Early in this century, Japanese immigrants cultivated the land east of Lake Washington into verdant acres of strawberries and other crops. World War II banished those farmers to internment camps, their fields to be taken over by suburban blocks, then high-rise buildings. This autumn, a strawberry field reappeared like a ghost in downtown Bellevue; in it, an electronic vision of an immigrant struggles to show his loyalty to his adopted country. After two months, this mirage will vanish.

The strawberry field is real for now, an evocation of history by artist Meiro Koizumi for his installation, “The Corner of Sweet and Bitter” at Open Satellite gallery. Across the lake, a ten-year retrospective of Koizumi’s video work is on view at Seattle University’s Hedreen Gallery. A native of Japan who has lived in Europe and North America, Koizumi’s acute observation of and fascination with different cultures is evident in both exhibitions.

Photo credit: Malcolm Smith.
Photo credit: Malcolm Smith.

The show at Hedreen Gallery features eleven video works made between 2000 and 2009. Koizumi’s early work is conceptual; performance art in which he is performer, cinematographer, and director, sometimes simultaneously. He employs extreme close-ups of disembodied hands or faces; in “Merokozuuuumi”, one of his hands is a painted puppet dancing for the camera held by the other. The compulsive quality of the action can be mesmerizing and disturbing. Some videos have musical themes, but the sound is highly distorted. There is humor, but of the sort that evokes nervous laughter, although he says, “I never try to make things funny.”

Time spent as an artist in residence in Ibaraki, Japan and in Amsterdam gave him the luxury of time and studio space in which to build sets for his videos. The works made during and after these residencies have more narrative structure and a palpable connection to the countries where they were made. But this sense of place is less about a physical location than a social, political and psychological context. “I want my body of work to be one world with many aspects: political, social,” he says. “The work can’t be just beautiful, or just ugly, or just skillful. It must be all these things.”

In “Art of Awakening”, three men appear to be taking part in a psychological experiment. A voice off-screen asks “Do you want to experience freedom of spirit?” and directs them to poke an unidentifiable object repeatedly with a stick. At first bored with this meaningless activity, the men find it increasingly pleasant, even sensual, until they become completely caught up in it. Koizumi made this video while living in the Netherlands, a society he characterizes as a liberal and hedonistic, but highly controlled. His most recent work, “Portrait of a Young Samurai” was made in Japan and reflects his country’s uneasy post-World War II relationship with nationalism. An actor repeatedly performs a kamikaze pilot’s farewell speech, expressing gratitude to his parents and his country. As the director exhorts him from off-screen, the actor’s emotional intensity increases with each take until his hysteria verges on physical pain.

While doing research for the Open Satellite installation, Koizumi attended a Seattle Mariners game. The singing of the national anthem gave him a sudden insight into the context of the developing work. In the U.S., mass displays of patriotism are taken for granted, even demanded; in Japan, they are suspect, and the singing of the national anthem in schools is controversial.

“The setting is the memorial, the video is about today,” is how Koizumi describes the Corner of Sweet and Bitter. Rows of live strawberry plants in topsoil cover part of the concrete floor, as if the corner of a field had poked through the glass wall. A wooden shed straddles the edge of the field, half in the past, half in the present. Inside the shed, a large monitor plays a video shot in that exact spot, of a Latino immigrant singing the “Star Spangled Banner” encumbered by a strange collection of props: a hot dog taped over the his nose and mouth like a mask; a tiny American flag that flaps as he breathes; a barbell. His words are muffled; only the melody is recognizable. But he gamely persists, singing the anthem several times as off-screen, Koizumi exhorts him to sing louder. The immigrant, like other characters in Koizumi’s work, struggles to meet the expectations of a director, or a culture that that can disorient even a native.

Meiro Koizumi / My Voice Would Reach You at Lee Center for the Arts, Hedreen Gallery at Seattle University. (206) 296-2244. www.seattleu.edu/artsci/finearts. The Corner of Sweet and Bitter at Open Satellite. (425) 454-7355. www.opensatellite.org. Both through January 9, 2010. A catalog will be published covering both exhibits.

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