to Dismantle a Human Bomb:
Bliss in the Theater of Cruelty
beloved Führer is dragging us toward the shades
darkness and everlasting nothingness.
can we poets, we who have a special affinity
darkness and lower depths, not admire him?”
an element of cruelty at the root of every spectacle,
theater is not possible. In our present state of degeneration
is through the skin that metaphysics must be made to re-enter our
Theater and Its Double
Antonin Artaud, one of the most important figures in 20th century theater and art, demanded a radical reinvention of European theater, mainly inspired by the traditional practices from the Orient. This renewed form of expression would take the theater back to its beginnings, to its ritual origin and hypnotic power. It would be understandable by everyone, as its language would be a primordial language, or more exactly, a primordial scream. Its function would be to liberate the human being from its current state of repression and redirect the libidinal power of each individual into creating a new sensibility and therefore a different world. This experience of community would bring hearing back to the ears, sight back to the eyes, and life back to numb bodies. Its foundation is to be found in cruelty, cruelty that is everything but linked to punishment or horror; instead, its cruelty is in confronting us with the true nature of human beings – as both physical and metaphysical, both whole and fragmented, both alive and dead. The theater of cruelty should provide human beings with space for rigor and through confrontation bring back the appetite for life.
After watching one of Meiro Koizumi's recent videos, which is actually a documentation of his performance entitled Melodrama for Men #1 (2008), the words of Artaud started to reemerge, bringing back his manifesto of the theater of cruelty, a legacy to which many theater geniusses of the last half of the century proudly referred. Koizumi’s is a performance Artaud would probably have been happy to witness. It is a piece that not only makes us rethink the performance art of today, but that also shows the new potential of video making, a medium to which Koizumi devoted most of his attention in the last decade. I would like to start from this performance and go back in time, because it also summarizes or brings together many questions Koizumi raised in his previous works.
In Melodrama for Men #1, Koizumi takes upon the task to perform the role of Lieutenant General Ohnishi, known as the father of the kamikaze attacks during the World War II. We witness the last moments in the life of this military officer, just before he commits a ritual suicide. After a subtle introduction of the scene followed by the atmospheric music, the performance makes a sudden twist when Koizumi takes a seat on the floor – suddenly, his body becomes a place from which two lines of narrative emerge. His upper part of the body is turned toward the microphone on his left and the microphone is placed deep into his mouth; we hear his heavy breath, getting faster and faster, more and more excited, while the lower part of his body stays calm, showing us the hands molding the clay in front of him. Out of his noisy breath, we start to recognize words from what appear to be a loyal military officer’s speech. Ohnishi explains the mission he was part of, defending honorable Japan from the white man. As he gets more and more excited, his movements become more and more obscene. His excitement seems to be coming from the projection of pleasure which presumably the clay organ feels from his touch. At the end of his speech, Ohnishi announces the decision to perform harakiri as a way to show solidarity with many thousands of young men who, under his command, sacrificed their lives in the name of the Nation. The sword, which was already on stage, will be used by Koizumi to perform the symbolic death of his unfortunate character: the clay was molded into a phallus and the sward will cut it off from the imaginary body to which it belongs. The music underlines the melodramatic moments on stage, and when it stops, we know the general is gone for good.
The cut-off phallus underlines Koizumi's persistent questioning of the phallic nature of power in our civilization. To reveal the traumatic inscription of power, he most often uses his own body, but never simply as a passive, masochistic receiver. Rather, Koizumi demonstrates that the same body can be used as a single organ that talks about its origin and about the process of repression. The twisted body we have seen in this performance is Koizumi's most original way to simultaneously present the story and its subtext, or the key to reading the story. This spiral also brings us to his definition of human beings – possessing not only the rational, conscious part we all believe we know how to control, but also irrational, unconscious and uncontrollable parts. This body reminds us of the Moebius strip used in recent theoretical psychoanalysis to describe human subjectivity. Nevertheless, many film authors who addressed this issue needed the dimension of time to untie subjectivity and show their characters’ development from 'sanity' to their darker parts. Koizumi developed an original and more condensed visual language, simultaneously showing both sides of the story, or both sides of the subject. In this particular act of vertical montage, the frames are not telling the story one after another, in a linear way, but they all scream at the same time, being juxtaposed one over the other. The result is that the victim can at the same time also be the villain, and the national hero can at the same time also be a ridiculous, lonely and small man. The story we can read from this condensed image, layer by layer, communicates several narratives through many channels, not through multiple screens, but through different layers from which the image is constructed.
