Takahiko Iimura 1972-2002 (English)




[Translated from the German by Caspar Stracke and Alena Williams]


In 1970, Roland Barthes declared Japan as a model for a kind of system liberated from any (Western) signification-overload, at an important moment in time when art in the West as well as in the East began forming an alliance with technology. Although, or especially because, the "author" and the "subject" were already dead or in the midst of dying, the art of that era happily began to receive new and vital impulses of a technological and intercultural nature. The emergence of the new video medium became symptomatically representative and jointly responsible for the changes that occurred. Its inherent function as an "electronic mirror" unfolded, not least of all through its direct cultural use: it remains a symbol in the West because it is still regarded as subject-loaded and therefore exposed to the reproach of narcissism, whereas the East regards it as a signifier for the emptiness of symbols-"The spirit of the absolute man is like a mirror," says Barthes quoting a Taoist master, "He does not hold onto anything but does not reject anything. He consumes, but does not hold." (1)


The ability to receive and to give back at the same time, without absorption and without distortion, a Haiku ideal of exposition without comment, and the refusal of any interpretation, can be seen as the paradigm of zen. The negation of the difference between "interior" (uchi) and "exterior" (soto), and the overcoming of difference "as such" in the proximity/non-mediation of the "simple" present (presence), also becomes highly enjoyable: According to the interpretaton of the Buddhist Mikkyo school, the present, the "now," is described as the "ultimate pleasure."(2)


Even if the artistic work of Takahiko Iimura (1937) can be seen as adhering to the characteristically "Japanese way of art" it definitively cannot be reduced to such, neither can it be explained away by it: this becomes clear at the first glance at Iimura's artistic career. This artist, born in <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tokyo</st1:place></st1:city> and a member of the New York Underground scene in the 1960s, began his career as an experimental filmmaker. Iimura also received early acknowledgement in <st1:place w:st="on">Europe</st1:place> for his films Ai (Love) (1962, with music by Yoko Ono) and Onan (1964). His connection to Fluxus and especially to the European structuralist film

movement lead Iimura to undertake intensive artistic research in the processes foundational to meaning construction, as demonstrated in his work on the problem of identity (subject-object relationship), and often recorded by the semiotic and linguistic apparatus. In this regard, his investigations, which lead to the realization of an unsolvable connection between concept and experience, most clearly expresses itself practically and explicitly in terms of a space-time interpretation of the varying levels of "production" and "reception." These investigations were realized formally in the Japanese artist's film and closed circuit video installations and performances after 1968.



“The English words movie, motion picture, cinema, all stress movement; but if we go to Japanese, the word for motion picture is "eiga" which literally means "reflected picture" - emphasis is on the state of reflection rather than on the motion. Also the Chinese for cinema literally means "electric shadow picture" [...] I suppose this idea comes from the shadow theatre [...] So I am also doing a shadow picture presentation - myself sitting in front of the projector. This idea also comes from my desire to be the audience and performer at the same time, so I can look at what I am doing [...] So in this way I can present the structure of picture-viewing and use myself as an object as well as the subject [...] So I'm sitting, as you are and facing the screen, and in myself I have my own audience, and this is particularly suited for the video structure, for video has this simultaneous response [...] When I compare film and video, I see video as more like the nervous system than the muscles of the body, for you can always inter-act and feedback between yourself and the object which you are showing or taping.” (3)


The available catalogue of his work focuses exclusively on Iimura's closed circuit video installations, which still play an critical role in his oeuvre. His first closed circuit video installation consisted of a feedback-producing arrangement of a video camera and a juxtaposed monitor. The participant (viewer) sits on a chair in front of a monitor with his back to the camera and is given the task of signing a piece of paper, while saying his or her name out loud. The title of the work consists of the noteworthy statement: Register Yourself: Unless You Register You Are No Person (1972), which exemplifies an ambivalent, almost polyfocal, semantic efficiency-exceeding the one-dimensional causal critique of the rules governing the (media) game.

