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Japanese artist and filmmaker Takahiko Iimura—who passed away recently on 31 July 2022 in Tokyo at the age of 85—was a leading figure in Japanese experimental film and media. He will remain significant in Japanese art and film history as a pioneering figure in experimental film, video art, expanded cinema, and moving image installations. What’s often neglected in writings on his life, however, is that he was a perennial explorer not just of different media but also the world, travelling around for much of his lifetime.

Especially in his youth in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, Iimura, often accompanied by his wife Akiko—who outlives Iimura and is a writer, translator, and artist in her own right—went from country to country armed with film prints of works by him and by his peers. Living in Tokyo and New York for most of his life, Iimura is widely recognized for his contributions to the American avant-garde. Works like FILMMAKERS (1966–69), NEW YORK SCENE (1966), and SUMMER HAPPENINGS U.S.A. (1967–68) demonstrate Iimura’s thirst for new experiences and encounters and his ability to absorb and channel his experiences into his artistic practice. In other words, he travelled not only to exhibit but also to be inspired.

“No matter where you travel, there is always the here and now [...] No matter where you go, the screen is always white.” Takahiko Iimura

While New York remained his second home for life, this essay seeks to address his travel across and stay within Europe, with a particular focus on his stay in Berlin between 1973–74 on a DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program fellowship. His time in Berlin was preceded by a six-month screening tour around Europe in 1969—where he visited the German cities Düsseldorf, Oberhausen, Cologne, Kassel, Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin—an experience which he clearly cherished, bringing him back several years later for a longer stay. With Berlin as his base, Iimura participated in many exhibitions and screenings throughout the European continent, until eventually relocating to Paris in 1974 where he lived for another year before returning to Tokyo. While his stay was temporary, I’d like to propose his lived experience and living situations in Europe during this period shaped his artistic practice in film and video in a transitional moment of his career.

Film on Paper: Iimura’s Storyboards

The local context and situations Iimura found himself in Europe—between 1973–74 in Berlin and 1974 in Paris—shaped his artistic activities in several ways. Although he expressed a desire to shoot films in this period, his access to film equipment was limited and he discovered that buying film was significantly more expensive in Europe compared to the US or Japan. In a 1971 letter exchange with the Artists-in-Berlin Program, Iimura’s request to be considered for the fellowship was initially rejected on the grounds that there was a lack of technical facilities for filmmaking, to which Iimura replied he would bring his own equipment as his practice has always been small in scale. In the end, he resorted to drawing what could be described as a “storyboard”, or compositions of black and clear frames, on a type of Japanese-style paper usually intended for handwritten manuscripts, which has small squares printed on it for each individual Japanese character. Approximating the frames of a filmstrip, Iimura discovered that this paper was useful for him to develop concepts even with meagre means. With the Berlin-based small press Edition Hundertmark, Iimura produced limited-run publications of a thirteen-page film storyboard “1 to 100” (1973) and contributed to their “10 Year Box” (1973), a publication celebrating their ten-year anniversary, with the video score for SELF IDENTITY, the former of which he exhibited as part of his solo exhibition “Film on Paper” at Galerie Paramedia, Berlin, the same year. Iimura received more invitations in Europe to present his works on video than film, as video works were still a rarity in the continent at the time compared to the United States. These conditions led him to temporarily abandon shooting on analogue film and pursue experimentation in film installation, for which he mainly utilized the relatively inexpensive black and clear film leader, as well as video performance and video installation, for which he primarily implemented the live-feed function.