One of the earlier examples of Koizumi's videos that announced this new approach to the medium of video and this new language of constructing the image is Hardcore (2004). In here, the viewer is directly confronted with Koizumi's twisted body sitting in the sound recording studio. Soon, we are to discover that we follow two different stories – one told through the sound, or the text Koizumi reads into the microphone, and one whose meaning comes from the image we try to decipher. We hear Koizumi's heavy breathing, reading or more correctly, screaming the words coming out of the mouth of a young female character pleading for mercy. We slowly realize that we are witnessing the last moments before she is being raped or tortured or both, while watching the rubbing of Koizumi's hand over his leg. As the story climaxes, so does Koizumi’s pleasure. Through this visual merging of opposites, we are forced to simultaneously identify with the suffering of the victim and with the pleasure of the villain; the borders between the two become lost in this body we see on screen, reminding us perhaps of the schizophrenic constitution of our own subjectivities. This body does not reveal where one part starts and the other ends, and the subject does not have any choice but to collapse in spasm after the ecstatic realization of its true nature.
Going back to Koizumi's last performance, one might pose the question: why World War II and why now? Why does he want to remind us of this legacy, the past we all thought we had managed to conquer and successfully leave behind? The act of the high ranked soldier who commits harakiri out of solidarity and the subtext it has been given in Koizumi's work, makes us start to doubt the sincerity of this statement of true solidarity. As we know from history books, the end of World War II brought with it numerous suicides of high commanders worldwide, after been confronted with their own image of false omnipotence, being once and for all defeated and publicly symbolically castrated. This fact makes us doubt the true nature of solidarity of Mr. Ohnishi, who tries to conceal his own failure and castration behind the fake emotional outburst of solidarity he suddenly feels for his soldiers. In this melodramatic manipulating of the story, we witness Ohnishi’s attempt to twist the truth and makes himself a martyr. Koizumi is truly disgusted with the right of some to decide about the future of others, of all those in power who do not hesitate to use human bodies as disposable units. Nevertheless, he also shows us that the nature of things is not black and white and that this twisted state originates in more complicated constructions, which the viewers are now inspired to try to define.
In his definition of fascism, Paul Virilio makes an important contribution, stating that the measure according to which one State is fascist is not in its totalitarian but in its suicidal nature. Within this construct, the position and functionality of the army, or war machine, is essential. It would rather send its troops to certain death than stop the destruction. Following Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the basis of fascism lies in its micropolitical or molecular power, the force built out of millions of small units. This society strives to its complete homogeneity and, according to Georges Bataille, homogeneous society is seen as “productive society, namely useful society.”1 The fascist in each of us is re-awakened from the moment we start searching for stability, unity or security. The way to fight this is to insist on plurality, on fragmentation, and on the acceptance of what is censored, in both society and our own nature. As Bataille continues, “the exclusion of heterogeneous elements from the homogeneous realm of consciousness formally recalls the exclusion of the elements, described (by psychoanalysis) as unconscious, which censorship excluded from the conscious ego.”2 Existence without pain or trouble is nothing but a mere illusion and the basic element on which the neurotic, alienated human body is constructed.
With this in mind, it does not surprise that Koizumi's work, whether aware of these theoretical positions or not, follows this tradition of thought. He seems to comment on the way in which people are immersed in society, the same society that forces its each individual unit, each human being, to commit suicide and free willingly remove himself or herself from its homogeneous and functional body as soon ass one notices he/she has lost the prescribed function. If you are not functional and useful for the imaginary body of your Nation, you do not deserve to exist; therefore your freedom is defined by the freed will you possess to remove yourself from the healthy organism of society. Through this act, the imaginary body of the State also removes the possible danger of the outburst of libidinal energy, an energy that might explode and endanger the State’s core existence. Therefore, when the general kills himself in Koizumi’s video, he does not do so because he empathizes with the sacrificed young men; rather, he does so to confirm the reign of the phallus and so preserve the existing order of things.
