Past Imperfect, Present Tense
Yoshiko Shimada creates videos and photo-based works that explore Japanese history, women, violence, nationalism and the representation of memories. Investigating the role and responsibilities of Japanese women during the Second World War, her works have generated much controversy in her country, which prompted her move to Germany. She has now returned to Japan. She continues to explore her own identity through the history of women in Japan.
‘For me, art is a tool of self-examination and communication. In order to know who I am (an Asian, a Japanese, a woman), examining the recent past history of Japan and the role of women and what we have done to the people of Asia is unavoidable.’
Growing up in Tachikawa, near a US military base where her father worked, Yoshiko Shimada spent many of her formative years under the shadows of US military involvement in Asia. She later moved to California, USA to study fine art but returned to Japan to take up etching in 1985. Shimada produces videos and photo-based works that reflect an interest in history, women, violence, nationalism and the representation of memories.
Her exploration of such themes began following the prolonged illness and eventual death of the Showa emperor in 1988. During this period, Shimada was shocked by the failure of the Japanese press and other mainstream media in her country to reflect upon anything other than a beautified version of the past. This led her to an investigation of Japanese history during the Second World War. In prints and installation pieces, she began to question the roles and responsibilities of Japanese and other East Asian women during the war, from their positions as devoted mothers of soldiers to their involuntary prostitution as ‘comfort women’.
Faded war-era photography provided visual fragments of the past and formed the basis of her series of photo-etchings entitled ‘Past Imperfect’. Shimada had heard the stories of many Japanese women of her mother’s generation, who spoke of the suffering they experienced during the war and how they felt themselves to be victims in the conflict. Delving into libraries and archives, however, she found expressions of enthusiasm on the faces of Japanese women as they played their part in the war effort. It may have hardly seemed surprising to learn that, as Shimada puts it, the ‘image of women was something to be manipulated and consistently regarded as being essential to social control’, but her material opened up an altogether more complex reality:
‘I realised that Japanese women were not entirely voiceless victims of the male-dominated militarism. Many of them were enthusiastic fascists and willing to sacrifice themselves and to victimise others in the name of the Emperor.’
For Shimada, such a devastating conclusion cannot fail to have repercussions today. She explains, ‘after the war, the activities \of these women were never questioned and war responsibility was never deeply discussed. So the system and mentality remains the same. Without realising this, we (Japanese women) cannot reach a true understanding of ourselves or others and we will be manipulated again and again … Those who blindly accept stereotyped women’s roles in society will be blind to the power that kills, rapes and destroys.’
Such potent statements found in Shimada’s uncompromising works led to considerable controversy surrounding her works in Japan. Although her political views attracted the attention mainly of the European and English-language media in Japan, the furore was strong enough to influence her decision to leave Japan for Germany in 1993. She only returned three years later.
Focusing heavily on narratives of nationhood and gender, Shimada is aware that her works may seem unfashionable in the context of the post-1980s backlash in the contemporary art world against the privileging of identity. ‘It is easy to lament and condemn this trend, but it is more important to re-examine the problematic presentation of identity in the past,’ she says. Her works may look back to the past, but in doing so, they very much deal with the complexities of present day realities. As she describes it herself, ‘In this era of globalisation one´s identity is multi-faced and hybrid. In real life one is not just “black” or “white”. One´s cultural, sexual, even national identity is a gradation of grey. Rather than conform to black or white, one can swim through this grey zone putting on layers of identities.’
Yoshiko Shimada was born in 1959 in Tokyo where she still spends much of her time though she is now living in Awa, Chiba in Japan. She received a BA in Fine Art from Scripps College in California in 1982, and in 1985 studied etching under Katsuro Yoshida at Bigakko in Tokyo. In 1993, she moved to Germany and was guest artist at Kunstlerhaus Betanien, Berlin the following year. In 1996, she returned to Japan. Her work has been presented in solo exhibitions in many countries including Japan, Holland, Canada and the Philippines and in numerous group exhibitions worldwide.
Exhibition / Installation,
2002 ‘There’, Gwangju Biennale, Gwanju, Korea, diaspora art from around the world
2002 ‘Attitude’, Kumamoto City Museum of Contemporary Art, inaugural show of international contemporary art
2001 ‘Sex and Consumerism’ (tour) Aberystwyth Art Centre, Brighton University, etc on contemporary Japanese sexuality and society
2000 ‘Dark Mirrors of Japan’, DeAppel Foundation, Amsterdam, on contemporary Japanese art
1999 ‘Inside-Outside’, Gwangju City Art Museum, contemporary art from Korea, Japan and Scandinavia
1998 ‘Made in Occupied Japan’, collaborative work with artist Bubu on sexuality in post-war Japan
1997 ‘Flexible coexistence’, Art Tower Mito, annual exhibition
1996 ‘Gender Beyond Memories’, Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, international show about gender
1995 ‘Age of Anxiety’, Power Plant, Toronto, Canada, contemporary Japanese society and culture
1998–99 Asian Cultural Council residency at PS1, New York
1994 Kunstlerhaus Bethanien Berlin
1995 Berline kunstlerinenn stupendium