism continues to play a role in the representation of women on screen and gender equity in productions.
I went to see Crazy Rich Asians (2018), not because I thought it would be a good film, but because I wanted to contribute my admission to the box office receipts. As we all know, Hollywood reacts to money and with $165 million in domestic grosses (as of 30 September 2018), this is the sixth highest grossing rom-com ever. There is no question that this movie will change the casting opportunities and stories of Asian Americans. On screen visibility has a major influence in how the next generation sees themselves reflected back in the mainstream.
Outside of the production arena, there needs to be more diversity among programmers, curators and distributors. Having men and women who are sensitive and open to creating institutional change as well as programming decisions, opens the doors for a broader range of audiences and critics. As the theatrical experience of watching films and videos continues to shift to other viewing platforms, we must take care that we are not emulating twentieth century stereotypes.
And finally, as there are more women and people of colour who have long careers in art and media production, it behooves us to mentor the next generation. This is a cross- generational effort because we cannot lose the progress we’ve made; we cannot forget where we’ve come from. There is no question that making substantial changes to increase the diversity of voices being heard can be uncomfortable, awkward and frustrating. But to my mind, this is the only path forward no matter who erects the roadblock and detour signs, we must continue step by step.
In conversation: Louise Noguchi and Cindy Mochizuki
Cindy Mochizuki: Louise, we sat on a panel for Reel Asian’s commissioning project, Secrets of the Lost Royal and you had spoken at that time around some of your earlier work and this concept of the hunter or feeling and being hunted. I recently went to your website and saw that a whole era from the 1970s–1990s was archived as The Hunt. Can you give a bit of context to that and also if I may ask do you feel that way now? What is being hunted? Or, has this concept shifted for you.
Louise Noguchi: The theme of the hunt first entered my work when I left art school and I began to wonder what an artist was, and who I was as an artist. In art history classes, I was primarily taught the history of European art or American abstract expressionism and could never situate myself in this history. After I left school, I discovered that the first artists drew images of their prey and the hunt, I felt I could start afresh with this knowledge. I began to wonder about the relationship between the act of hunting and the act of making art. Could there a link between the hunter and the artist? What if I positioned myself as the hunter or sometimes as the prey?
At around this same time, the Japanese Canadian community was beginning to demand redress for the injustices they endured during WWII. I felt it was important for the Canadian government to acknowledge this shameful history and make an apology. Without an apology, doubt about the innocence of Japanese Canadians would always remain. For me, repre- sentations in artwork, and the writing of history are similar, you are ultimately responsible for what you advocate. In my artwork, I was putting myself in the role of the hunter to act as a warning to the viewer.
I suppose what is being hunted now is still a blurring of truth, but on a much larger scale. We live in a more constructed world, where people can choose their own facts and reality, but this isn’t what I’m interested in. It would be too difficult to keep up with it all. However, I still feel that my work about the hunt is as valid today as it was over 30 years ago.
CM: Before I left for Japan I think I got a postcard from you with a still from the film Crack (2000) where you perform as a wild-west assistant, and aid in the snapping off of the blooms of Chrysanthemums. I might have been leaving to install 105 Chrysanthemums but it stayed with me and I realized how this flower has come to be in the Japanese/Japanese Canadian psyche. We both have used this flower; it carries many symbolic meanings, that are both nationalistic but also sentimental. I’m curious as to why you juxtaposed the image of the white chrysanthemum and the performing of this wild west ritual.
LN: As someone whose work often deals with the past and wonders if this is a valid pursuit, I have found William Faulkner’s quote reassuring, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past”2. My video Crack is all about remembering past histories. The video came about when I was commissioned by Gendai Gallery to be inspired by something within the archive at the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. I chose a lovely photograph of a Japanese Canadian man proudly standing in front of his prize-winning chrysanthemums. At the time, I was also learning tricks from a wild-west entertainer, so I decided to use the chrysanthemum as part of a bull-whip performance. I also used other types of flowers in the performance, which have their own allegories; however, it was the chrysanthemum that received the most attention. The chrysanthemum is the symbol for the Japanese Emperor and the Imperial Family, and by association it has repugnant associations with Japan’s militaristic past. It is also a symbol for many Asian countries, just as the rose is for England and other western nations.
