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John Cage Performs James Joyce

by Takahiko Iimura
Takahiko iimura Media Art Institute, Tokyo, Japan, 1985/2005
DVD, 15 mins., B&W
Sales, $US100 (personal); $US400 (institutions)

Fluxus Replayed

by Takahiko Iimura
Takahiko iimura Media Art Institute, Tokyo, Japan, 1991/2005
DVD, 30 mins., B&W
Sales, $US100 (personal); $US400 (institutions)
ISBN 4-901181-24-6.
Distributor’s website: http://www.takaiimura.com/home.html

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
Creativity & Cognition Studios
University of Technology Sydney


Taka Iimura is a senior figure among contemporary Japanese artists and has been working with film, sound and video since the 1960s. He was one of several Japanese who, coming from a 20th Century tradition of avant-garde intervention,1 contributed to the Fluxus group in the 60s. Like many media artists, Iimura made recordings of contemporaries and their work. Alongside his film and video artworks, (the video Observer/Observed reviewed in Leonardo 35.1), portable video enabled documentation, (and general note making), more economically than film. As the cycle of experimentation moves through another generation, glimpses of precursors through archive recordings of this kind help ground artists’ surviving words and artworks.

John Cage (1912-1992) as the senior figure of Fluxus (NYC), active experimentally since the late 30s, is the subject of a video portrait shot by Iimura in 1985, released in 1991 and made available on DVD in 2005. Cage had a long-standing fascination with the work of James Joyce, in particular Finnegans Wake, the book becoming the basis of many works, the best known of which is the Roaratorio — an Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake. Commissioned by German radio and IRCAM in Paris the sound recording was completed in 1979, lasted about an hour and was a 62 track mix of the sounds referred to in the text, the text itself as prepared (using a mesostic system), and read by Cage, together with music played by the Irish traditional music players of the day.

Roaratorio is one of the classics of Cage’s oeuvre 2 and in Iimura’s 15-minute recording, John Cage Performs James Joyce, Cage presents the core of the spoken part of the work. Its composition, like many of his other works, is aided by the I-Ching. Here he briefly explains that none of the sentences (sic) in Finnegans Wake are selected, only words, syllables and letters, from different pages according to the chance decisions made by consulting the I-Ching and its representational hexagrams. In this way the 624 pages of the book are compressed into 12 pages of text, and it is one of these pages that we see him holding. He reads from it, sings it, and then, hustling close to the camera and its microphone, whispers it. At the bottom of the screen are superimposed each time, two lines of sub-titling synchronised with the text he is using.

Iimura’s presence is felt but not seen, though we hear him responding to Cage’s explanations at the outset. Cage’s voice is not strong; he is in his seventies, and we strain to hear him against the noise of New York traffic coming through the window in the background of a sunlit room. His demeanour remains buoyant, at one point making light of a fumble he makes with a watch he is holding, an event incorporated into the flow of the tape. Like so many of his initiatives, the line between the artwork and its making is blurred, a statement aided and amplified by Iimura’s collaboration in its making.

In Fluxus Replayed also released in 2005, Iimura documents an event in 1991 held to reproduce historical performances by NYC-based Fluxus artists of the 1960s. The S.E.M Ensemble together with some of the Fluxus artists themselves, perform works by Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Dick Higgins, George Brecht, Allison Knowles, Ben Patterson, Jackson Mac Low and Emett Williams. Iimura has edited together the sounds and images captured by two cameras as raw evidence of the goings-on, with scant regard for the conventions of continuity editing, thus maintaining the document in the space between the moment of recording and that of viewing. Time compression is only obvious in Ono’s Sky Piece for Jesus Christ (1965) as the baroque instrumental ensemble are wound around with white paper, accumulating as a series of jump cuts to the point where their music is reduced to a series of bumps and scrapes, before the musicians are man-handled off the stage, still attached to their chairs and instruments.

Again, Iimura gives some idea to younger generations of how these early precursors to contemporary performance art appeared to audiences, in a setting typical of the genre — church hall ecclesiastical architecture, painted walls, wooden floor. Though much of this work was sound-based, produced collaboratively for group performance using chance determinations and framed with a sense of the aesthetics of noise, the written scores or instructions for each piece may well have satisfied many members of the audience. Glimpsed in the background, some walking around, others squirming in their seats, the probably overlong evening has been bravely foreshortened into a useful 30-minute document by the artist with the video camera.

1. Two publications on this subject: Into Performance: Japanese women artists in New York, by Midori Yoshimoto, Rutgers University Press, 2005; Dada in Japan: Japanische avant-garde 1920-1970, by Stephan von Wiese, Jutta Hulsewig and Yoshio Shirakawa, Kunstmuseum Düsseldorf, 1983.

2. An extensive discography now exists for Cage and other sound artists, together with collected reviews, samples and the means to buy recordings at http://www.moderecords.com/main.html.



Updated 1st February 2007

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