8 Questions for Asians Arts Museum

lord-its-the-samuraiAs previously blogged by Moye, the Asians Arts Museum — note the plural, it’s what threw me off — is a pretty detailed parody site of the Lords of the Samurai exhibit in San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. So much so that I forwarded their press release to the active blogger’s e-mail list, thinking it was a legitimate attempt for the museum to gain additional attendance by focusing on Korean slaves and their penchant for Shudō, the samurai tradition of man-boy love.

The jokes on me for that one, obviously, but given how much time and detail had been put into the website, I was curious as to the person or team behind this: do they have a problem with the museum? With samurais? A bunch of us bloggers collected some questions — some serious, others not so much — and we conducted an e-mail interview with the anonymous Asians Arts Museum staff. You’ll find their answers after the jump; you may be interested in what they have to say.

From Ernie: “So who are you guys? One person acting alone, a collective of concerned individuals? What are your backgrounds?”

We are artists, students, educators, retired professionals and concerned community members. We are many and we are one. We have backgrounds in visual art, media art, engineering, IT, “Japanese studies,” and cultural studies, but almost none of it is backed up by recognized credentials. We are a horizontal organization that way, some might say too much so.

From Ernie: “Why the anonymity for your project?”

To keep the focus on the merit of the issues raised, and make it harder to dismiss that based upon how The Man might try to marginalize us by pigeonholing based on some false notion of identity. We want it to be about the work itself. Plus anonymity can make it more fun, for both audience and us.

From Joz and Christine: “The parody site was done to look like the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. Do you have a problem with just this particular Lords of the Samurai Exhibition or a problem with the Asian Art Museum in general? What do you hope to accomplish; are you looking to stop the exhibition? To collaborate on the program?”

Concerns specific to this show provided the impetus to found the Asians Art Museum, but it’s in the context of a history of how we see Asian culture being appropriated and represented that we also consider worth addressing.

On the About page on our website, we play with the titles of previous exhibitions that to us demonstrate a patterned, systematic way of representing “Asia” in the form of idealized, romanticized, premodern fantasy. How that wordplay came about was shortly after watching the Orientalism video linked to our site, we happened to peruse the titles of previous shows and were struck by how they seemed to embody what we had had just seen described by Edward Said in that video.

Our intention is to intervene in cultural discourse by raising awareness and promoting dialogue, not just inside the museum, but in the greater public around what we see as problematic practices and what may lie behind them. We don’t entertain unrealistic fantasies about effecting institutional change, but do believe that if the general consciousness is raised at large, that only increases the likelihood of cultural change both within and external to the museum, as it relates to Asian cultural representation.

There is a widespread misperception that the way things are, the status quo, is somehow “natural.” And that’s constantly being reproduced in the culture by those who benefit most from the way things are, who are also those with the greatest resources to exert that kind of cultural influence.

So we see what we’re doing as one small act to try to intervene in the ongoing production of that kind of hegemonic culture. It’s only because the practices we are intervening in are so egregious in this case, in our opinion, that we see potential for a larger public reaction. So in that sense, their practices created the opportunity for this intervention. If we had our druthers, it wouldn’t be necessary.

Promoting a culture of violence removed from the real history of violence, at a time of war, to us reads as a cultural way of making war seem normal or natural. We strongly disagree, and so want to make visible the structures of dominance that would otherwise have all of us celebrating sword violence.

From Efren: “After going to the Asian Art Museum numerous times, honestly, I think they do a good job of presenting their pieces in a way that isn’t ‘orientalist.’ In fact, I think that the people who are complaining about it are projecting their own Asian American race/culture issues into the exhibit. Is it possible to look at these pieces for what they are, as objects, instead of giving them cultural meaning where it may not have been intended?”

Maybe we have different ideas of what Orientalist means. To us, much of what we see here fits the Orientalist narrative pretty well, as described in the video mentioned above: the repertory of familiar tropes, the image of “the timeless Oriental” and so on. There’s an emphasis on premodern tradition, “the marvels of the East,” that are “removed from history and idealized in a way that contradicts the facts of history.” Just because it’s idealized does not mean that it’s harmless; it’s highly motivated, historically by colonial hegemonic interests.

For example, we assert that in this exhibit the samurai is being to some extent removed from the whole history of violence, by emphasizing the so-called softer side without the context of what warrior culture was all about, what they actually did when not drinking tea and reading poetry.

