Yoshiko Shimada : art, feminism and memory in Japan after 1989

Tan, Eliza (2016) Yoshiko Shimada : art, feminism and memory in Japan after 1989. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This thesis investigates the intersection of art, feminism and postwar memory in Japan through the lens of artist Yoshiko Shimada. Coinciding with unprecedented geopolitical shifts occurring in the final thaw of the Cold War, the year 1989 marks a fraught moment in Japan when spectres of the nation's imperialist past and its historical entanglements acquired renewed potency in the wake of Emperor Hirohito's death. Born in 1959, Shimada gained international prominence in the 1990s for her critique of the national body, in particular, the relationship between women and the imperial wartime state. Her work, which unapologetically confronts Japan's WWII aggressions in Asia, its wider histories of occupation, and issues such as the fiercely contested legacies of former 'comfort women' vitally reflects on the social role and agency of art and artist in a climate of political unease emergent at Showa's close. Based on extensive interviews with the artist and research into her primary archive, this is the first comprehensive survey chronicling Shimada's twenty-five year oeuvre. It situates her practice between two vectors: feminism in Japan and its engagement with Western scholarship, and traces the 1990s 'feminist turn' led by art historians such as Chino Kaori, who began to champion the application of gender perspectives in the study of Japanese art. Within the wider Asian region, the concurrent development of transnational women's art networks, exhibitions and publications dovetailed with the burgeoning of performance art was protest. As one of the most outspoken feminist art activists of her generation, Shimada has borne key witness to the changing cultural conditions informing women artists' organised activities and the writing of their social histories. This interdisciplinary study incorporates a range of perspectives drawn from art history and gender studies, film and performance theory, memory and trauma studies, Japanese studies and cross-cultural scholarship. It highlights the formal and conceptual interactions between printmaking, performance, installation and lens-based media in Shimada's practice, and demonstrates the plural ways in which her reflexive aesthetics and visual strategies express the tensions and complexities characterising processes of remembering, forgetting and representing the past. By interweaving arguments about the crucial role of feminism in challenging dominant narratives of nation, race, sex and ethnicity, with critical perspectives central to discourse on postmodern Japan, questions are raised concerning the implications of gender, tradition and popular culture for art produced in this age of anxiety. The recent proliferation of problem-oriented, politically engaged practices following the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami marks an ostensible 'return to the social' and departure from privileged tropes of 'Japaneseness' in artistic experimentation. Taking this into account, this thesis proposes that revisiting the recent history of feminist art interventions reveals valuable insights into the role of art in understanding and addressing trauma, and engaging marginalised histories and communities. This is exemplified by Shimada's work, which offers a powerful vantage point from which to contemplate art's political inflections, its social potential and the urgency of memory work both in Japan, and in our contemporary societies today.

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