Iimura combines a comparable ambivalence between the exposure of the participant to media and the rejection of perception simultaneously granted to him with the request, "Project Yourself," in a closed circuit video installation (4) of the same name from 1973: The person sitting on the chair is asked to talk or perform something for one minute. Other visitors are able to look at the person and the live transmission simultaneously; however, the "performing" person cannot see him or herself. As in the installation described above, the transmission can be recorded and played back at some point in the future. The problem of "self-projection"/"world introjection" and the associated sketching out of identity are explored in an interesting fashion by Iimura, particularly in regards to his conclusion that not only the actions, but also the language of an individual especially, have a significant function in the shaping of identity, although language (and therefore, culture as well) are understood as idiomatic structures. (5)


In 1975-1976, Iimura attempted to analyze the visual and oral "elementary particles" in meaning production in his video trilogy, Camera, Monitor, Frame (1976), Observer/Observed (1975) and Observer/Observed/Observer (1976). The goal of the project was to create a "semiotics of video" that consciously supported the work of film semioticians like Christian Metz and film theorists and directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov, while at the same time being dissociated from it.


“Video is still a young medium and has not yet received such analysis [...] While Metz’s approach to semiology is concerned with (dramatic) film, I deal with video, which has certain elements in common with film, yet has its own unique system. I am particularly interested in the structure of video functioning as a system. My work [...] should be considered within the context of the image being manipulated through the entire system. In this way the structure of video as a closed circuit can then be comprehended”. (6)


This analysis was anticipated by the formal precision of closed circuit video installations like Face/Ing (formerly: Back to Back) and Front and Back (both 1974), among others. In Front and Back Iimura juxtaposes a mirror with closed circuit video: A video camera on a tripod records the visitor, as he or she stands in front of it. This live image is visible on a monitor on the opposite wall. As a result, it also creates a feedback image on the monitor. Next to the monitor, an upright mirror of human scale is installed, whereby the viewer can watch him or herself in the monitor from the front and from the back at the same time. When the viewer approaches the mirror his or her reflection increases in size, while the image on the video monitor simultaneously decreases in size.


Although this work is similar to the first closed circuit video installation by Bruce Nauman, Video Corridor for <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">San Francisco</st1:place></st1:city> from 1969, it seems important to consider the total context of Iimura's investigation of the structural relations between language and video. Iimura, according to his own account, always approached it from the English, although he always had the Japanese in mind:


“Video is an unique system in terms of applying these studies of comparative linguistics, because you can record image and sound simultaneously. In a closed circuit system (referential) a camera (observer) is connected to a monitor (the observed) [...] this forms a structure similar to a sentence. Also in language I am not interested in a word as an object but in a sentence and its structure”. (7)


With his conceptual approach, Iimura claimed a special position within the first generation of Japanese artists working with electronic media. Especially when considered in relation to the "Gutai" group's ideals of spontaneity, Iimura's art appears to be surprisingly "Western." This is ultimately because his art does not conform to the deterministic Western clichés of Japanese artistic knowledge.


As in the rest of the world, the continuous presence in exhibitions of media art was not yet established in <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Japan</st1:place></st1:country-region> in the years between 1977 and 1989. In regard to the number and the notoriety of undertaken closed circuit video installations, it was more a time of stagnation. However, the "breakthrough" happened in the background instead-in the form of culminating theories and new insights into electronic media, which together with the commercial introduction and availability of digital computer systems, networks, and interfaces, gradually made a broader audience, as well as a broader art audience, aware. At the end of this period, the first worldwide exhibition of "interactive art," Wonderland of Science - Invitation to Interactive Art, opened in <st1:place w:st="on"><st1:city w:st="on">Kanagawa</st1:city>, <st1:country-region w:st="on">Japan</st1:country-region></st1:place> (1989). It was an event which heralded the international institutional acceptance of this art form and was followed by an artistic hyper-production of proportions that - up until that time - had not been known. The combination of digital computer technology and visual interfaces (closed circuit video cameras) resulted in a global "Renaissance" of closed circuit video installations in the 1990s.

In the meantime, Takahiko Iimura continued his "semiotics of video" and produced some of his most impressive and elegant works: Face to Face (1977) consisted of two closed circuit video cameras on tripods and two monitors, each pair juxtaposed with the other. Camera 1 recorded Camera 2 and vice versa, displaying the live image on the opposite monitor, so that each particular camera and its image on the monitor were situated beside one another. Likewise in the closed circuit video installation, Topological Space (1979), two video cameras and monitors were juxtaposed, similar to the set up of Face to Face (1977) with the only difference being that the camera which recorded the monitor facing it was connected to it by a cable. This resulted in the creation of feedback images on both screens. Next to this ensemble, a comparable face-to-face situation was installed with two 16mm film projectors. Projector 1 projected an endless film loop onto its opposing wall, casting its beam upon Projector 2, which was placed on a pedestal in front of the wall; by virtue of this arrangement, a white picture with a black right angle at the center of the lower portion of the frame (as well as the moving film strip, hanging down from above) was created. Projector 2 was not projecting film at all, but was instead projecting pure light on its corresponding wall, thereby casting exactly the same shadow as Projector 1.