This brings us back to Deleuze and Guattari, and their answer to the almost insolvable question of how it is possible that people so willingly and strongly desire their own repression. According to them, the origin of this is to be found in the modern construction of Oedipal subjectivity: “Oedipus is belief injected into the unconscious, it is what gives us faith as it robs us of power, it is what teaches us to desire our own repression. Everybody has been oedipalized and neuroticized at home, at school, at work. Everybody wants to be a fascist.”3 The only way to fight against repression is to become anti-oedipal, as well as anti-ego and anti-homo, constantly attacking the reduced image of reality that is presented as a homogeneous totality.
Koizumi's fight against this order of things began much earlier, only to climax in Melodrama for Men #1. For instance, in Mum (2004) we see a young man returning home and calling his mother in something we recognize to be an everyday phone call, everyday small talk. Suddenly another story takes over the narrative - the man wants to tell his mother something she didn't know and starts to produce noises that evoke a battlefield situation. His voice resembles the sound of machine guns, bombs, airplanes and destruction, and his body seems to disintegrate all over the room. He 'gets shot' and we witness his last words and cries to his mother: he does not want to die but his voice gradually fades out.
By bringing in the mother in this oedipal construction of subjectivity, Koizumi shows that the responsibility for the conservation of patriarchal order is as much the mother’s as it is the father’s, as both conform to it without trying to prevent this human sacrifice. On another level, Koizumi tells a similar story through the character of a young businessman who, it remains ambiguous, we might understand to have died, not in a real war, but in the battlefield of capitalism. Or, as Deleuze and Guattari formulate it, “capitalism, through its process of production, produces an awesome schizophrenic accumulation of energy or charge, against it brings all its vast powers of repression to bear.”4 We could even speculate whether, once the functionality of those bodies within capitalist production has been interrupted or denied, this kind of repression does not easily create a ground on which human sacrifice can be used within the framework of a new war machine, in the next global suicidal mission desired by the fascist in each of us.
Koizumi is strongly aware of the hypocritical nature of world politics and decides to expose and reflect on its numerous faces and forms hypocrisy in most of his videos. As much as he is critical toward the fascist and imperialistic environment in which he was brought up, he despises the global hypocrisy of violence hidden behind the rhetoric of human rights. In Jap (2003) a Japanese man is been tortured by a white woman, who is trying to teach him the basic rules of respecting human rights. She forces him to call her “Madam” while repeating his decision to respect human rights. Here, we find again that oedipal subjectivity is not gender-specified and that we are all possible victims of its will to power.
Another one of Koizumi's main concerns is the hypocritical nature of media culture. He offers a critical portrayal of our culture of confession, whether it finds expression in front of the eye of a camera or within the confines of psychoanalysis and church. The strongest critique of this is perhaps to be seen in his Human Opera (2007). For this video, Koizumi paid a person to tell his really tragic story in front of the camera. The man is deeply serious and starts to tell his tale, but he is continuously interrupted by the voice of the director, who is not really satisfied with the aesthetic quality of the image he records. While he slowly reveals how he lost his little daughter in a car accident, the man’s face becomes more and more grotesque as the director applies different objects and drawings to it in order to add 'funny' elements to contrast the story. At first, the tragic man questions the director’s radical approach, but he slowly subjugates himself to the director’s power and continues to talk about the tragedy while letting himself be abused in front of our eyes. The man could leave at any point, but the desire to share his tragedy compels him to continue his story. The pain of the trauma he is exposed to in front of the camera seems nothing compared to the pain of losing his little girl. Confronting us with the basic mechanisms behind our visual and media culture today and with the pornographic depiction of tragedies, the radical nature of this act inspires us to question our own way of consuming the images of suffering and pain.
