Why are we doing art at all? An interview with Eiko Honda

August 16, 2016 · Print This Article

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

Page 2 of the 1883 Japanese translation of Leviathan. Courtesy of the National Diet Library Digital Collection, Japan.

What happens to a word when it is introduced to a foreign language? What kind of concepts and realities are engendered? There is something viral and adaptive about the conveyance of ideas. The new word “Anthropocene,” for instance is interesting to track—although it might carry an immediate potency, it doesn’t have the history of other words, vs. “Leviathan,” for instance, or “equality.” A few weeks after the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum, UK-based curator and philosopher, Eiko Honda, and I met to discuss the curious way terms refract through culture. She is the 2013-2016 curatorial fellow of the Overseas Study Programme for Artists, Agency for Cultural Affairs, Japan. Recent exhibitions she worked on include Ting-Tong Chang: P’eng’s Journey to the Southern Darkness, Asia House, London (2016); Saya Kubota: Material Witness, Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation, London (2016); and Missing Post Office UK, Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2015).

Caroline Picard: In your talk, “Japanese Nature? Between Language and Landscape,” you describe a linguistic paradigm shift that emerges when when an ideographical language (like Japanese or Chinese) meets a phonetic language (like English or German). As you describe it, the tension of that encounter can eventually yields a shift in thought. Does that shift relate all to the idea of authority?

EH: I think it’s related to the question of who is the authority creating or translating a language. I’m personally very interested in the role of the agent. Let’s say in “Anthropocene,” for instance, there are currently two different ways of articulating that word in Japanese and I’m not entirely sure which one we have settled on. One of the words is written with the sign for “a person” and the sign for “a new age.” The other is written as “mankind” or the age of mankind. The first possibility follows patterns of translations from the previous epochs, matching for instance how “Holocene” was translated. Depending on who actually translates the term and what kind of specialty that person has as far as academic study and political ideology, the implications can be quite different.

CP: How has that interest influenced your research?

EH: I’ve been looking at how the notion of “ecology” was introduced into the Japanese language at the beginning of the 20th century, as it compares to other everyday words which, in regular use now, were introduced by Miyoshi Manabu —a plantologist. Manabu studied in Germany in the late 19th century. He was a government bureaucrat well-known for introducing a policy to protect rare species of trees, and for introducing the term “ecology.” Miyoshi created the term seitaigaku as the Japanese translation of the English term ecology in his book Futsuu shokubutsu seitaigaku/The Ecology of Common Plants in 1908. On the other hand, he had a contemporary Minakata Kumagusu who never really finished school but nevertheless ended up in London working in the British Museums. As an alternate transliteration of “ecology,” Kumagusu gave it a different spelling.[1] The clear difference is that whereas one of the sei conveys the living things themselves and focuses on the life of the creature or plant, the other sei suggests rather a “nest” and “house”—that is, a safe comfortable sphere and space in which all living things can exist. Despite numerous essays and research notes he produced on all topics from the phenomenological study of Shingon Buddhism to science of the time to a reference on 19th Century England’s Commons Preservation Society in his activism against Shirine Amalgamation Act that concurrently caused industrialization nature, which threatened habitat of his focus of research slime molds, he never ended up publishing a comprehensive work on his theory of ecological thoughts as such. However, what is strongly implied is that he urged ecology as an interdependent community of life that supports the production of each others’ habitat. Whereas Miyoshi focused on the preservation of specifically rare trees, Kumagusu saw the importance of not even removing weeds, because weeds are part of an overall ecology sustaining the delicate nature of the primeval forest, and thus produced what the naturalist saw as the wonder of living things. Miyoshi and Kumagusu’s approaches to ecology were comparable, but significantly different.

CP: In a funny way, I feel like you are suggesting that something as small as a single word or idea can have similarly large effects—

EH: I think, in a sense, words and languages we use are one of the most fundamental commons that affects scope of human imagination. Depending on when a term is introduced to certain cultures and by whom can lead to significantly different outcomes. Cultivating the similar line of inquiries, I recently wrote a short paper for the forthcoming publication The Nuclear Culture Source Book (Ele Carpenter ed., Black Dog Publishing) inspired by how the idea of “individual” in the West wasn’t introduced into Japanese language until the end of the 19th century. Before that time, they didn’t have an equivalent word that would articulate such notion. People back then had a different conception of how the world was organized. It’s also important to pay attention to the context in which the notion was transliterated. When the word kojin, or individual, first appeared as it is used today in 1884, it was in a translation of a book Kokka Seiri Gaku or the “Physiology of Nation” written by the German—well Prussian, at that time—diplomat and grossdeutsch thinker Constantin Franz who urged federalism with a monarch, where a selected—not elected—council would advise the sovereign and make decisions. The same word was presented together with a translation of selected chapters from Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 Leviathan.

