Aleksandra Mir

Aleksandra Mir: Naming Tokyo (Part III)

Ramp Projects, ICA, Philadelphia, Jan 2004
By Bennett Simpson

Naming Tokyo (part III)
24 Jan – 4 April 2004
Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania, 118 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA - USA

"If I want to imagine a fictive nation, I can give it an invented name, treat it declaratively as a novelistic object, create a new Garabagne, so as to compromise no real country by my fantasy... I can also—though in no way claiming to represent or to analyze reality itself (these being the major gestures of Western discourse)—isolate somewhere in the world (faraway) a certain number of features... and out of these features deliberately form a system."
Roland Barthes, 'Empire of Sign's

Have you ever been to Tokyo? Did you follow a guide-book, or wander? Perhaps, on your way to Kuk, you passed by the Sea of Nectar or the busy intersection of Exile on Main Street and Deep Water? Maybe you found the small streets in Ricci and Annika especially charming, or spent some Yen on hippy boots in Anglomania. Perhaps you, like others before, became lost?

Aleksandra Mir has never been to Tokyo. And yet, her portrait of the city, a project she calls Naming Tokyo (Part III), is one of the most curious, and in its way, realistic, images of urban experience one could ask for. It is commonplace, in the West at least, to speak of Tokyo's illegibility. The French essayist Roland Barthes was not the first visitor to note that 'the streets of this city have no names.' They are, rather, marked with baffling numerical designations (which actually pertain to individual buildings) seemingly made for postmen, but few others—quite a contrast to the rational grids common to American cities, or the illustrious namesake avenues of Paris. From her base in New York, Mir took this perceived lack of sense as a point of departure. Why not give Tokyo a 'new' identity? Why not invent street names and neighborhoods? Why not ask Westerners to translate their incomprehension into a system—a map—that could reflect their experience, however subjective it might be?

Installed in the high-walled Ramp space at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Mir's map is the third iteration of this ongoing project, which commenced as a startlingly simple idea and which the artist plans, eventually, to evolve into a full-scale fictional Baedeker. To help her generate material for her new city, Mir asked numerous friends and colleagues—mainly other artists, collectors and students, but also business people, politicians, and scientists—all from the 'West,' to create a list of names. In exchange, her collaborators would have a neighborhood named after them. Some of these lists are legible in their own way, whether as ready-made groups or as word systems. 'Jeremy,' for instance, offered up every song title from the Rolling Stones' famous album 'Exile on Main Street', while 'Ricci' suggested a series of street names all derived from words abbreviated in the letters 'pt.' Other lists border on the deeply subjective, untranslatable without explanation. 'Gareth,' for his part, took twenty common words from his native Welsh language and asked a Japanese friend to transcribe them phonetically. Try and tell a friend to meet you at the corner of 'Joilbax' and 'Diohimbaul.'

For all its fantasy, Mir's map is also embedded with references to the actual city of Tokyo, the plan of which functions as a blown-up graphical template in ICA's Ramp. 'Hobo-Punkature' and 'Cut & Slash' may be names for Vivienne Westwood's famous street-posh fashion collections, but as street designations Mir has applied them to one of Tokyo's main shopping districts. Likewise, a group of streets heavy with drug references clusters around one of the city's largest hospital complexes. A more direct layer of reality is evident in the many flags that adorn the wall-map, plotting out addresses for every McDonald's and art museum in Tokyo, for instance, or places where teenagers like to go to make-out. Keeping with the project's theme of displacement, even in its most factive dimension, Mir gathered such information with the help of an assistant in Philadelphia, Yuka Yokoyama, a native of Tokyo herself, who canvassed her Japanese friends and local Asian-studies students for tips.

It is obvious that the map created by Mir and her collaborators transcends functionality. One could use it, certainly, in the same way that tourists make up provisional or personal ways to navigate any city. But as an image, as a text (for this is a highly textual project), and as a cultural index, what does 'Naming Tokyo' tell us? It would be a knee-jerk reaction to discount the project as a kind of neo-colonialism, or a 're-orientalization' of Japan. To be sure, geographic misapprehension, whether willful or innocent, has been a hallmark of the West's knowledge and imagination of the East since even before colonialism. An evolution of this idea is present even now, for instance, in Sofia Coppola's film 'Lost in Translation', in which two otherwise very different Americans-in-Tokyo find themselves bonding, poignantly—out of necessity, the film intimates—amidst the anomie of karaoke arcades and sleek hotels. Mir's Tokyo, however, could just as easily be her Mexico City, or somebody else's Los Angeles. Where colonialist imaginings of the East extrapolated geographic inscrutability from essentialized character or cultural traits, the slippery, all-over-the-place coding of Mir's map passes no judgment and offers no assessment of Japanese people or their culture. More than a simple elision of terms (from 'East' to 'city'), the project suggests an exercise in beguiled ignorance—a recognition, perhaps even a happy one, that even in today's supposedly globalized world of touristic competence there are places that one does not know.

In this way, Naming Tokyo may speak more about its creators than its object. Mir's city is defined less by otherness, a figment of the colonial mind, than by arbitrariness, a collision of individual hypotheses on what it means to know a place at all. Throughout the history of modernism, it was artists who had a special purchase on imagining cities as sites of disjunction. Perhaps Mir has taken a cue from the Situationists, whose contradictory rusings in the urban landscape sought to short-circuit the bourgeois rationality of post-war Paris. Or perhaps she was looking back further to Baudelaire, Breton and the Surrealists, great literary confabulators of cities as uncanny amalgams of desire and banality. It is striking, however, just how normal, how democratic and universal, Mir's urban response seems when compared to the negative dreams of these earlier moments. As globalization in our own moment ramps-up our need for travel, local understanding, and protection across national and cultural borders, it has become commonplace to think of cities as subjective and experiential fictions, containers for vastly differential forms of language, knowledge and expression. No longer dark icons set apart from industrial or technocratic monotony, today's artists think with the world and within its rival flows of information and meaning. To some extent, they are the advance guard for our developing (and faltering) knowledge of the global. For all its randomness—perhaps because of its randomness—Mir's city may be recognizable to any of us.