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Documentation of Untitled, 2021

Untitled
Single-channel video installation, canvas, inkjet print, 24” x 16”
1:30 min loop
2021

This audio-visual installation consists of morphing “Japanese” faces generated using Generative Adversarial Network (GAN, a class of machine learning) projected onto a Noh mask of a girl worn exclusively by men. The images of faces are sourced from a Japanese platform, “AC Photo,” where you can download “Japanese” faces with Caucasian features. These imaginary whitewashed “Japanese” faces are projected onto a “ko-omote” Noh mask. There is a sequential relationship between my short film, “Dreams Come True Very Much; the Japanese state-owned identities, forced to live forever post- “Moonshot,” are colonized identities shaped by the Euro-American gaze and maleness.

Noh is a form of classical Japanese-dance drama that evolved from of Chinese Nui Opera in the 8th century, one of the arts along with “Zen” that Japonisme first discovered centuries ago. Noh masks are known to be deceptively expressionless. It is said that when worn by expert actors during performances, they convey various emotional expressions despite their fixed physical properties. I bring forth stereotypes of East Asians having “mask-like” faces, and specifically stereotypes of Japanese in Western societies.

After 1945, Japan rapidly grew into an industrialized nation and became a leader in technology—a trademark of Western supremacy—which in turn led to the construction of techno-Orientalism. In a reversal of the traditional aesthetics of Japan, “the association of technology and Japaneseness now serves to reinforce the image of a culture that is cold, impersonal and machine-like and authoritarian culture lacking emotional connection to the rest of the world”[1]. After techno-Orientalism, Japan’s new identity in the West was thus labeled as “Japan, Inc.” or “sub-human,” a discourse that aimed to portray the Japanese as lacking feeling or emotion.[2]

For instance, using the gestures of Japanese businessmen as their model—“robot-like bowing and expressionless laughter”—the German band Kraftwerk in the 1970s used android or machine-like gestures on the stage.[1] At the height of Japan’s economic growth (kokusaika), Japan’s “dehumanized” technological powers, such as robots, cyborgs, video games, and anime, were seen as postmodern equivalents of Noh.
 

By layering the faces and tatemae (a term meaning “built-in front,” “façade”), I create a parallel between technology and Noh theatre, both of which are heavily dominated by maleness and exclude females. To further contextualize my project, the following is the breakdown of the history of Noh through a feminist lens:

 

Given Noh’s six hundred-year history, women’s involvement in Noh theatre’s history is very brief as women have only been allowed to perform on stage professionally since 1948. Eric C. Rath, in his essay “Challenging the Old Men: A Brief History of Women in Noh Theatre,” explains that the profession of Noh acting used be accessible to a range of social groups including women in its earlier times.
 

Although little has been written about women who performed before the twentieth century, women have greatly contributed to Noh’s development. Tokugawa shogunate (noble classes of Japan) policy, established in the early modern period, had tremendous implications for all women performers, as the policies relied on exclusionist genealogical discourse centering on patrilineal bloodlines, and the equation of blood with professional expertise. As a result, the rules excluded women and any performer without Yamato blood from the performing arts. According to Rath, the obsession with the creation of such genealogical texts remained throughout the seventeenth century; bloodlines were mapped out in lineage charts and family histories, and performers competed in invoking the glories of their particular lineage to contend for legitimacy in their profession. Since then, Noh became patronized almost exclusively by the shogunate patronage as an exclusive samurai pastime that commoners, including all women, were forbidden to see or participate in.

In this regard, female Noh masks represent Japan’s historic patriarchy, and the AI-generated “Japanese” faces are a digital version of how Japan utilizes patriarchy to serve elitist male subjectivity. According to mask expert Nakamura Yasuo, female masks in Noh theatre began to appear around the period of Kan’ami and Zeami, the time when Noh developed into a male-dominated art. It was a period when performers became concerned with representing femininity, yet would not allow a place for women to perform.
 

By projecting the AI-generated faces onto the Noh mask of “ko-omote,” a fake face of “naïve, beautiful, young girl” to be worn exclusively by men, I highlight how the performances I have noted above serve to perpetuate patriarchy, essentialism, and nationalism. The mask that I am using in this project, which has no wearer, aims to provide a counter-narrative to both Western Orientalist images of Japan and Japan’s self-Orientalism. Through its layers of tatemae, this project aims to obscure the essentialized narratives surrounding Japanese identities by suggesting that everything is performative. There is never “authenticity” behind masks. Behind a mask is a mask is a mask is a mask is a mask is a mask is a mask is a mask is a mask is a mask.

 

[1] Toshiya Ueno, “Japanimation and Techno-Orientalism,” Seventh International Symposium on Electronic Art ISEA94 September 16-20 (Rotterdam: Tripti, 1997): 95.

 

[1] David Morley and Kevin Robins, Spaces of Identity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries (London: Routledge, 1995): 168.

[2] Idem, 172.

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Documentation of Untitled, 2021