039: from Tokyo - Magnitude Zero at "Level 7"
Oyama Enrico Isamu
Date: July 11, 2011

Translator: Matsushita Manabu

On May 1, about one month and a half after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011, a satirical drawing suggesting the collapsed Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant gained immediate attention, which appeared to the empty space of the lower right of the mural "Myth of Tomorrow" by Okamoto Taro, a painter representative of Japanese modern art, in a corridor of the Shibuya station, Tokyo. Then the series of incidents were revealed to have been set by an artist collective Chim Pom, with a video uploaded on YouTube showing them installing the drawing, and with their exhibition "Real Times" held at Mujinto Production from May 20 through 25. Even now, May 25 when I'm writing this, it has still provoked controversies here and there, especially on web media such as Twitter.


See also ⇒ "Out of Tokyo 228: Quakes and Arts III"


"LEVEL 7 feat. 'Myth of Tomorrow'" | REALTOKYO "LEVEL 7 feat. 'Myth of Tomorrow'" | REALTOKYO

Some of those controversies seem just revolving around the dichotomy of "art" or "nearly criminal annoyance". Although such a discourse is often unavoidable for expressions conducted in the guerrilla manner, its outcome must be quite unproductive. This guerrilla art method of putting a satirical drawing in the public space may suggest British street artist BANKSY for instance, and in his case as well, futility of such controversies discussing "art" or "scribbles" have led stagnation in thoughts about graffiti and street art. On the other hand, the scheme of doing something outside art as an act of art has been even a basic gesture in the modern and contemporary art that has been fueled by scandals as its drive.


BANKSY "Wall and Piece" Century, The Random House Group Limited, 2005 | REALTOKYO
BANKSY "Wall and Piece" Century, The Random House Group Limited, 2005

Having remained anonymous like graffiti right after the drawing was installed there, however, the incident came to be involved in the logic of Art by uploading a video on YouTube, as though trying to behave like BANKSY, and even framing the act into an exhibition with the name of the artist Chim Pom, leading some skeptical observations. However, respect to being anonymous and disrespect to manifesting the name may well suggest desire behind the system of Art, where artists can hardly escape from their names as the fundamental unit (or, suggesting resentment from the opposite position, where the name scarcely counts). In other words, if manifesting the name is a general form of art, being anonymous is nothing more than a general form of street-art/graffiti as well, then the dichotomy of anonymity/manifestation, at least in itself, will only produce a logic emulating "inside/outside" of art. As long as remaining on the level of the word "art", analyses will end up with generalities and never attain to the structure of the very object to be examined. This text aims at presenting my thought on the act of Chim Pom with holding awareness on the points mentioned above.


The project at issue was titled "LEVEL 7 feat. 'Myth of Tomorrow'" at their exhibition "Real Times". So, let’s call the project "LEVEL 7" from here on. To begin with, what constitutes its foundation is their clever arrangement of connecting the 100th anniversary of the birth of Okamoto Taro and the Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant attracting worldwide attention. In their previous activities as well, Chim Pom has produced thought-provoking works by combining apparently incompatible contexts that contradict one another. The context manipulation in their works is so skillful that it even looks as though being textbook models of the contemporary art, such as Super Rat that overlaps the rat as negative excess of the consumption space, Pikachu (a character representative of Japanese game culture) as a pop icon, and Murakami Takashi’s Super Flat; or Thank You Celeb Project I'm Bokan that juxtaposes celebrities or luxury brand products as the symbol of the upper class and Cambodia as the third world suffering from landmines.


However, regarding that "Myth of Tomorrow" has originally depicted the scene of the atomic bomb, "LEVEL 7" appears not as a conflict of heterogeneous contexts but rather as an update to the narrative of the atomic bomb/power (in fact, Chim Pom made a remark like "we wanted to add Fukushima to the chronicle of nuclear exposure" in an interview). What comes in the forefront at "LEVEL 7" is not a tension caused by manipulating contexts, but the act of guerrilla installation as a form of expression. This method has a quality of "adding something different". And it is this Logic of Addition that requires close investigation here.


The Logic of Addition of graffiti in the public space is illustrated by Kogawa Tetsuo as follows; "the logic appears when, for example, one has written 'fuck' on a white wall, to which some one else adds 'you' then another will add '-rself!' to develop 'fuck yourself!'(*1)". This example suggests two things. First, the target of the words continuously slides away every time a new addition is made. Suppose that the first one targets the word to the general mass passing through the public space, then the second one replies back to the first one. And the third one is supposed to target his "fuck yourself!" to the second one. If such scenes keep going, it will lead détournement of the meaning (International Situationist) just like graffiti in London, which rewrote "BUS STOP" to "BUSH STOP".