CP: What brought on the publication?

EH: The book was published right after the coup d’etat of Meiji Year 14 in 1881 at the Japanese parliament, during which the government was trying to form a modern constitution; there was a dispute about whether they should follow a Prussian model or a British one. Political leaders of the Freedom and People’s Rights Movement believed in the latter one; they were engaged with Franco-British social theories as reasoning ground. However, they were expelled from the government as a result of the coup, marking a shift in the government’s translation of political theories to Prussian philosophies.[2]

CP: What role did the Leviathan play?

EH: The translated version of Leviathan was introduced in combination with that other, Constantine Franz’s publication entailing the individual as somebody with equal, free and independent existence that would not be violated from the power of the state or any others, regardless of its occupations or social position.[3] When the Leviathan was translated in this context, however, the first chapter wasn’t included, and the second chapter, especially the part that discusses the absolute power of the sovereign state, was meticulously translated. That first chapter includes Hobbes’ theory of human nature, describing how an individual only exists outside the society. It only gains citizenship and enters human society in contract with the authoritarian power of sovereign. So, what is suggested here is that the individual was introduced in a context that makes the very origin of the idea in the constitutional narrative.

CP: Are you suggesting that Hobbes’s writing changed Japanese culture differently?

EH: There is a huge difference between reading an original text and a text that’s been only partially translated with a different structure of argument, or another version of the same text that has been translated differently, for instance one that has been heavily edited, presented without its very important introduction and first chapter. Those omissions can limit readers or human imagination from possibilities of what “individual” might mean.

CP: How have you been thinking about this in terms of the Anthropocene?

EH: Attending the HKW’s Anthropocene Curriculum certainly made me think about that. In fact, I am currently working on a short text for the forthcoming edition of the Japanese-English journal 5: Designing Media Ecology edited by one of our conveners from the AC campus, the artist Andrew Yang, on the theme of the “Anthropocene.”  I look forward to feedbacks from our fellow participants and readers when it is done.

CP: I wonder how the idea of individuality changes in relation to large-scale environmental events. Maybe because I know your essay in The Nuclear Culture Source Book is about “Atomic Subjectivity,” and we’ve talked a little about social practice in Japan, I was wondering if you thought current interests in social practice in Japan might be connected at all to Fukushima?

EH: There’s been so much discussion around that for sure. Not everybody changed their nature of practice, but just as 9/11 completely shocked everyone in the US, there were urgent questions amongst practitioners who had cultural ties to Japan about what art could do and where it stands under the circumstances; in a sense, questions of collective responsibilities were addressed whilst conveying expressions of individual thoughts, interests, and concerns. I can never generalize, but it seems to me that whereas widely canonized older generations of contemporary artists in their late 40s and 50s were more concerned about their place within Western art history and the international market during their youth, increasing numbers of younger artists have started to question the importance of international esteem. Now the question has more to do with, “Why are we doing art at all?” I’m personally interested in the latter concern and trying to find a different idea of art history, or a different way of narrating artworks that might not necessarily fit within the established convention of Art History.

CP: What might that look like?

EH: I would like to think that it would be more to do with historiography of artistic practice that entails a possibility for empowerment of everyday life of everyday human beings—not necessarily just of artistic “genius” and heroes. As we know, grand-narrative histories have been written by certain identities to serve interests of certain race, culture, power, and gender and not of others. Whilst working with living artists to create a space of engagement—such as exhibitions, talk events, and published texts—with living minds of diverse culture, I came to think that these are acts of creating or amplifying narratives of what might be significant and otherwise potentially dismissed; to me, to consciously take part in the narrative making is, in a sense, to take part of the collective responsibility mentioned earlier. Re-evaluation of seemingly mundane languages that created the grand narratives of human history through investigations beyond the disciplinary convention of Art History felt like an important initial step to take. For example, the art historian Kinoshita Naoyuki has discussed how the idea of artwork—which is nowadays recognized with this word, sakuhin, in Japanese—is written in Chinese as a sort of product that’s being made. That word, that term for artwork didn’t really settle in our language until after the 1940s. Before that period, artwork was called sakubutsu. It’s spelled as an object that’s been made, but sakubutsu, if you write it and if you don’t put it in a context or tell anyone what’s it’s about, it can also be read sakumotsu. It’s exactly the same writing. Sakumotsu in our contemporary language today means vegetables or a harvest that have been gathered from your field—rice, or anything that you harvest from your soil. I’m interested in finding these kinds of underlying thought that have been hidden in history. Could we possibly investigate these different terms further and, in doing so, find a potential tool or a method for a new kind of language? One that might narrate practice without falling into a standard idea of art history or art historical narrative?