However, the popularity of these two "classic" examples of Iimura's "Tautological Iconoclasm" in the art world was exceeded by I=You=He/She (1979), and by This is a Camera Which Shoots This (1980) in particular. In the latter work, two video cameras on tripods and two monitors on pedestals stand opposite one another at eye level. It is similar to the situation also called for in Face to Face (1977) with the same cable connection. Camera 1 records Camera 2 and displays its live image on the opposite monitor, so that each camera and monitor and its corresponding live image are standing next to each other. Upon the adjacent wall in between the camera-monitor pairs is affixed the following inscription:





This statement is meant to be equivalent to the "endless video sentence" that is created by the mutual recording of both cameras. In this virtual feedback process, the existing subject-object relationship "prescribed" by elementary logic becomes relativized. In Iimura's words, "an endless structure as the

object 'this' turns into the subject of the next sentence." (8)


A similar situation with two closed circuit video cameras standing opposite one another was employed yet again in probably the most well-known closed circuit video installations of Takahiko Iimura, As I See You You See Me (1990): Before the viewer is permitted to explore the installation, a 20 minute-long performance is enacted: the artist moves in-between the cameras and monitors, uttering the words "I" and "You" in English, Japanese, and the appropriate language of the particular guest country. After ten minutes the performance concludes with a verbal interpretation of the artist/performer on the videotape, which plays back the first half of the performance that has just been recorded.

Peter D'Agostino saw in both of Iimura's above mentioned works a confrontation between the topics of language and semiotics, as well as of the theory and practice of transmission and reception:

“That is, they break down the fundamental aspects of communication, of sending and receiving - precisely, concisely, and incisively - to the point of tedium, boredom and revelation”. (9)


On the one hand, the semantic meaning of verbal and visual statements have become neutralized to the point of boredom, while on the other hand, they must be understood - and this should be seen as their purpose -in terms of their diachronic potential for expansion, in that their endpoint is at the same time the starting point of an imaginary and experiential cybernetic/natural Moebius strip. Iimura compares the dialectics of images and language, live video image and the viewer, as well as the "subject" and the "object" to the complex Yin/Yang principle, which is perhaps the most concentrated expression of the "tautological" in the Japanese artist's work. This principle reveals itself most clearly in the "dialogical" works like Self Introduction or Video Talking: Back To Back (both 1982), yet the most "pointless" of them, This is a Camera Which Shoots This (1980), reflects, in an unsurpassed way, Iimura's cultivated transnational "postmodernity" at the same time that they radiate the traditional Japanese aesthetic concepts of wabi (= simplicity, silence) and sabi (= unobstrusive elegance).


To conclude this short outline of Iimura's ouvre of closed circuit video works, we should mention Daniel Charles's sophisticated comparison of Iimura's and Paik's artistic practices.

“In short, with all his virtuosity, Paik has situated himself in the undecided... He places himself between tradition and modernity, but his art remains epidemic. In this sense, one could place him in opposition to an artist like the film and video maker Takahiko Iimura, whose work - imprinted with what Paik himself defines as "Japanese perfectionism" - makes use of postmodern ambiguity in that he chooses not only to live it, but to make of it a theory, and this in his works [...] One could say in this sense that Kegon Buddhism's logic, long ago apprenticed to John Cage by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, grows in depth - a depth not reached by Nam June Paik's TV-Buddha - in Iimura's art.” (10)


Apart from this judgment (which ought not to speak compellingly for Iimura within a non-dualistic value system, not concerned with depth), the distinction remains to be pointed out, which places Iimura's "gradualist non-dualism" and Paik's "paradoxical 'subitism'"11  in a relation which makes it possible for us to avoid the adjective "tautological," as it appears less differentiated, and in certain cases, often not appropriate.


Just as in the rest of the world, and in particular, as in Europe, also in Japan in the 1990s, a revival of the artistic preoccupation with the complex topic of the "subject-object" relationship is notable in the context of media art. "Narcissistic" video experiments already known from the 1960s and in particular from the 1970s, which utilize media self-reflexivity, have returned in manifold variations with the beginning of the 1990s. Usually they posses an important "structural" difference:


Most closed circuit installations were computer aided, and take advantage of the extended possibilities for the precise manipulation visual imagery. Instead of the effects generator, the video mixer and the analog/digital synthesizer, which stood between the input and output device, are computer hardware and software. Thus, artistic definition and practices have been extended in many cases by components of programming.