A contrasting example we bring up on our website narrative is that of the Nazi Wehrmacht. Also highly aestheticized, but unthinkable that you could get away with celebrating the uniforms and weaponry without the context of their actual use. Why does the samurai get a pass?

It’s because of how the samurai as a symbol has been Orientalized: taken out of time, out of historical context, instead turned into another idealized “marvel of the East.” Isn’t that textbook Orientalism? What has been the purpose behind that historically, and why is it being repeated again today?

The thing is, it’s so ingrained in our culture, we don’t even see it, to the point that it seems entirely natural, so no one questions it. But isn’t it ridiculous that it would take a bunch of anonymous fringe artists, lacking any of the cultural capital of the museum, to provide the most basic history about samurai, that in fact was so easily and readily available on the internet? (e.g. the links to Thomas Conlan and Harold Bolitho, in the “Who Were They?” section on our site).

The myths are debunked right there, but instead of drawing upon the work of actual historians like these, this exhibit gives voice to Thomas Cleary. Is he a historian? No, but he’s translated, published, and sold a lot of books on “the way of the samurai,” again what we would argue is about idealized tradition removed from history. And again, isn’t that Orientalism in practice?

How does his narrative differ from the historians’? They work from primary sources to debunk myths. He’s quoted in the Chronicle saying that Samurai culture taught that “as soon as the sword is gone from the scabbard, you are defeated.” If what he said were true then a lot of samurai were self-defeating when they cut off all those noses in Korea.

So whether conscious or not, a very basic choice was made in this show about which of the directions was of greater value to their cultural agenda. Unfortunately for us in the Bay Area, it means that the general public becomes that much more imbued with mythology at the expense of history.

In this long-winded answer to Efren’s question, we suggest that it’s worthwhile examining why one would want to remove a cultural object from its context, and what dangers are posed in doing so.

From Moye: “So, uhm, with the propensity of Asian noses being flat and broad, how would it be historically possible for samurais to slice the noses off of over 38,000 victims in feudal Japan?”

Excellent question, Moye! We can tell you have not had the sublime privilege of witnessing the legendary Way in action firsthand, so we refer you to this: the greatest modern living samurai . . . as food processor! If the super slo-mo is to believed, the virtuosity is indeed mind-blowing. But what does it say about the real place for samurai in Japanese culture today? And would Musashi approve?

From Jeff: “[Let’s say you’re a museum curator.] How would you present similar material? What’s an example of an exhibit that’s portraying something right?”

We’re artists, not trained curators, and don’t have a background in museum practice, so it’s not our place to tell the museum how to do their job. We see part of our job as artists as raising issues and posing difficult questions; it’s the museum professional’s job to figure out if and how to best respond. Our most basic point is that there is value in putting things in historical context, and dangers associated from removing that context. And we question the motivation behind doing so, because the history of such practice adds up to, well, Orientalism.

From Jeff: “Do you consider this project a success? Is this a one-time project or do you have more parodies and ideas in the pipeline?”

We only really launched it a couple days ago, and so far it looks promising. Success will be measured in terms of whether or not and to what extent we were able to raise awareness of the issues and promote dialogue, and among what audiences. Early reports are that it has already had a substantial impact inside the institution, and that many of the issues raised are seen as legitimate and being taken seriously. But as we said above, they are not our primary target audience. So we’ll look forward to seeing what, if any, impact the work has on broader public discourse. And sites like yours play an important role in the process.

Using humor and parody to address complex and challenging subject matter seems to be our metier, so we’ll probably continue to employ them in our work. We can’t fully predict what the life of this project will be, but most likely the site will stay up indefinitely and potentially grow and morph in the future as a vehicle to address issues of representation that we care about, and possibly serve as an educational resource should educators and students find value in it. And we continue to work in other media as well, like printmaking and painting.

From Moye: “Cultural studies in the 21st century have focused on the timeless rivalry between ninjas and pirates; what roles do samurais play in this ongoing debate?”

Again, your level of erudition astounds! In a non-answer to your query, I offer up this exciting trailer, just forwarded to us by a faculty at an art school in Japan: perhaps the answer lies somewhere within. Samurai Princess!

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About Ernie

I'm the creator of 8 Asians and one of the editors. While I'm a regular blogger to the site as well, think of my role as Barbara Walters on "The View," except without the weird white hair. During the day, I'm a Developer for a major Internet company and live in the San Francisco Bay Area. I've also been writing in my blog, littleyellowdifferent.com, for seven years.
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