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Yuken Teruya: On Okinawa / Project Description

Illuminating Negotiation Processes

by Alexander Hofmann

Like most collections in comparable European and American museums, the Ethnologisches Museum collections and, in part, those from the Museum für Asiatische Kunst of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, were acquired largely at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Due to the context of Euro-American colonialism and imperialism at that time, collections such as these, and their means of acquisition, are generally viewed with skepticism. “Yuken Teruya: On Okinawa” explores the role that artists from the cultures of origin can play, in an attempt to involve the collections in current discourse and make tangible the negotiation processes of the present between the represented and the representing.

Within the framework of the Humboldt Lab Dahlem, the artist Yuken Teruya, from Okinawa, who now lives and works mainly in New York, was invited to enter into a discourse with the Okinawa collection belonging to the Ethnologisches Museum together with the curators there and the curators of the Museum für Asiatische Kunst. This is one of the worldwide most significant portfolios of material culture from the archipelago that, until 1879, was known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom. The core of the collection consists of 147 artifacts, largely textiles. They are the remainder of originally 469 artifacts, that, on instructions from Berlin, were collected between 1881 and 1884 by representatives of the imperial Japanese government in Okinawa. The Japanese emissaries’ task was made a lot easier due to the fact that the Ryūkyū Kingdom had been dissolved by force some years ago and subsumed into the territory of the young Japanese national state in 1879. Although the acquisition by the Berlin museums is legally unimpeachable, having been bought for the princely sum of 5843 Goldmarks, the existence of the objects in Berlin, in the context of the troubled history of Okinawa in the 20th century is, at the very least, not unproblematic. The islands were a major site of war in 1945 in battles between Japanese and US-American troops. After significant human losses, in particular amongst the local population, the traditional textile culture was largely destroyed. The islands were occupied by the US military from 1945 to 1972. To this day there is a massive military presence on the islands, which were, however, returned to Japanese jurisdiction in 1972.

Dealing with Issues of Local Identity

The artist Yuken Teruya was selected for this Humboldt Lab project because he had dealt with questions of local identity in previous work, often in cooperation with local textile craftsmen and women from his place of birth. He also brought with him experience in the dealing with artifacts from historical collection from previous projects. For “On Okinawa” the artist came to Berlin several times over a period of a year: to view the collection, choose a selection of historical objects for the presentation, hold conversations with the curators, and finally for the realization of the exhibition in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst.

The final form of presentation was developed in cooperation with all the participants. The curators had expected the artist to deal with the historical collection, the objects of which had been taken from Okinawa to Berlin, articulating it as a “loss.” However, for Teruya, the fact that the objects had been kept in safekeeping and protected from the catastrophes of Okinawa’s history in the 20th century by being in Berlin, along with the fact that this history – just like the present situation in the group of islands – was not being talked about in Berlin, held much greater relevance to him.

For the exhibition, Yuken Teruya chose a combination of different strategies. First he chose objects from the historical collection and interposed them with his own critical works dealing with the current situation in Okinawa. Second, he took on the role of “ethnologist” himself, and with the help of a network of friends and acquaintances he gathered a new collection of artifacts from the material culture, which were representative of the history of the islands during the 20th century and the current situation. The artist placed a special emphasis on the protests against the American military presence, the politics of the Japanese government, activities by environmentalists and on the “World War II Reference Center” run by Isamu Kuniyoshi. The collection, which artfully combines historic events like the brutal battles of Okinawa in 1945, as well as contemporary everyday life, like local printed flyers for burial sites, is a welcome new addition to the Ethnologisches Museum.

Thirdly he created a new textile piece of art together with local craftsmen and women, combining motifs from historical collection objects, episodes and figures from the past, present and a utopian future in Okinawa into an artful projection. Fourth, he wrote commentaries about the exhibited objects from a fictional perspective, looking back from the future. Fifth, Teruya filmed a concert in Okinawa, with traditional songs, one of which is the musical score of a poem that is inscribed on a scroll in the original Berlin collection. The poem was also the origin of a traditional dance, which was being regularly performed in the 19th century. Yuken Teruya invited the dancer Erina Nakamine from Okinawa to perform the dance for the opening of the exhibition in Dahlem, wearing cloth designed by him. This performance was also documented on film and later shown as part of the exhibition. And sixth, he talked about his intentions in a video interview.

The history and parameters of the historical collection were documented by the responsible curator in the form of an illustrated information panel. Most of the exhibited objects were hung from the display cabinet ceilings, presented, in part, floating in space, thus emphasizing the constructed character of any object-based narrative of past, present and future.

The dialog of the historical artifacts, contemporary artwork and the “new collection” allows the public, as well as the participants in the project, to take a fresh, complex and reflective look at the historical collection inventory from Okinawa. As far as the museum participants were concerned, they were very grateful for the valuable contacts they had made thanks to the artist. There is an explicit wish to show the presentation to an audience in Okinawa and to intensify exchange between Berlin and Okinawa.

The final result was a multilayered installation, which integrated the historical artifacts in a current discourse on representation. Questions of local identity, as well as domestic and intercultural power relations were dealt with. As an art installation, naturally the show had no claim to being representative. However, the mechanisms of re-exclusion as a result of the subjective position taken by the artist were received in very different ways. At least one reviewer was irritated by the fact that the issue of representation in the Museum für Asiatische Kunst was handled representatively by an artist, and/or through the medium of art. In this respect, artistic media seem suited only to a point, to fulfill the request for a dissolution of the curatorial monopoly on interpretation through the involvement of those being represented. However, they certainly serve as a welcome contribution to the updating of the historical collection inventory by tying into contemporary issues.

Dr. Alexander Hofmann has been the curator for the arts of Japan at the Museum für Asiatische Kunst since 2004.

You can find further reading on this project here.