When my mother saw the video, she was upset with seeing the chrysanthemums explode in mid-air. For her, it represented the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My mother has since passed on, but I wish I had asked her how she and others in the internment camps felt when they first heard of this horrific incident. I avoided talking to my parents about their time in the Slocan internment camp because it stirred up so many mixed feelings. Having Japanese ancestry and being Canadian can be complicated. I am always cautious when aligning myself with either culture. These sentiments are not unique. I’m sure that many people have similar sentiments about their own culture(s).
You asked about the sentimental aspects related to the chrysanthemum, but I’m not sure if I have any. Although, when I think of the exploding chrysanthemum in my video, there is a sentiment of attempting to maintain a sense of self-empowerment, no matter what circumstance you may find yourself in. What does the chrysanthemum mean to you?
CM: The chrysanthemum didn’t hold much meaning to me until my father had passed away and I took on the role of helping my mother go through his items and belongings which did include a garden and plants—some of which he inherited down from his mother. I don’t necessarily have a green thumb but I took interest in his things with a much careful eye, maybe because he wasn’t in this living world anymore, and I was really looking into everything to find a deeper understanding of him. I guess as an artist we are able to try to look or perceive something in new light, trying to make meaning and new language with what we see. The chrysanthemum has multiple references as you mentioned representing Japan’s national identity but also now has this very weighted meaning for my father or my grandmother who were also interned during the war and then exiled to Japan. Whatever meaning that flower held for them I can’t say whether it was this or that, but I would think that its connection to place, citizenship, mother tongue, and a recreation for home in Canada made it something new in this western context.
CM: When you were starting to make work during and after the Redress movement in 1988 what was your experiences as a Japanese Canadian woman making art? What might be significantly different now or the same? Did you have other mentors or artists that you could look to. Were there any collectives or groups?
LM: Women artists were not taken very seriously in the 1980s. I remember a series of videos that Elizabeth MacKenzie and Judith Schwarz made entitled I Am An Artist, My Name Is… (1986).They taped female artists from the Toronto community who would declare these words and state their name, and from there they could say whatever they liked. It was a strong acknowledgement of women artists, but now it plays as a time capsule on what it was like to be a woman artist in the 1980s. Most of the artists were very nervous at having the spotlight placed on them. At least that is how I recall my own part in the video.
During the time, being young, female and of Japanese ancestry, I wasn’t taken seriously by the Toronto art community and I don’t think they knew what to make of me. I remember someone saying to me that my work wasn’t reflecting my Asian background, while another person saying that my work had a Japanese sensibility. I would often get the worst reviews in the local newspapers by many of the leading male reviewers of the day. But I would also receive insightful comments from writers such as Dot Tuer, Carole Corbeil and others, which were very encouraging. As a result, I never felt a part of the Toronto art scene or perhaps I never wanted to be. However, there were Japanese Canadian artists and many others that I saw as role models. They never seemed to get a lot of attention or were a major part of any group, but they all did significant work. Independent thinkers who followed their own paths without worrying what others thought. I have always been attracted to people who don’t follow a group or seek attention. They have shown me how to pursue a life in art.
Around the time of the Redress movement in 1988, there weren’t many Japanese Canadian female role models except for Aiko Suzuki. I always admired Aiko’s energy and courage to be bold and to start things such as Gendai Gallery, the Ai Symposium and the Japanese Canadian Artists’ Directory. Things that others would never have attempted. Another role model was Nobuo Kubota (Nobby), who was my instructor at the Ontario
College of Art [now OCADU]. I have to admit that I didn’t go to class much, but Nobby seemed to understand that I was really interested in making art and he rented me a part of his studio where I could make my work. Nobby led by example rather than taught. I suppose it was his individuality or attitude towards being your own person that I liked about him. One day I saw him walking while photographing the top and sides of his head with a Polaroid, unaware and not caring if anyone saw him. Perhaps Nobby and Aiko are remnants of the hippy generation that chose to follow their own independent paths, but through them, I saw a way that I could make my own work without receiving approval from a group.
