Posts Tagged ‘Green Screen’

One Giant Nervous Laugh: The Complex Work of Yoshie Sakai

October 4, 2017

Yoshie Sakai is one of the artists I recently had the pleasure of working with and curating in a show called Bitter Candy. I was eager to have her contribute her videos that address in vivid, metaphorical, funny, and sometimes quirky ways, real issues concerning eating habits and pressures on women to maintain a certain weight. Sakai’s recent work also tackles family and cultural dynamics, covering issues such as daughters being devalued in comparison to sons.

Over the years, her work has progressed in sophisticated content and use of digital technology. She plays with green-screen in order to place her characters (all played by herself in different costume) onto domestic and street scenes. In her recent soap opera, KOKO’s Love, characters are present in the scene, but not perfectly aligned or fluid with them so that they remain on top of the scene rather than embedded in it. As a result, there is a sense of disconnection and discomfort reflecting their emotional state and relationships. The characters seem to lack respite in their locales and their floatation creates a subtle yet palpable tension and anxiety.

KOKO’s Love and subsequent episodes bring us into the lives of a nuclear family where the father wishes his daughter had been born a boy and rejects her, seeming to wish her gone. His daughter eventually goes missing.

I asked Sakai about the missing daughter in the KOKO’s Love series:

Aliabadi: Yoshie, tell me about your missing child character. Yuki represents a cast-off child, coming into the world as the wrong gender and being raised under her father’s denial and sexist, if you will, interpretations of daughters. Her abduction seems very much a self-fulfilling prophecy for him, as Yuki’s mother points out in an argument at one point. Is this the kind of structure that you were exposed to growing up as a girl in your family?

Is this a particular aspect of East Asian culture that you are highlighting and if so, what do you specifically hope the viewers get out of it? The idea of a boy being the preferred gender runs across various cultures, either overtly or covertly (the West holds remnants of it in its general societal culture and hierarchies). But what are you offering on this particular issue with this dark soap opera genre?

Sakai: The whole KOKO’s Love soap opera series and related videos are loosely autobiographically based, and Yuki, the missing child character, is patterned after myself, as I am the only child and daughter in my family. Though I was not specifically exposed to the structure where my father was in denial (and yes, in the case of Hiroshi in KOKO’s Love, sexist) of my gender, I am trying to expose the latent patriarchy that pervaded my family and perhaps others. By particularly highlighting this aspect of gender inequity in my culture, and as you said, in many cultures, through KOKO’s Love, I attempt to articulate the complex frailty of familial ties and interactions, and of being a lost and misunderstood child. In my series, Yuki is trying to figure out how to be loved when she does not have the obvious power to change the situation. Being born biologically a girl, she cannot change her situation easily as a seven-year-old child, so to biologically become a boy, her solution is to take on drag.

For me the soap opera genre and its tropes is an appropriate platform to bring these issues of the normal dysfunctional immigrant family story and interpersonal relationships to the fore.

It’s funny how you mention the self-fulfilling prophecy for Hiroshi of Yuki’s abduction…. As you will see later (SPOILER ALERT), there was a big hint in Episode 2 that Hiroshi arranged for the abduction himself…. But the first hint was the phone call he received in Episode 1 when he was sitting on the couch one night with Keiko.

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KOKO’s Love at Groundspace Project, Los Angeles, California, Seven-channel mixed media video, installation, 25′ x 40′ x 12′, 2017

Aliabadi: I do really take to the use of the soap opera format to bring these issues forth, especially since the melodrama of soap characters and their relationships conveniently allow for, as you mention, tropes. They underscore tropes, if you will.  I love the introductory credits where your characters turn dramatically towards the camera– you had me laughing hard and elicited some sadness from me at Keiko’s turn and slight, forced smile. There are various funny tidbits in your work and those humorous moments seem to buoy your harder, serious subject matter. What are your intentions and concerns with humor?

Sakai: I find humor to be a very important and complicated intersection where all sorts of emotions collide, and as you mentioned Shiva, Keiko’s opening sequence with her turn and forced smile, are funny and sad at the same time. It (humor) is also a coping mechanism and necessary life tool for getting through hardships and injustices. It makes life bearable, although not always accepted. In some cases, for example, I have always had a nervous laugh where I would laugh or chuckle a little after I say something serious or uncomfortable, and I remember I would get scolded, told, or asked why I am laughing when what I said was not funny. But for me it was a “bad” habit or a necessary one to process the uncomfortable feeling I just spoke about. I feel like the whole soap opera series is one giant nervous laugh of all the wrong and difficult situations we are put through with our relationships with family members, friends, and acquaintances. For me, joy and pain are two sides of the same coin, which is humor. I don’t think that something can be funny without understanding or incorporating both aspects.

When people are asked the question “What kind of traits are you looking for in an ideal partner?,” “sense of humor” always seems to come up, and I believe that it is because those who are “funny” can empathize with a wide spectrum of situations and feelings. Humor is seriously an important component of my work and also one way of committing things to memory. So if you associate something you want to remember with humor, there is a tendency, at least for me, to not forget something that is significant and shouldn’t be forgotten.

Aliabadi: Why did you decide to play the characters yourself rather than, say, hiring Japanese-American actors?

