from You Saw Nothing: Sight, Digital Video, Post-3.11 Japan

Here, we look at an example of nothingness in the context of the location of power. The “hypocritical gaze”, to use a term coined by Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor, indicates the liminality of sight as perception in the context of historical power.* The term is conceptualised within the context of racial discrimination in the works of American artist Lorna Simpson. In her photographic artworks, Simpson often uses the images of black people, whose faces are turned backwards. Due to this positioning, the gazes between the black figures that turn their faces away and the viewers of her works never intersect. Twenty Questions (A Sampler) (1986), for example, is a work consisting of four identical images of a black woman, whose face is turned backwards. These images are accompanied with texts with a judgemental undertone that say: “IS SHE AS PRETTY AS A PICTURE”, “OR CLEAR AS CRYSTAL”, “OR PURE AS A LILY”, “OR BLACK AS COAL”, and “OR SHARP AS A RAZOR”.

These texts accompanying the images of the black female figure reveal sight as the location of the judgement that remains unverbalised. The gaze exists between the liminality of self and other, and yet the operation of judgement is concealed.

Writing on her works, Enwezor draws upon the definition of hypocrisy by French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman.** Didi-Huberman‘s argument unfolds on the role of photography in inventing hysteria in the nineteenth century in France with the example of the manipulated representation of the inmates at the Salpêtrière hospital, who were forced to perform their hysteria in front of the camera. In this context of knowledge and representation, photography was complicit with the invention of hysteria, a culturally constructed image of hysteria. These bodies of the inmates who theatrically performed in front of the camera are ones that were forced to perform a social stigma. Didi-Huberman hence analyses that, because the camera is an apparatus of the designation of power, subjugation and its maintenance, so is photography. Enwezor analyses that Simpson’s works unfold on the camera/photography’s nature as an apparatus to invent cultural representation but she further develops photography as a site to negotiate with the cultural representation of blackness.***

Didi-Huberman writes:

Hypocrisy is an act of choice, decision, and selection, of distinguishing, separating, and resolving. It is an explanation. But it is only a little of all these things, or perhaps it lies beneath them (hypo), secretly. The true hypocrite (in Greek tradition, the hypokriter) is above all the one who knows how to discriminate, but discreetly (in law, it is he who directs an investigation).****

Drawing upon Didi-Huberman’s sense of hypocrisy, sight is where the operation of discrimination is concealed but also exposed. In the case of Simpson’s Twenty Questions (A Sampler), it is where a judgment on whether the black woman is pure as a lily or sharp as a razor is negotiated with the racialised stereotypes of the blackness.

If sight is perception, gaze is rather an active engagement in seeing. Philosopher Yoshimichi Nakajima also conceptualises the judgement through seeing in terms of the gaze. Gaze, according to Nakajima in his Philosophy on the Sense of Dislike (2009), is the space of concealed judgement grounded in Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of bad faith and nothingness.***** Sartre defines the falsehood of bad faith as “a lie to oneself. To be sure, the one who practices bad faith is hiding a displeasing truth or presenting as truth a pleasing untruth.”˜ Nakajima employs this logic and operation of bad faith in his concept of gaze, where the displeasing Other is recognised as non-existence, Sartre’s sense of nothingness.˜˜ Nakajima’s concept of gaze as a space of bad faith and nothingness is similar to the state of being discreet and aware of how to discriminate and conceal in Didi-Huberman’s sense of hypocrisy. Simpson’s Twenty Questions (A Sampler) demonstrates the gaze as such a site of judgement, bad faith, nothingness, and hypocrisy. As in another example of her work, You’re Fine (1988), a black woman is laid down with her face turned backward with the accompanying texts, “POSITION”, “SECRETARIAL”, “YOU’RE FINE”, and “YOU’RE HIRED”. This work further extends the operation of judgement into the concrete social context of job employment as an example of its operation. Chapter 3 unfolds on this sense of concealment and nothingness as the location of power in the geopolitical and historical context where Okinawa is embedded with Japan and the United States.

In comparison with Simpson’s photographic methodology, the materiality of nails in the works of Paris-based artist Alexis Peskine manifests a materialisation of the operation of judgement in the gaze. With the black figures embodied by the nails hammered into the wooden medium, he portrays the Blackness within the gaze that operates the judgment. As Peskine states in an interview:

The nails hidden inside are essential to the creation of packing cases, furniture and even houses. So the nail itself becomes a symbol for the way Africans and the Afro- American culture (of both north and south Americas) have functioned in relation to the strongest economies and the most influential cultures in the world. So I take the rough, commonplace, inanimate and normally invisible nail and reposition it, to make it visible, vibrant and alive. By exposing the nails on the surface, they become the focus of attention and that’s what I want to emphasise – that each nail is unapologetic about its own existence and experience. This parallels the Black person’s experience. Black people are always expected to be invisible and to keep quiet about their presence. For me, the nail becomes metaphorically associated with the Black Experience.˜˜˜

Peskine’s works evoke pain and Simpson’s evoke desolation through sight silently presenting the location of power. The invisibility and the interiority of the nails as a metaphor of economy and culture share significant concerns of enquiry with this research, although the materials employed are different. The invisibility can be visualised in the realm of sight to be exposed, to be reflected within it, and to be negotiated. The title You Saw Nothing relies on this conception of visualising, or verbalising through the accompanied texts in the cases of Simpson’s work, and the titles of my studio-practice: You Saw Nothing in Fukushima, I Told Our Story, and Hidden Tides, the realm of sight contemplates society from its own liminality.

The invisibility of the nail is an example for the coupled conceptions that frequently appear in this research, namely light–shadow, centre–periphery, exterior–interior, and male– female, to refer to the location and relation of power. In the realm of sight, they are deciphered as visibility–invisibility, or concealment–exposure.

*Okwui Enwezor, “Repetition and Differentiation – Lorna Simpson’s Iconography of the Racial Sublime”, Lorna Simpson, New York, NY: Abrams and American Foundation of Arts, 2006. pp. 102–131.
** Ibid., pp. 117–118. *** Ibid.
****Georges Didi-Huberman, Invention of Hysteria: Charcot and the Photographic Iconography of the Salpêtrière, trans. Alisa Hartz. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. p. 8.
*****Yoshimichi Nakajima, Philosophy on the Sense of Dislike, Tokyo: Kodan-shya, 2009.
˜Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness: An Essay in Phenomenological Ontology, New York, NY: Washington Square Press, 1992. p. 49.
˜˜Nakajima, ibid., pp. 183–186.
˜˜˜Alexis Peskine, “Power Figure”, Alexis Peskine: Power Figure, interviewed by Gerard Houghton, London: October Gallery, 2017. p. 11.
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