Kazuo Nakamura (Kaz) was also someone who I see as a mentor. I wish I had kept in better contact with him, but I remember that he was always encouraging me and would come to my artist talks and exhibitions, while also inviting me to see his work. I can’t remember his theory on numbers and mathematics, but I remember a story he wanted to pass on to me. He said that Goodridge Roberts told him that there were many better artists than himself [Roberts], but they stopped making art and no one remembers them or is interested in their work … the important thing is to keep making art and to never stop. Of course, Kaz was a significant artist and some would say his work stood apart from many artists of his generation. He had a singular voice that comes from a life-long commitment to making art. At the Ai Symposium, I remember Kaz saying, “There were no arts grants for my generation of artists”. Someone then asked “What did you do then?” Kaz replied, “Starve”.
The role models I looked to were a generation or two older than me. They had to be fiercely independent to make their work, even if the circuit they performed in was small and somewhat closed. Today, the idea of the group or being interconnected with artists, audience and curators is of more significance. There are so many more opportunities for artists to participate in other communities through residencies or exhibiting internationally. It has changed the way art is being produced and received. Your work reaches many different groups and organizations. How do you think this changes your perspective on making art and notion of audience? Are we losing a sense of local or regional issues in art or does this matter?
CM: I have had the opportunity to make work in spaces that are not the typical white cube, gallery space. These places can be on a boat tracing the coastline of the Japan Sea, in a community kitchen with Japanese Canadian elders, in a classroom with children in the neighborhood of Strathcona, for a dinner in someone’s home, etc. They are places that require a different type of audience with a different set of rules, manners, and ways of being in shared space together. I feel that these projects have given me insight into how I imagine what my art practice can be and how it can exist at a micro and intimate level. I feel like there still remains artists who are interested in there here/now in the sense of local and regional—or wanting to redefine the more personal ways of the reception of work and the ways in which artists create meaning.
CM: What kinds of directions are your works headed towards now? What kinds of activities are happening in your studio?
LN: Most recently my work seems to be leaning towards landscape. In a recent video Searchers (2016), I am performing with a bunch of tumbleweeds in the suburbs just outside of Toronto. The work speaks about colonization and negotiating space within a foreign landscape.
I am also reworking a short film that takes place in Tapiola, Finland, a city inspired by Ebenezer Howard’s concepts for a garden city. I grew up in Don Mills, which is also considered a garden city, so maybe that’s why I’m interested in utopic ideals regarding land use. This summer I will be photographing landscapes with buildings that reflect Roman, Greek, Turkish, and medieval design, iconic forms that have dominated western architecture.
I’m not sure where this recent interest in landscape comes from, but it could be an attempt to locate myself in the world and to ask questions related to identity. In the past, whenever I was asked about my ancestry and where I came from, I would always say that I was Japanese Canadian, locating my identity from the time my grandparents came to Canada. I didn’t know very much about Japan, so I didn’t feel I could claim this culture as my own. Now that my parents and grandparents have passed away, I feel I’m not as conscious of my identity. I would like to think that I’m re-situating myself in the world and attempting to be present in the moment, but it’s likely a result of getting older and realizing that things change.
- Jessi Hempel, “Melinda Gates’ New Research Reveals Alarming Diversity Numbers,” The Wired, December 9, 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/melinda-gates-mckinsey-diversity-research-alarming/
- William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (New York: Random House, 1951).
drawing Notes by Cindy Mochizuki in response to Midi Onodera and Louise Noguchi. ink on paper, 2018–2019
to view the artworks by Louise Noguchi please visit: Louise Noguchi
to view the artworks by Midi Onodera please visit: Midi Onodera