Sakai: In the end, I decided to play and will play all the characters myself unless (e.g. in Episode 2), the characters of the soap meet people in the outside world, like Yuki after she is kidnapped and her dream sequence takes her to adventures in New Orleans. Because it is in essence a story “loosely” based on my personal family history and narrative, it made sense and still makes sense for me to be at the core of all the characters. Many times I think it would be easier in a way to have actors, because it is difficult lip-syncing to all the voices, but it just makes sense to me to be everyone at the same time. This means all the characters will be aging along with my real-life aging.

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KOKO’s Love at Torrance Shipman Gallery, Brooklyn, New York, Two-channel mixed media video installation, 14′ x 18′ x 14′ tall, 2017

Aliabadi: As you mention, the hint to Hiroshi being the abductor really sheds light not just on his, or patriarchy’s, devaluing of the female but also spotlights some kind of inherent dislike of himself, I think. Patriarchy could be said to dislike the female because of its own fears and confusion around the female and her differences from the male–attributes she has that he does not, by nature’s default, and his inability to process, relate to, and appreciate that. Which never meant she was better; but I often wonder if patriarchy’s fear is that she might be, and that ungrounded fear and lack of seeing equality and appreciation of each other’s attributes without hierarchy causes much toxic patriarchal behavior.

But, arguably, to hate something, you have to have insecurities in yourself that then are projected onto your object of hate. And I feel as if Hiroshi harbors insecurities that are easily projected onto the female, the daughter, Yuki, and then easily rejected (especially since society allows for and encourages that rejection anyway); those insecurities, deemed part of Yuki and not Hiroshi (in his mind anyway) allow him to then, he hopes, erase her for good.

Is that kind of self-rejection, projection, and failed erasure part of your creation of Hiroshi? Do you agree with this analysis of the dynamic between father and daughter?

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KOKO’s Love at Groundspace Project, Los Angeles, California, Seven-channel mixed media video, installation, 25′ x 40′ x 12′ tall, 2017

Sakai: I totally agree with you, Shiva, about this being the dynamic between father and daughter, Hiroshi and Yuki in KOKO’s Love, as this self-rejection and projection on the part of Hiroshi is his primal sign of weakness and fear of the female takeover, especially by a child who can become a grown woman with more power. Of course it is easier to lash out on a child, as he sees the daughter as a weaker female than the adult female– such as his wife, Keiko, who is stronger mentally and can fight and talk back as she does. Although right now Keiko does this within the confines of societal rules and standards. I am hoping that as the episodes progress that I can make Keiko a stronger person able to reject and combat deep-rooted patriarchy. Hiroshi is definitely insecure and fears the female bond between mother and daughter. Two against one in the Sakimoto family is how Hiroshi is sizing up the odds, not in favor of him.

KOKO’s Love can be viewed on Sakai’s website, www.yoshiesakai.com. I also asked Sakai about her earlier work regarding body image.

Aliabadi: As far as earlier videos such as Britney Scale Surgery (2008) and Come One, Eat All (2007), I see you tackling continually relevant topics of body image, eating concerns, or even disorders, and the constant exposure as a Japanese-American woman to representations of the blonde American woman (an entirely constructed image in itself). I see attempts to mimic that constructed representation– which is harder to copy for those not coming from European-American backgrounds, colors, and features. So that fitting in to this “idea” of an acceptable woman, look, weight, behavior, sexiness, and so on, is quite a challenge. It begs the question, how can we morph ourselves into what has been advertised to us as a norm of what to emulate?

Would you say these are the concerns of this work?

Will you be continuing to discuss this subject or are you more invested now in the content (though, not necessarily format) of the soap opera series?

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Come One, Eat All, Single-channel video, 04:54, 2007

Sakai: Definitely, topics of body image, eating concerns/disorders and the constant reminder that I, being a Japanese-American woman, am not the “blonde American woman,” are direct concerns of my earlier work (2009 and earlier); and you are so right, Shiva, that even this “blonde American woman” is a constructed image by the corporate media and this perpetual bombardment of this image and what is considered “acceptable” onto all women is a plague that invades our conscious and subconscious realities. It really sucks. And we will never be able to morph into this image and associated behaviors with any sanity; and so with “Come One, Eat All” and “Britney Scale Surgery,” I attempt to reveal the ridiculousness and sad and evil mind and body control of the mass media over our lives and our constant struggle to accept just who we are and be happy with who we are. These specific topics from my earlier work have always been with me even from when I was painting as an undergraduate in 2001 (paintings can be seen on yoshie-sakai.blogspot.com).

Although it may not seem that I am addressing these topics specifically in my soap opera series (some of these specific topics will come up in other related character vignette videos), I do believe that I have been making the same work since the very beginning, which comes down to the issue of expectations and the ability or inability to meet them– most of the time, the inability to meet them. I find this to be at the core of everything I have made so far from Come One, Eat All to KOKO’s Love. It could be expectations set by the media/big business, by our families and friends, and by ages and ages of ingrained patriarchy. But I find myself continually struggling to reaffirm that there is no rational need to try and meet these goals that are unrealistically set by external sources and forces. It has indeed become a lifelong battle.

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Britney Scale Surgery, Single-channel video, 04:18, 2008

Of course, what Sakai and I discussed is only a piece of the many dynamics taking place in her work. Her videos entice the viewer to watch them more than once to access more and more societal and personal tensions and traumas. She takes you to and through the difficult arguments, conversations, and silences in an aesthetic trip worth taking.

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