Tsuyoshi Ozawa’s Art: A Review of “The Return of K.T.O.”


The Return of K.T.O., 2017, Mixed Media
Photo courtesy of the Organizing Committee for Yokohama Triennale
Installation view: Yokohama Triennale 2017

by Jeremy Woolsey

I first learned of Tsuyoshi Ozawa while reading the critic Noi Sawaragi’s influential book Japan // Contemporary // Art 日本・現代・美術. Sawaragi argues that modern Japanese art has been characterized by a constant return to a Bad Place 悪い場所, i.e., a site of simultaneous cultural domination by, and reflexive longing for the West, since its inception in the early Meiji period (1868-1912). According to Sawaragi, this Bad Place, which crystallized in the 1955 consolidation of the Japanese political system and the beginning of American military intervention in Vietnam in the same year, makes it impossible to write a conventional (read: linear) history of postwar Japanese art. At best, art movements in Japan lead back over and over again to the same spot in oblivion— one that prevents Japanese and Western art from being presented as equals in the progression of art history. Needless to say, this Bad Place casts a shadow over the efforts of all Japanese artists, especially those who fail to confront it. Here, I’ll introduce Sawaragi’s analysis of Ozawa, if only to convey my own point of entry to the artist’s work:

I want to ascertain the essence of Ozawa’s three representative projects [translator’s note: Jizoing, Advice, Nasubi Gallery] not in terms of some grand and hence overwhelming theory, but by likening them to aspects that make up our “everyday” in modernity: 1). Aimless wandering, 2).  The wretchedness of relying on others 他力本願の哀れさ, and 3). Gloom 暗さ… 1). Ozawa’s efforts to make and move Jizo statues, at first glance conceptual, in the end demonstrate idleness: they must be carried out ceaselessly without a clear objective, never reaching anywhere. 2). His work demonstrates the base despair of having to rely exclusively on others— of wanting to express something but not knowing how to do so, of endlessly asking others, “What should I do?” 3). These projects, in the forms of decrepit Jizo statues on the roadside, half-hearted attempts at consultation, or peeling milk crates, derive from the darkness of the everyday in Japanese modernity— precisely because of this, they can’t be embodied by the “light” or “positive” progression of Western conceptual art. (130)

Tsuyoshi Ozawa

I contacted Ozawa shortly after finishing the book and asked for an interview (I was unaware at the time of his most recent project The Return of K.T.O.—a multimedia meditation on the life of the writer, curator and art educator Kakuzō Okakura). We met at the Tokyo University of the Arts Cafeteria and, after exchanging some pleasantries, I cut to the chase:

“What do you think about Sawaragi’s writing on your art?”

“I think he’s got a point, but it’s pretty one-sided… I don’t see it as being that depressing.”

He smiled. I chewed on a piece of chicken katsu.

Of course, the artist never agrees with the critic— I was stupid to have expected anything else. The question then became this: how else to understand Ozawa’s work than as an expression of the hopelessness of the Bad Place? As I later learned, he’s not the only one to question this bleak view of Japanese art history— the Bad Place has been criticized (most bitterly by the artist Naoyoshi Hikosaki in his book écriture) for denying the agency of Japanese artists as well as being nothing more than an emblem of Sawaragi’s own frustrated expectations. What I want to do is sketch out a tentative framework for understanding the underlying aspects of Ozawa’s art practice in dialogue with two other of Sawaragi’s terms: Tariki-Hongan and Simulationism.

To start, I’ll take up Sawaragi’s use of a metaphor in the quote above that traces back to the Shin Buddhist tradition, namely Tariki-Hongan 他力本願. The word traditionally indicates utter devotion to Amida Buddha 阿弥陀仏in the hope that he will appear on your dying day to take you to the Pureland 極楽浄土. It’s the polar opposite of Jiriki 自力, which emphasizes self-reliance for salvation. While Sawaragi characterizes Tariki-Hongan as being fundamentally passive (i.e., the artist awaiting corroboration from the West), and thus indicating weakness and despair, an alternate reading is possible: Tariki-Hongan represents a joy that modernity’s emphasis on individuality barred off to many— the joy of realizing your fundamental need of the Other, whether it’s taken in a religious sense to indicate the Amida Buddha’s grace, or an artistic one to indicate the viewer or participant. Put another way, it is the joy of entrusting yourself to something outside of yourself. In this latter reading, Tariki-Hongan becomes a convincing alternative for an exhausted “relational art” and, more specifically, a constructive term for analyzing Ozawa’s interest in including a wide range of people and places in his art. Perhaps no series better embodies this than Ozawa’s Advice Art 相談芸術, first conceived of in 1991. In this project, the artist attempted to develop work exclusively based on the feedback and guidance of participants— to reduce his own existence to that of a conduit for the expression of the Other. While this could be read as simply a reflection of the 90s boom in relational art, it has specific connotations inside of Ozawa’s work, and as such shouldn’t eclipsed by American and European definitions of the form.