PROJECT YOURSELF and REGISTER YOURSELF: Interactions with the Audience

In 1973, he was invited to participate in the exhibition “Aktionen der Avantgarde” (9 September–3 October) at the Akademie der Künste, Berlin, by curators Jörn Merkert and Ursula Prinz. The exhibition involved artists Robert Filliou, Allan Kaprow, Mario Merz, and the Berlin-based Wolf Kahlen and Wolf Vostell, each offering work that explored video as a participatory medium. Iimura presented two video installations PROJECT YOURSELF (1973) and REGISTER YOURSELF (1973), which were both activated by the exhibition visitors but also occasionally by Iimura himself. REGISTER YOURSELF asks the exhibition visitor to sign a registry and declare their names out loud while a video camera captures them from behind and feeds the image into a monitor placed visibly for the participant on a desk next to the registry. Iimura later speculated that this mode of participation may have evoked wartime trauma for local Germans, but was impressed by the willing participation of Berlin visitors, some of whom playfully called out absurdly fake names or names of animals. When REGISTER YOURSELF was presented in Tokyo earlier in the year, Japanese video artist Nobuhiro Kawanaka staged the performance as Iimura wasn’t available to be present in person. He reported that the Japanese exhibition visitors were reluctant to participate; in Berlin, on the contrary, participants showed no reluctance and confidently declared their names.

While Iimura originally conceived the video performance to demystify the video medium and demonstrate its capacity for self-communication, he was struck by its popularity and eager participation of visitors in Berlin.

At the exhibition, Iimura also presented PROJECT YOURSELF, a video performance that requested participants to speak to the video camera and freely speak for one minute. The video camera fed a frontal image of the speaker into a projector positioned next to the speaker’s seat. While Iimura originally conceived the video performance to demystify the video medium and demonstrate its capacity for self-communication, he was struck by its popularity and eager participation of visitors in Berlin. Audience responses to the prompt varied: one spun around on their seat; one described what he saw from his seat in detail; one offered a review of the exhibition; one ate bread; one sang a song; one presented a political speech; and another began to interrogate Iimura. One interaction in particular left a strong impression on Iimura. A young student used his moment in front of the camera to call for all exhibition visitors to leave the premises and join a protest, to which Iimura cheekily replied “No!”, which provoked the man to the extent that he unplugged the microphone cable. A debate ensued among visitors questioning the young man’s actions; while participants were asked to speak in English for their participatory performance so Iimura could understand, the locals switched to German for their heated conversations. Eventually, the man apologized and fixed the microphone cable before leaving to join the protest.

Reflecting on the responses to these video installations activated by participants, Iimura recalled it was the first moment he consciously thought of an audience being composed of individuals. He noticed it was common in Europe for discussions to take place after screenings and was impressed by how audience members would converse and debate among one another rather than relying on the Q&A format he was more accustomed to in Japan. Such experiences led him to focus on the audience interactions in ensuing years, which can be seen in works like TALKING PICTURE (1981), which involved him sitting in a theatre with an audience but with an empty screen.

SELF IDENTITY series: Video Exploration of Identity

In the 1970s, Takahiko Iimura lived in Japan, the United States, and Europe for approximately the same amount of time—three years each. In his writing, he reflects on how travelling in this way brought about an interrogation of identity as he was forced to communicate in a language not his own and be in an unfamiliar environment. Video art is described as an inherently “narcissistic” medium by Rosalind Krauss, as many artists featured themselves as the primary subject in their early experiments with the format, fascinated by the function of live feed that allowed them to see themselves as an image at the same time as they were being recorded. Iimura’s early experiments in video, in a sense, followed this familiar path; even so, his fascinations with the subject in this period may have also been due to his reflections on his own identity triggered by his travelling.

In his writing, he reflects on how travelling in this way brought about an interrogation of identity as he was forced to communicate in a language not his own and be in an unfamiliar environment.

His video work that most clearly showcases his video exploration of identity is SELF IDENTITY (1972–74). In the first three works of the SELF IDENTITY series, Iimura is the only visible subject and he faces the camera making declarations that alternate between “I am Takahiko Iimura,” “You are Takahiko Iimura,” and “He is Takahiko Iimura.” While one voice appears to be in sync with the image, another voice layered on top would make a slightly different declaration out of sync with the image, and the audience hears both at once. This resulted in confusion as it becomes unclear from which position the speaking subject is speaking, a simple gesture that reflects on the duality of existing as first-person and third-person all at the same time. In part 4, which was first named I AM (NOT) TAKAHIKO IIMURA, I AM (NOT) AKIKO IIMURA (1972) before Iimura incorporated it into the SELF IDENTITY series, Akiko Iimura also features in the image, further confounding the position from which the voicing subject speaks and to whom they are speaking.