CP: Subtle shifts like that can have large and lasting consequences, even to the extent that they might destabilize hierarchies, or disrupt ingrained patterns of hierarchical thinking. What you propose is like a form of non-aggressive resistance, because you’re just posing a question that says, “Well, what happens to our configuration,” for instance, “of the art world or of the way we define art if we imagine that an artwork and a vegetable equate to one another?”

EH: Yes, exactly, and it’s also related to the widely discussed issue of modernity. What does it mean to be modern? And can we possibly find a different kind of modernity by narrating our current issues and past events differently? Might that change the future as well? And of whom? How can we try to extend one’s imagination beyond our established conventions? The historiography of language—of one of the most fundamental commons—and of artistic practice that works with the human tool of imagination— might have some answers to the queries.


This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.



[1] The particular difference between these two trajectories of ecology has been discussed by Takeuchi Yoshinobu, the Kumagusu scholar and chief curator of Wakayama City Museum.

[2] Takahashi Shinji, “Kindai Nihon to Hobbs/Modern Japan and Hobbs,” Nishi Nippon Shimbun February 19, 1992, 51.

[3] Sait? Tsuyoshi, Meiji no Konoba, Higashi kara Nishi no Kakebashi (Tokyo: K?dansha, 1997), 229.

How to Respond to the Missing: Anish Kapoor and Ai Weiwei

May 11, 2011 · Print This Article

Yesterday I came across this interview about Ai Weiwei. The interview takes place between Spiegel International and Roger Buergel, a curator who first invited Ai Weiwei to Documenta in 2007. Buergel is certainly quotable, and the thrust of his sentiment is that Western artists are not as bent out of shape about Ai Weiwei’s absence as we ought to be; he suggests an unconscious but palpable jealousness as the cause of our apathy. “Young Western artists are producing works that amount to nothing more than footnotes in art history, and then this Chinese artist appears who takes a totally different approach and makes 98 percent of the art world look very, very old.” It definitely shocked me into paying attention—what is perhaps the larger point of such statements. It is not about what is being said, but what might be done.

Ai Weiwei has been missing for 38 days, since the Police refused to let him board a plan to Hong Kong. His latest disappearance was not his first run-in with Chinese government authority. According to an earlier article in The Washington Post, “In 2009, in the western city of Chengdu, Ai was beaten so badly that he required surgery to have blood drained from his brain. Late last year, he was stopped at Beijing’s airport from flying to South Korea because authorities feared he might go to Oslo to attend the Nobel ceremony for Liu [2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner].” He was also prevented from having an exhibition in Beijing.

At the same time, I’m not sure what Buergel wants from us. What exactly is his call to action? It seems to me that twitter, facebook and a plethora of media outlets have been regularly fore fronting their concern for Ai Weiwei’s whereabouts. Petitions have been circulating for months now and artists have been making work in tribute. “Anish Kapoor has dedicated his largest ever artwork – a truly enormous cathedral-like space made from inflated PVC – to the missing Chinese artist Ai Weiwei” (Guardian); Kapoor’s installation opens today, May 11th, and will be open to the public until June 23rd at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is called Leviathan, after Hobbes’ instrumental work about social-political structures. Kapoor suggest all the galleries and museums in the world close down for a day, in honor of this missing colleague.

What an amazing thought.

It’s horrifying—the idea of someone getting swept up into absence. Of course it’s unacceptable that anyone would have to undergo such an ordeal. Yet there seems to be a message in Ai Weiwei’s particular missing-ness, because he boasted such an international profile. “‘If they are willing to go this far with someone like him, then all bets are off,’ said Joshua Rosenzweig, who heads the Hong Kong office of the Dui Hua Foundation, a human-rights organization” (Wall Street Journal).

It is important to counter a sense of powerlessness. I certainly have no idea what someone could do to impact this situation, perhaps in part because there is nothing to see. The action—whatever it is—takes place out of public view, in impossible-to-reach cloisters. Only the absconding was visible.  We have no direct access to the artist, only public-go-betweens. Governments are big and it feels difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how to influence such powers. Nevertheless, Kapoor takes a positive step towards a solution, outlining a possible path in order to participate in an action that is poetic, peaceable and demonstrative of a trans-national solidarity.