German video artist criticizes Western stereotypes of Japan
By Joel Tannenbaum
Special to The Advertiser
By Joel Tannenbaum
When it comes to Hawai'i, German-born video artist Bjørn Melhus, whose installation "Eastern Western Park" is at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, asks the right questions. "What is Hawai'i?" poses Melhus. "It's not east, it's not west. It's something by itself."
For this reason, Melhus is thrilled to bring "Eastern Western Park" to Honolulu. Originally designed for Tokyo's Spiral Garden gallery, the video installation features six video screens and a virtual "campfire" (of TVs flashing red) inside a bamboo-and-Mylar tepee. The piece criticizes German stereotypes of Japan (which are heavy on creepy sex-tourist stuff, if the frequency of images of fortysomething Melhus dressed as a schoolgirl are anything to go by) but does so in an unusual way, drawing upon the work of Karl May, the late-19th century German author who wrote imaginative pulp novels about the American West and the Middle East, despite never having visited either place.
May's wild-west novels became the basis for dozens of films made in Germany in the 1950s and 60s, and comprise some of the earliest memories of many people who grew up in postwar Germany, including Melhus.
Cowboys, their adversaries, and images of Japanese technological and sexual excess are bolstered by sounds from films adapted from May's novels, as well as Japanese samurai films from the 1950s and '60s.
Add stage lighting, heavy repetition and science-fiction ambience, and you have a sense of the overall feel of "Eastern Western Park."
So what's the connection between German cowboy movies and manga? May's canned, cowboy-and-Indian imagery got Melhus thinking about how stereotypes come into existence.
"The idea is basically the misunderstanding of culture, mistranslating, stereotyping," says Melhus of "Eastern Western Park." Throughout the exhibition, Wild-West stereotypes available to Germans in the 1960s jostle with the stereotypes of Japan available to them in the 1980s and 90s: futuristic, fetishized, amoral, ultra-urbanized. May's novels, says Melhus, "are just an imagination of the Wild West. When I was asked about doing the piece I thought, What I know about Japanese culture is maybe exactly the same amount that someone like Karl May knows."
The exhibition, Melhus says, was meant to work like a theme park. "What we do with theme parks is stereotype cultures." This broadens the scope of much of his previous work, which often simply focused on America's cultural influence upon its neighbors in Western Europe.
Born in 1966 in Kircheim, Germany, Melhus was part of what he describes as the "first German TV generation." Raised on "Flipper," "Lassie" and other images generated in American television studios, Melhus developed what he described as a "love-hate relationship" with the country that radically reshaped Germany after its disastrous experiment with fascism in the 1930s and '40s.
"When I think about my social context," says Melhus, "there was the reality of kindergarten and stuff, but then I had this world behind the screen, and that was always American."
Later, when Melhus graduated from the Braunschweig School of Arts and traveled to Los Angeles on a fellowship to study at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts, these images returned to haunt him. "I thought, 'I've been here before.' It's completely in your subconscious."
But is Melhus' work really about America? He frequently cites News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch as he criticizes America's cultural influence on the world, an argument flawed by the fact that Murdoch is Australian. When pressed, Melhus clarifies: "This is a critique of capitalism. When Rupert Murdoch says he wants to Americanize the world, it's about capitalism. I mean, selling capitalism as something that's so shiny that makes you so happy, that makes everyone live a perfect life."
And Americans, according to Melhus, exemplify this vision of capitalism. "I remember one of the first things that came out after 9/11 was that people said, 'Oh these guys, they are just jealous of our lifestyle.' And of course, this is not the point."
Besides America, theme parks and commerce, Melhus' other favorite subject is ... Melhus. Like fellow conceptual artist Cindy Sherman, Melhus is a self-portraitist. Past installations have footage of him as a televangelist, a talk-show host and Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz." Casting himself, according to Melhus, insures that his work invites layers of interpretation.
"We have this layer of media, or social critique," he says, "and there is also like a personal story going on, a psychological story."
And like Sherman's eerie, cinematic photographs of herself, video installations like Melhus' must have seemed a bit more dangerous in the 1980s than they do now. Just as the retro-chic and vaguely feminist critique of media chauvinism ushered in by Sherman's Untitled Film Stills are now fairly mainstream, "Eastern Western Park" tells us something we already know: that mass media's job is to make people buy things, an argument advanced throughout the 1990s by Adbusters magazine and then driven home by the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization riots and the film "Fight Club."
Shows like Melhus' are part of the Honolulu Academy of Art's broader effort to earn its stripes as a full-service metropolitan art museum. In December 2004, it kicked off its "Contemporary Masters" series with a solo retrospective show devoted to latter-day German surrealist Neo Rauch. Melhus is hot stuff, thanks to his well-received contributions to the Whitney's controversial 2003 group show "The American Effect."
Whatever reception "Eastern Western Park" receives at the academy, the best outcome of Melhus' visit would be a project in which he turns his eye for stereotypes and mistranslation to the 50th state. The idea has crossed his mind. Melhus prepared for his stay by watching Elvis' Hawai'i movies.
"After 1959, from that point this whole tourism started. And they started to sell this idea to the audience as a place to go to and to have this cheesy vacation experience. I was really amazed, like three movies were produced with Elvis Presley, just selling these Islands with a certain ... I mean, these are so bad."
Despite having been in Honolulu only a few days before "Eastern Western Park" opened, Melhus picked up immediately on the human costs of Hawai'i's chosen development path since the 1950s. "What is the idea about Hawai'i that is out in the world?" he asks. "If I would do an 'Eastern Western Park' just with Hawaiian stuff, it could be something really bad, ideas about hula dancing. That's what's out there. That's what's used in the media, that's what's in the comic strips. That makes me very sad."
Melhus came ready to work, with video and sound equipment in tow. If he can debunk stereotypes about Japan using German cowboy movies, let's see what he can do with "Blue Hawaii."
'Eastern' a culture lost in translation
"BJØRN MELHUS: EASTERN WESTERN PARK"
THROUGH JAN. 29
CLARE BOOTH LUCE GALLERY
HONOLULU ACADEMY OF ARTS