In a culture, which has not been shaped historically by the Cartesian separation of body and mind of Western society, the treatment of the "subject" - "object" relationship also in regard to media art may not be taken for granted.


However, this complex problem has been a tradition in the work of Japanese filmmakers and media artists for decades, constantly recurring as a topic of interest, and makes reference to cultural distinctions, and also to the possibility of transgression. The subtle works of film and closed circuit video installations of Takahiko Iimura - an artist who, with his "semiotics of video" took another practical and theoretical approach towards the intersection of <st1:country-region w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Japan</st1:place></st1:country-region> with the West - takes a special position in this context. Also in the 1990s, Iimura consistently and successfully carried out further investigations, incorporating media-specificity in his use of digital storage media such as CD-ROM and DVD. (12)






(1)               Roland Barthes, L'Empire Des Signes, d'art Albert Skira S.A., 1970. p. 109.

(2)               Kou Nakajima, Video from Tokyo to Fukui and Kyoto, Ed. Barbara London, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1986.

(3)               Takahiko iimura, From <Time> to <See You>, Instituto Giapponese Cultura, <st1:city w:st="on">Rome</st1:city>, 1997 [Cantrill Film Notes, No. 45/46, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Melbourne</st1:place></st1:city>, 1984], pp. 52, 53 [ 31, 32]

(4)               First shown: Akademie der Kunst, Berlin, 1973. Also shown in the Kölnischen Kunstverein, 1974.

(5)               Takahiko iimura, takahiko iimura at the Lux, London Filmmakers Co-op, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">London</st1:place></st1:city>, 1998, pp. 12 - 13.

(6)               ibid. p. 26.

(7)                "It is my view that it is not the visuality of the characters but the structure of Japanese which differentiates it from Chinese and makes it an unique communication system. We say in Japanese "I You see" (Watakushi wa ANATA o miru) so far the order of the words is concerned; in English we say "I see YOU." The difference in the position of the object indicates the priority in communication: in Japanese, the object "you"; in English, the verb "see." In Japanese the subject is linked to the object directly, whereas in English it is necessary to have a predicate in advance of the object. If we take the subject as "I," as in the above sentence, it is in English the ego must be set up at a distance from the object. This is in opposition to Japanese, where the syntagmatic contiguity of subject and object (unmediated as it were by the predicate) makes for the assumption of a pre-established ego. In English it is the subject that is most strongly emphasized; this is not so in Japanese." - Takahiko Iimura, "The Visuality in The Structure of Japanese Language," Takahiko Iimura Film and Video, Anthology Film Archives, <st1:state w:st="on">New York</st1:state>, 1990 [Art and Cinema, <st1:state w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">New York</st1:place></st1:state>, December, 1978], p. 40 [16]. Comparable forms or expression can be found in other Indoeuropean languages, i.e. in French (je te voi) in Croatian, Serbian (ja te vidim) etc.

(8)               Iimura 1997 [1990], p. 68 [68]; German Translation: DAAD, <st1:state w:st="on">Berlin</st1:state>, from Takahiko Iimura Film and Video, Anthology Film Archives, <st1:state w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">New York</st1:place></st1:state>.

(9)               D’Agostino 2001 [1993], p. 46 [14].

(10)           Daniel Charles, "Narcissism and Post Modernity (Notes on Takahiko Iimura)", translated by Eleanor Mitch, Reviews of Takahiko iimura, <st1:city w:st="on"><st1:place w:st="on">Tokyo</st1:place></st1:city>, 200l, ["Narcissisme et postmodernite (Notes sur Takahiko Iimura)," takahiko iimura "Seeing," Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris, 1999], p. 53 [12].

(11)           ibid., p. 55 [16].

(12)           See CD-ROM, Observer/Observed and Other Works of Video Semiology, Takahiko Iimura Media Art Institute, Tokyo, 1999, and DVD, Seeing/Hearing/Speaking, Takahiko Iimura Media Art Institute, Tokyo, 2002.


[partially excerpted from / based on: Closed Circuit Videoinstallations. On the history and theory of media art, Logos Verlag, Berlin 2004]