Sion Sono exhibition showcases Tokyo Gagaga 1990’s street performance art

The Japanese film director Sion Sono is currently holding the exhibition “Whispering Star” at Gallery Garter in Kōenji, the new art space run by Chim Pom.

Sono, now a highly successful and prolific film-maker, began his career as a poet, author and performance artist. Given Sono’s cult status and that this year he is releasing multiple feature films, including a major commercial project this month alone, “Whispering Star” has been attracting quite a lot of attention.

sono sion tokyo gagaga street performance koenji gallery garter chim pom exhibition whispering star

The real highlight of the exhibition is a valuable screening of archive footage of Sono’s street performances under the soubriquet “Tokyo Gagaga” between 1992 and 1993.

sono sion tokyo gagaga street performance koenji gallery garter chim pom exhibition whispering star

Car horns blaring, Sono led his motley crew of youngsters through the streets of the Japanese capital, unfurling long banners with hand-drawn calligraphy slogans. The guru, decked out in sunglasses and funky hat, shouted into his bullhorn as he “hijacked” the streets. The shot of the Tokyo Gagaga troupe traversing Shibuya’s Scramble Crossing is particularly visually impressive, even more so given the low-fi, grainy quality of the footage. It’s like Hi-Red Center or Zero Jigen on amphetamines.

sono sion tokyo gagaga street performance koenji gallery garter chim pom exhibition whispering star

sono sion tokyo gagaga street performance koenji gallery garter chim pom exhibition whispering star

The venue is itself swathed all over in the frantic calligraphy of the banners, from the inside to the outside (creeping over onto at least another neighbouring shop), as if mummified in early 1990’s street art. The banners are even worn as robes by two girls in the first room downstairs, who read from a book of Tokyo Gagaga’s polemic to huddles of bemused twenty- and thirtysomething Tokyoites, trained in from Shinjuku with their phones ready to snap shots of their adventure in Counterculture Land.

sono sion tokyo gagaga street performance koenji gallery garter chim pom exhibition whispering star

The exhibition organisers claim that Tokyo Gagaga was a “pioneer of Hacktivism in Japan” but this is surely a misunderstanding of the term (unless Sono was also using computers, which I doubt). Instead, the street antics of Gagaga are more reminiscent of other early Heisei-era guerrilla movements, such as the anarchist band Aki no Arashi (Autumn Storm) and the nascent ramshackle activism of Hajime Matsumoto. Much of this is covered in the book Youth Movements, Trauma and Alternative Space in Contemporary Japan by Carl Cassegård.

It is apt that the exhibition is being held in Kōenji, famously the home of thrift-shop-cum-counterculture-centre Shirōto no Ran (Amateurs’ Riot), who also typify the post-Bubble (and post-Fukushima) slacker activism to which Gagaga seemingly belongs. It is likewise appropriate that “Whispering Star” is the opening show for Chim Pom’s new venue. The art unit also personify the next generation of slacker counterculture, who took the cultivated, quasi-political trappings and irreverence a step further, with more commercial results.

The exhibition’s other works are a video installation of a Fukushima-inspired science fiction film bearing the clear hallmarks of Tarkovsky, as well as images and statues of Hachikō, the dog monument that is an icon of Shibuya (and immensely popular meeting spot). Sono transposed the “faithful hound” to Fukushima and other forbidden places, introducing a Tokyo landmark to the irradiated soil. He also set up a duplicate Hachikō next to the real one at Shibuya itself as a happening attempting to “disturb the meeting point”.

These two works, though, are too sedate in comparison to the Tokyo Gagaga archive to be consumed properly, while Hachikō Project especially feels rather hackneyed and trite, at least in the way it is presented here. The sheer contrast with the noisy antics of Tokyo Gagaga along with the cramped curation of the space, while no doubt deliberate on the part of Chim Pom, do not do justice to any intent on the part of the creator.

Regardless, as activists of many different colours and creeds rally in protest at Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s riding roughshod over the Constitution, it is timely to look back and see how the young kids did rebellion twenty years ago.

The exhibition runs until July 26th and costs ¥500.

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