In Craft Nigh (2008) Koizumi once again brings a man to the confession room, this time giving him the task to mold the clay while telling his story. We are aware from the beginning that this man is an actor as white paint masks his face and he is instructed by the director to simply play his part while molding the clay. The man looks at an abstract sculpture in front of him (the lizard on a stick?) while telling his story and trying to reproduce the same shape in his clay. The director starts to ask him questions about his past, his origin, his parents, his childhood. The character is trying to tell a homogeneous story but is repeatedly interrupted by the director asking him to start over and over again. We slowly witness how the man gets to the main kernel of his trauma, of the event that seems to have shaped him forever. After the divorce of his parents, the last time he met his father was when he brought him a model of a car as a birthday present. Saddened by his long absence, the boy has thrown the car at the father, hitting him in the chest. His father left and died four months later of cancer. Now, the boy has grown into a man and regrets the way in which he said goodbye to his father. We simultaneously hear the voice of the director abusing the character, forcing him to repeat fragments of the story over and over again, going through the hell of trying to tell a coherent narrative and provide us with catharsis. Instead, the man´s story remains fragmented and our catharsis comes from only the pleasure we feel in watching him suffer. Only when the actor has finished molding the perfect shape does the director put an end to his suffering. This new sculpture will stay behind as a true representation, a true trace of his pain – amorphous mass of clay, disfigured and decapitated, the true trace of this fragmented subject who is now ready to finally leave this story behind, just like the lizard leaves behind his skin.
Koizumi's style of storytelling is distinctive in that he leaves it to the viewers to inscribe their own interpretation onto the image in front and onto the artist's exposed body, while they are confronted with their own subconscious desires. Therefore, the previous interpretation should be seen as only one way to read the traces of the ambiguous images that Koizumi constructs. Perhaps the best example for this, and the most enigmatic piece Koizumi has made until now, is The Art of Awakening (2005). Though we think we are watching something familiar, in the end we cannot be completely sure about what we have seen. Three men are taking part in the same experiment: they come into a room and are given a stick with which they have to poke something that looks like a plastic bag filled with some undefinable substance. Slowly, close-up frames confront us with the rising excitement of these male bodies, bodies that are increasingly aroused. At the same time, the viewer’s excitement seems to be blocked by the impossibility to identify with this absurd new way of achieving sexual satisfaction. The pleasure of the body seems to be externalized or, more precisely, displaced to the realm of fantasy and imagination. This act of projected pleasure becomes a metaphor for the pleasure we feel from our voyeuristic position in front of the screen, but its uncanniness comes from the fact that we slowly start to feel that other senses are awakened as well.
At the end of this discussion, it is difficult not to refer to Walter Benjamin and his thesis that the basis for the reemergence of fascism did not die with the end of World War II. According to Benjamin, the conditions for fascism are to be found in the capitalistic strategy of numbing the senses, which is achieved not through their deprivation but through the overflow of stimuli. The current dominance of the media that surround us just serve to give us a false sense of security, while being completely immersed in narcotic reality. Meiro Koizumi undertakes the difficult task to break through the images and look for a way to awaken the silenced productive machines of the libido. The bodies in his videos scream, they make music out of noise, they die while producing tantric rhythms, they leave neurotic traces and testimonies of pain and turn these into creative force; these bodies bring together pleasure and pain, creativity and destruction, mutilation and salvation. In this way, Koizumi turns into someone who invites us to follow his lead without fear and freely participate in the chaos of human nature. Just like the men who reach their climax in his video, Koizumi screams at us to “Wake up!” Without critically rethinking the politics of the senses to which we are being subjugated, there can be no true liberation and the ghosts of army generals will always stay around to haunt us. The most important thing to remember is that the sword is still in our hands.
1 Georges Bataille, “The Psychological Structure of Fascism”, New German Critique, No.16, (Winter, 1979), p.65.
2 Ibid., p.68.
3 Interpretation by Marc Steam given in his Introduction to Deleuze's and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, reprint in 1983 (1977), p. XX.
4 Deleuze and Guattari, Ibid., p.34.