TIME TRILOGY: Time as a Central Theme

Still early in his exploration of video as a format, Iimura in this moment of his artistic career explores the differences between film and video, two media that contrast materially but both with “time” at their foundations. While this had already begun to take shape before his arrival into Europe, it certainly continued. Unsurprisingly, time became a central theme for Iimura in his experimentations in both. TIMING 1, 2, 3, which was presented in October 1973 at Galerie Paramedia in Berlin, is a film installation that involves black film leader of different lengths draped horizontally to show the material representation of time.

Iimura’s experiments in both film and video continued to feed into each other as he investigated the distinct qualities of each through artistic practice.

The video counterpart of his exploration of time is his TIME TRILOGY (1971): TIME involves a close-up of a digital clock for five minutes; MOON TIMED features a static shot of a moon on-screen that drifts offscreen over fifteen-minutes as it orbits the earth; and TIME TUNNEL, the only surviving work of the trilogy, records Iimura’s analogue film projection of a countdown reel onto a CRT monitor. While the reel should only be counting down ten seconds, Iimura disrupts the linear flow of time by repeating the countdown, disrupting and blurring the projection, and slowing down the projection speed over thirty minutes. The monitor also plays the live feed of the video recording at the same time, which further confuse what should be a linear countdown, as the monitor image interferes with the projected image. Staging this interaction between video live feed and analogue film projection, Iimura brings together the different audiovisual media to investigate their divergent qualities and shared capacity to explore and represent time.

Experiments with Film and Video Influence Each Other

His early video experiments, such as his first video works A CHAIR (Isu, 1970) and BLINKING (1970), explore the possibilities of flicker as it comes across on video at a time when he was experimenting with the flicker effect in works on analogue film. BLINKING is a video recording of an overlapping double projection of the positive and negative image of the same face, which appears to rapidly blink. A CHAIR is also a video recording of a 16mm projection of alternating clear and black frames onto an actual chair. In both works, which Iimura often exhibited using multiple monitors, utilizes the brightness control function of the CRT monitor to alternate between different levels of brightness, something that wasn’t possible with a film projector. A chair is the only visible object in A CHAIR, but its shadow—which occasionally makes an appearance due to the clear frame projections onto the physical chair—becomes visible as Iimura heightens the brightness of the monitor, and creates a subtle flicker effect. In such ways, Iimura’s experiments in both film and video continued to feed into each other as he investigated the distinct qualities of each through artistic practice.

Takahiko Iimura at Arsenal

Takahiko Iimura’s A CHAIR (1970), BLINKING (1970), TIME TRILOGY (1971), and I AM (NOT) TAKAHIKO IIMURA, I AM (NOT) AKIKO IIMURA (1972) were presented in a screening at Berlin’s Arsenal in one of five presentations across five days on 17–24 April 1973. In order to bring the video works to a cinema audience, staff at the Arsenal brought TV sets from their private homes, placed them on top of stacked film canisters and synchronized the video image across all monitors for this unique screening. The presentation showcases Arsenal’s ambition and willingness to redefine the parameters of a cinema event.

Nevertheless, Iimura shared a rare feeling of despondence after the screenings. By the fifth day, only six people turned up to his final screening, five of whom left while the films were still playing, leaving only an elderly lady and him. In his writing, Iimura recalls thinking the Arsenal theatre felt like a “black mass” through which the projection occasionally cut through like an arrow. Walking back to his temporary apartment, he couldn’t help but feel unsettled by the dimly lit and wide streets of Berlin, the city he claimed, at least in the mid-1980s, that never warmed to him. Even so, in the months after the Arsenal screening series, Iimura remained active in Berlin and Germany, returning to the Arsenal for a screening later that year.

Before moving to Paris, he formally requested the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program to extend his fellowship period so he could prolong his stay, especially as he was able to secure screening and exhibition opportunities across Germany into the summer of 1974. While the Artists-in-Berlin Program wasn’t able to approve this, they invited him back again in 1990, and Iimura’s period of stay in the 1970s remained an important turning point in his career where he focused his energies on film and video installations, both of which would continue to preoccupy him for the rest of his career.

Julian Ross is a curator, researcher and writer based in Amsterdam. He is an Assistant Professor at Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society and he is co-organizing Doc Fortnight 2023 at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).


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