Ozawa often incorporates Buddhist themes and images in his art, even if he’s not interested in creating explicitly “religious” work. Hence, the term Tariki-Hongan is appropriate for characterizing Ozawa’s interest in the Other as an alternative to relational aesthetics. He admitted in our interview that Jizoing (which the artist started while he was still at Tokyo University of the Art in the late 80s) was partially inspired by his affinity for the Edo era artist Enkū  円空 (1632-1695)— a peripatetic Buddhist sculptor who reportedly created over 120,000 Butsuzo (Buddhist sculptures仏像) over the course of his life. In Jizoing, Ozawa evokes Enkū’s famed wanderlust, traveling widely throughout Japan, China, India and Europe, among other places, to photograph a small Jizo statue he carries with him (later, hand-drawn pictures of the Bodhisattva). The series creates random, fleeting encounters between sentient and insentient beings. Additionally, it doesn’t matter that onlookers may not recognize or understand Jizo as the Bodhisattva who rescues those who have fallen into hell (nor it would make sense to assert the artist necessarily emphasizes this view): the small Jizo statue gains new meaning through being decontextualized from its traditional and aesthetic role in Japan. A symbol of salvation in Japanese Buddhism and folk religion becomes an occasion in itself for meetings outside of history.

Jizoing: Peshawar [Pakistan], 1988, 24.5 x 24.5 cm, type C print

This decontextualization of Jizo leads me to touch on Simulationism, another one of Sawaragi’s key concepts. A little background on the term: Ozawa was involved in the group Small Village Center alongside with Takashi Murakami and Masato Nakamura in the early 90s, which restaged performance pieces of the 60’s avant-garde group High Red Center (in a style similar to Mike Bidlo). Sawaragi sees this group as representing a thoroughly postmodern ethos that he labels simulationism— with the end of history (i.e., the linear progression of modernism) and the rise of appropriation artists in the U.S. and Japan in the 1980s, artists have become free to rip apart narratives of (art) history and rearrange them to create hybrid statements that overturn notions of originality. He likens the activities of such artists to gravediggers in his Simulationism Lecture: “they freely borrow from the all the forms buried in the past… and revive them as zombies” (16). This term proves useful for analyzing the underlying themes of Ozawa’s work, specifically his inventive recontextualization of historical symbols and figures.

Depiction of the destruction of Buddhist sculptures in the early Meiji Period— notice Jizo in the bottom right.

Ozawa draws on the fragmentation of Japanese history to create his work— indeed, part of the allure of Simulationism is that critics and viewers alike can find hidden commonalities or narratives inside of this history once it is appropriated by the artist. In the case of Jizoing, the scattering of Jizo images throughout the world can be read as an allegory for the exodus of Buddhist statues (Butsuzo 仏像) from temples and shrines during the early Meiji Period as part of the government’s Anti-Buddhist purge (Haibutsu Kishaku 廃仏毀釈). In 1871, under the Edict for the Preservation of Antiquities and Old Items 古器旧物保存方, the government began to collect Buddhist art and sculptures (after having actively encouraged the destruction of these forms) and through the importation of modern museums, recontextualized them as aesthetic rather than devotional objects.

Slag Buddha 88 – Eighty-eight Budda Statues Created Using Slag from Industrial Waste at Teshima, 2006
Slag, variable dimensions
Benesse Art Site Naoshima

Another one of Ozawa’s pieces— Slag Buddha on Naoshima— seems to mirror this history: Ozawa created 88 Butsuzo out of sludge from a nearby factory to simulate the famous 88 Temple pilgrimage founded in Shikoku by the monk Kūkai. These statues represent the continuing presence of Butsuzo in contemporary in Japan, but also the dissonance that underlies their existence (as seen through the industrial waste Ozawa used to make them) — are they subjects for aesthetic or religious contemplation or faith? Fine arts or technical art? Sacred or Pop? Of course there is no clear answer provided by these lonely statues, only a commentary on the ambiguity of Butsuzo in the modern era.

