by Piero Bisello
“Being Japanese you are minimalist anyway,” the artist Kazuko Miyamoto once said; Christian Siekmeier, the director of her Berlin gallery Exile, finds this phrase problematic. He knows her so well, and for so long, that he knows why and in which context that slightly awkward self-categorisation came out. It is normal, he says, for people to stick a label on Kazuko’s work. The female minimalist artist working in the ‘70s, whose art has been forgotten for the sake of her male peers, might be an accurate interpretation, though an incomplete one.
Born in 1942 in Tokyo, Kazuko Miyamoto studied there until 1964, when she moved to New York. She found her first studio in 1968, a building on Hester Street in the Lower East Side where Sol LeWitt also worked. Meeting by chance during a fire alarm, the two artists became friends and she eventually took up the job of assisting him. Miyamoto was the first and probably the most consistent executioner of LeWitt’s pieces, especially in New York. As Siekmaier confirms, they had a generous artistic relationship, where one would advise the other on the directions to take.
An exhibition in Brussels at the state-funded art space ISELP focuses on this period of Kazuko Miyamoto’s career, linking it to the contemporary conceptualism of Brussels-based artist Béatrice Balcou. In the exhibition text, the curator Florence Cheval rightly mentions the practice of assisting another artist as politically controversial. The inevitable authority and inequality intrinsically present between the master and the server, between the assisted and the assistant, are delicate topics in art, a field that strives on an idealised concept of freedom. Even though the curatorial intentions of handling the topic in a critical way are present, the exhibition falls into the trap of presenting Miyamoto too narrowly, slightly inculcating the image of her as the conceptual forgotten artist, whose contribution was to add some “sensitive and corporal” elements to the male minimal art of the time. Considering the highly variegated practice of the artist, the show simply doesn’t help to unravel this complex position, or her individuality within history.
Most of Miyamoto’s works on display are linked to that period of the ‘70s: a “string construction,” where the artist forms geometrical patterns between the floor and the wall using ropes and nails— pieces from her series of wooden hat boxes. Even her later works seem to be selected to be coherent with an image of the artist: the iconic “Stunt” (1981), a photo of Miyamoto upside down in front of minimal sculptures—in this case, black and white photocopied abstract shapes from the late ‘80s. Besides, it is unclear whether Béatrice Balcou, a much younger artist whose practice often starts from the work of others, explicitly comments on what it means to assist in the art world. Her personal reconstructions of Miyamoto’s lost pieces and the replication of some of her most popular ones feel more like a polite homage to an icon from an older generation than a strong political gesture. Balcou appropriates Miyamoto’s art using her own conceptualist approach, dismissing important nuances in the complex art production of the New York artist.
The apparent objectivity of a categorisation, a hashtag dropped on somebody’s work, this is what Balcou didn’t manage to avoid with her exhibition. And yet, for her as much as for anybody else it is necessary to reduce complexity to understand, to view things from a consolidated, safe and controllable standpoint. The task of the artist (or art critic for that matter) is perhaps not to avoid categories, but rather to temporarily show that all of them are in fact ambiguous because all of them change before our eyes, regardless of us. In this regard, Balcou’s intervention on Miyamoto’s art is simply overly confident.
Coming back to Siekmeier, during a recent conversation at his Berlin gallery Exile, I learned there had been other moments in Miyamoto’s career to “handle with care.” For example, the artist was close to the feminist movement at least since the early ‘70s and yet her relationship with feminism was never straightforward. In 1980, she organised an exhibition with Ana Mendieta at A.I.R. gallery, a for-women-only artistic platform of which she’d been a member since the early ‘70s, to protest the scarce representation of non-American women at the gallery. She eventually left A.I.R. in 1983, following her closest friend Mendieta. Siekmeier has a clear opinion about what might have been Miyamoto’s reasons for the move: “A.I.R. became too limited for [Miyamoto], who also wanted to include male artists in the exhibition she organised.” Three years after, Miyamoto inaugurated her own space, Gallery Onetwentyeight, a gender-neutral, membership-free project. It is currently the longest operating art project space in the Lower East Side. Since its beginning, the focus of her activity as director has been to shape a community around the gallery. Over the years at Onetwentyeight, she and other curators have put forward a program that can be defined as informal and borderless, which, as Luca Cerizza writes, “rejects hierarchical divisions between unknown and celebrated artists.” This aspect is entirely lost in Béatrice Balcou’s exhibition, where instead of embracing the complexity, she promotes a clear image of Miyamoto.
Siekmeier emotionally acknowledges how much he owes Miyamoto for his own approach as a gallerist at Exile. He says that many of the principles of Onetwentyeight are embedded in Exile, which is not the kind of private for-profit gallery one would expect. There simply is an alternative business model there, perhaps oriented towards an alternative art market that doesn’t know what “bluechip” means. Whether or not one agrees with his taste, there is a special care in his selection, a political attention to show what is new without being recent, and presenting the non-recent in a very new way. Talking about art fairs, he says that “if they equal youth with age, they have nothing left but fetishism.” I believe fetishism and identification are, in this case, two sides of the same coin. It is from this stance that the work of the critical gallerist begins, a job of not only promoting and selling, but also of archiving, researching, surveying, hunting for forgotten stories, breaking the remembered ones.
I finally come to the historical amnesia you see in the title of this article. As an aid for critique, it is often used in the context where precise groups were left out of mainstream history. My point as argued throughout the article is that, even though a stress on identification can be fruitful in highlighting issues of inequality and prejudice, it can’t avoid the flattening and the counterproductive fixation of these identities as concepts. Categorisation will always fail us: by clinging to it, we risk to void the charge of our political action and morality. In this regard, a struggle against historical amnesia is not only an effort towards the inclusion of the historically excluded; it also means to be wary of other versions of it. I refer to the fast appropriation of things through labels that go from race to gender, passing by nationality, age groups and even artistic currents. As we have seen in the example of the critical gallery practice, definitions and terms can be kept withdrawn.
The exhibition runs from April 21 to July 2, 2016. More info: http://iselp.be/fr/expositions/beatrice-balcou-kazuko-miyamoto