"STREET ART AND THE WAR ON TERROR" Edited by Eleanor Mathieson, texts by Xavier A. Tapies, Rebellion Books, 2007 | REALTOKYO
"STREET ART AND THE WAR ON TERROR" Edited by Eleanor Mathieson, texts by Xavier A. Tapies, Rebellion Books, 2007

Second, it [the Logic of Addition] will create the blank. If a blank is initially visualized within itself like "fu k," it is easy to make up "c" there. But if "fuck" is given, the writer needs to imagine that it can potentially become "fuck you" then willfully read a blank for "you" by himself. What is remarkable here is that a potential space is worked out at this moment, which means the blank itself is newly created there. If applying this relation of word/letter to that of frame/space in the city, it is possible to think of this as the issue of how new blank=space for expressions is created in the public sphere.


These qualities of guerrilla expression are in fact hardly utilized in "LEVEL 7". The context of "Myth of Tomorrow" was rather reinforced, not converted at all, and the space where the drawing appeared was "already" visualized in the lower bottom of the mural. The space for expression was not created, rather filled as if a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It is difficult to state that "LEVEL 7" has produced anything more than extending several decades to the narrative of "Myth of Tomorrow" and dozen inches to its canvas.


BANKSY "Wall and Piece" Century, The Random House Group Limited, 2005

However, "LEVEL 7" becomes interesting when compared with practices of street artists like BANKSY or ZEVS. In the moment BANKSY sprayed the stencil "DESIGNATED GRAFFITI AREA" to a blank wall, mocking the "NO GRAFFITI" notice, the wall as a physical entity re-presented itself as an apparatus already involving interactive circuit games, neither as restriction from authorities nor as resistance from the street. Or, when ZEVS in his "VISUAL KIDNAPPING" cut out the picture of a model from the LAVAZZA company’s billboard then requested money with proclaiming it as kidnapping, the billboard that had transformed from an empty sign to a literally empty hole (a cut-out silhouette) came to reconfigure itself as an empty centre to drive a diplomacy game between a global corporation and a guerrilla artist. I want to think of those cases of BANKSY and ZEVS as not filling the blank state of walls or advertisements with meanings or signs, but rather as directly drawing out fields where these two conflict each other.


"ZEVS: ELECTROSHOCK" (c) NY Carlsberg Glyptotek & the authors, 2008

Such attempts are perhaps something fresh, especially to traditions of graffiti or street art. Kogawa’s analysis on scribbles had initially emerged out of the age of political turmoil in the 60s-70s as its background, and as I have already mentioned, it is based on the logic of addition. Later through the 80s and 90s, "scribbles" had become "graffiti", as known quite widely, entering into a new mode as a subculture. Graffiti then became not to add a new one over others already there or to manipulate signification of the place, but they set its mission as going-over, that is, overwriting the urban space with their names as signs, which had decisively differed from scribbles in the 60s. However, "DESIGNATED GRAFFITI AREA" and "VISUAL KIDNAPPING" have advanced a step ahead by revealing the system (architecture) on which scribbles/graffiti games have grounded themselves.


Let me conclude this text by pointing out the following. "LEVEL 7" is slightly dissimilar to either of the series of attempts, namely the Logic of Addition, going-over, or BANKSY and ZEVS. While close to the logic of addition, it unexpectedly avoids détournement or "creation of space", and on the other hand it gives the impression of acrobatically inverting "DESIGNATED GRAFFITI AREA" or "VISUAL KIDNAPPING". If we see BANKSY or ZEVS as "drawing out the rules of scribbles/graffiti themselves instantly from somewhere void", we can see "LEVEL 7" as "mocking the rules of scribbles/graffiti (the Logic of Addition) and still presenting nothing new there". Notwithstanding its title suggesting even Chernobyl in addition to Fukushima, one may observe the magnitude zero of meaning in "LEVEL 7". It is not the aim of this text to judge its value. However, I want to note that "LEVEL 7" has a somewhat complex structure in itself, at a level different from the anachronic question of "art" or "scribbles", or from its "real time" news values like Fukushima 1 Nuclear Power Plant or Okamoto Taro, which appears not a little interesting, at least to me.


(*1) Kogawa Tetsuo "HISTORY OF SIGN GUERRILAS", STUDIO VOICE Vol. 360 (December 2005 issue), INFAS Publications

Writer’s Profile

Oyama Enrico Isamu Letter

Born in Tokyo, 1983. Artist. Lives and works in Tokyo.