This tale of Butuzo—and the elements of Tariki-Hongan and Simulationism present inside of it— leads us to Kakuzō Okakura (posthumously known as Tenshin Okakura), the subject of Ozawa’s submission to the 2017 Yokohama Triennale (and the latest in his Return Of… series). In this series, Ozawa creates multimedia installations that fuse video, visual art, and poetry to convey the imagined “returns” of figures as eclectic as the bacteriologist Hideyo Noguchi, the painter Tsuguharu Fujita, and John Lennon (forced to revisit the Philippines, the site of a 1966 Beatles Tour). While he researches each character carefully, the end result is the merging of his personal experience and fantasy with the historical narrative of each subject— in effect he plucks each figure out of the current of history, transmuting them into characters that he can freely manipulate and move through the confusion of the present.

Kakuzō Okakura (1863-1913) was a brilliant but controversial figure who helped create the foundations for modern art in Japan, along with his teacher, the American Ernest Fenollosa. In 1890 he became the first dean of the Tokyo School of Fine Arts 東京美術学校, now known as The Tokyo University of the Arts (Ozawa’s alma mater and my current place of study). In the latter half of his career, Okakura was driven out of the Japanese art world over personal scandal and traveled to India in 1902, where he was influenced by figures in the anti-colonial movement such as Surendranath Tagore as well as the Irish spiritualist Sister Nidevita (who possibly ghost-wrote part of his book The Ideals of the East, known for its memorable opening line “Asia is One”). Later, Okakura became a curator and art buyer for the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. More specific to Ozawa’s interest in using Buddhist sculpture in his art, Okakura has a central role in the recontextualization of Butsuzo as figures for aesthetic appreciation:  In 1884, Okakura accompanied Fenollosa on a trip to see a hidden Bodhisattva Kannon sculpture 秘仏at Hōryū-ji temple in Nara. Here is Fenollosa’s melodramatic account of the unveiling (from Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art):

On fire with the prospect of such a unique treasure,
we urged the priests to open it by every argument at our command.
They resisted long, alleging that in punishment for the sacrilege an
earthquake might well destroy the temple. Finally we prevailed, and
I shall never forget our feelings as the long disused key rattled in the
rusty lock. Within the shrine appeared a tall mass closely wrapped
about in swathing bands of cotton cloth, upon which the dust of ages
had gathered. It was no light task to unwrap the contents, some 500
yards of cloth having been used, and our eyes and nostrils were in
danger of being choked with the pungent dust. But at last the final
folds of the covering fell away, and this marvelous statue, unique in
the world, came forth to human sight for the first time in centuries.

In this excerpt, we see Okakura and Fenollosa’s instrumental roles in arguing for the artistic value of the Butsuzo; to do so, however, they had to force this traditional expression of faith into an oculcentric modernity, as the art scholar Noriaki Kitazawa has pointed out in his book Palace of the Eyes 眼の神殿. Through such acts of disenchantment, Butuzo came to be seen and appreciated from behind the partition of the glass case (i.e., relocation to a museum), no longer primarily worshipped or physically touched (of course they remain subjects of devotion for many in contemporary Japan, but the form’s meaning lost a certain underlying consensus due to aestheticization). In his inclusion of a figure so instrumental to the current status of Butuzo, an often overlooked narrative of Japanese modernity seems to complete itself in Ozawa’s most recent work. Of course, it’s not my intention to argue that this arch has been the goal of the artist all along— rather, the artist’s simulationist tendencies allow for such narratives to emerge from the slag heap of history, and to enter the discourse of contemporary art.

Kakuzō Okakura

Moving on to discuss “The Return of K.T.O.” more concretely, I want to emphasize the element of Tariki-Hongan present in Ozawa’s method: to execute the project, he collaborated with Indian sign painters, an experimental band he discovered via the internet called Behind the Mirror, and a host of professors including the critic and dramatist Rustom Bharucha, who also contributed an analysis of the work to the show catalogue. Without these encounters and collaborations, Okakura’s return to India could never have been staged. To flip conventional wisdom in interpreting this piece, I would argue that Okakura is the means for these encounters, rather than the end. When the viewer experiences the installation work— watches the musical adaptation of a poem Ozawa wrote to describe Okakura’s travels, sees the meticulous work of the sign painters and learns of the analytical framework for the project provided by Rustom Bharucha’s personal advice and book Another Asia— he or she encounters the efforts of countless individuals put into contact with one another for a short period of time; in this, the project is completed (or rather, an open circuit is closed).

The Return of K.T.O., 2017, Mixed Media (detail). Photo: Bobby Brahma.

To me, Bharucha’s involvement in the project is one of its most exciting aspects, as he has done as much as any scholar to pursue the legacy of Okakura in the context of contemporary postcolonial thought. In Another Asia, Bharucha tackles the imperialist aspects of Okakura’s pan-Asian thought, while also addressing its importance in the context of the current impasse characterizing “postcolonial enlightenment,” that is, the troubling lack of self-reflexivity in much of academic critique today. Several of my friends mentioned to me that Okakura’s work wasn’t translated into English until the early Showa period (1926-1989), and so like Nietzsche with the Nazis, his thought was appropriated by militarists such as Shūmei Ōkawa to justify Japanese imperialism. Significantly, Ōkawa used the Buddhist metaphor of 大乗, the greater vehicle or Mahayana Buddhism’s emphasis on acts performed for the benefit of the Other, to emphasize the Japanese Empire’s “merciful” liberation of colonized lands—a perverse antithesis to the Tariki-Hongan of Ozawa’s work. While my friends are correct that Okakura’s writings were appropriated, this doesn’t mean that they are free of certain nationalist or jingoistic strains of thought. In Another Asia, Bharucha mentions the essentialist implications of Okakura’s famous conception of Japan as a museum for all of Asian culture:

Unlike the ‘magnetic triangle’ of Okakura’s aesthetic model, where tradition, nature, and originality impact on each other, there is no such interaction in Okakura’s civilizational model. Within its hierarchical framing, the civilizations of India and China are primary sources of knowledge, but, in the final analysis, rather like tributaries of a river, they flow into the mainstream of Japanese art, where Asia in all its diversity is ‘protected’ and ‘restored’.

It is easy to see how this vision of Japan as the recipient and guardian of all of Asian cultures could be read as a supercessional, emphasizing Japanese superiority to the rest of Asia. This view is reinforced in Okakura’s 1904 work The Awakening of Japan. But, as Sueki Fumihiko has pointed out in Lectures on Meiji Thinkers 明治思想家論, Okakura experienced many changes of opinion throughout the second half of his life, as well as self-contradictions. Bharucha argues that these self-contradictions, at times lapsing into self-orientalization, are informative in understanding Okakura’s modernist position, and as such should not be ignored by contemporary postcolonial scholars. In Another Asia, Bharucha examines Okakura’s relationships with a variety of Indian artists and thinkers and gives an even-handed account of both his nativist values as well as the social kinships that contradicted and complicated these.

The reality with Ozawa’s The Return of K.T.O., however, is that much of this historical context is washed away in the collaborations of artists engaged in the present. Bharucha, in his review of the piece seems to lament this reality: “Tellingly, Ozawa’s narrative does not engage with Okakura’s fall-out with Nidevita or with his troubling, often imperialist reflections on nationalism.” Of course, it would be difficult to reconcile these complex dynamics with the poetic quality of the work; without proper understanding of this history, however, Okakura’s fusion with fantasy risks obscuring the darker side of his thought. This risk is not so much indicative of Ozawa’s shortcomings as much as the danger lurking behind this mode of Simulationism. When history is scavenged to create art, it becomes unmoored, and is liable to drift away into a murky terrain that flaunts critical evaluation. To counter this tendency, viewers must remember that who they encounter in The Return of K.T.O is not Okakura, but Ozawa. Perhaps this is best represented by Ozawa’s “costuming himself in a black robe that was the official uniform of all the students and staff during Okakura’s tenure as the director at the Tokyo Bijyutsu Gakko [Tokyo School of Fine Arts]” (Bharucha) in the work. Here, the viewer might recall appropriation artists such as Cindy Sherman or Yasumasa Morimura who regularly embed themselves into familiar images in art or pop culture. The artist dives into the past, but only to wrench it away to the present—to graft it to his or her own identity.

The Return of K.T.O., 2017, Mixed Media (detail). Photo: Bobby Brahma.

So where are these characters from Ozawa’s continuing series returning too? I’d posit that Okakura is neither returning to us nor us to him. He’s returning to a place that he visited and that had a profound influence on him, but ripped out of the time and the context he knew. He cannot see or hear us, but we watch his ghost move through the streets, accompanied by the music of a contemporary Indian band. His vision of Asia, distorted by militarists, ended in disaster— imperialist aggression and war— as symbolized by the chaotic final paintings in the installation. It ended in Sawaragi’s Bad Place, but it’s more complicated than just that: Okakura’s vision of a pan-Asian identity is dead and doesn’t seem like it will be returning anytime soon. Other modernists have come and gone, and now identity politics entrench themselves as the dominant discourse in art. I’m not particularly interested in reading the piece as a call to understand Okakura’s thought and invoke it in our current milieu. Rather, it is in seeing how Ozawa drops Okakura into our confusion, lacking answers just as we do, that its meaning emerges. And of course, the core of the piece isn’t Okakura so much as Ozawa’s consistent involvement with the Other, i.e., Tariki-Hongan—an interest that has defined his career to date.