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Unconfortable art: body, feminism and violence

Updated: Mar 13, 2022

por Christina Elias

Yoshiko Shimada, look at me look at you (instalação, 1995).

Artist Yoshiko Shimada (Japan) has given a series of lectures in galleries and museums which she called “Art that makes you uncomfortable”. Shimada's radical feminist stance has led to the fact that her production has been considered offensive, aggressive by the mass and superficial view of the general public. Since 1993, Shimada has addressed, through various media such as performance, video, installation and printmaking, themes related to the cultural memory of Japan with a specific focus on women and their relationship with imperialism, violence and power relations. Her recognition as an artist came precisely when she decided to talk about episodes in Japan's history that were unpleasant to the general perception, such as the enslavement of Korean women by the Japanese government during World War 2.

The so-called Korean comfort women were systematically raped and made sex slaves by Japanese soldiers in the so-called “house of comfort” created during this period, supposedly with the knowledge and tolerance of Japanese women who fit the socially promoted model of good wives. and housewives. While acknowledging this crime, the Japanese Government has never properly compensated the victims or portrayed itself in a public act. Recently, there has been a global movement to remember this episode through the placement of bronze statues of these Korean women of comfort in strategic public places in different metropolises around the world, such as Berlin and London.

In this context, in 2012, Yoshiko Shimada performs Becoming a Japanese Confort Woman, in which she sits for hours in front of the Japanese embassy in London, painted in bronze in reference to the statues dedicated to the Korean comfort women. Here, becoming another, metamorphosing into a Korean woman, Shimada deconstructs the very idea of ​​the Japanese Woman, the good housewife, who contradictorily contributed and supported the abuses carried out against other women by soldiers of the Imperial Guard.

Korean Comfort Women are Shimada's resource for addressing current issues such as the commodification and objectification of women in a system where property rights override all others, including life. This approach is very clear in the installation “look at me, look at you” of 1995: a white dress, representing a wedding dress, is placed in front of a mirror. Behind the mirror, the garments that comfort women wore for during the war. Red ribbons bring the presence of blood and all the connotations that can be associated with it, especially in a context of sexual slavery: abortion, rape, rape, violence... In the case of the white dress, the symbol of the bride, housewife, mother, the red ribbon was located on the head: conscience, guilt... On the other side – the side you reach by passing through the mirror, the image itself – blood flows from the womb. The mirror as what allows me to see myself, and, at the same time, the instrument that covers and reveals the other.

Shimada's body of works leads to a reflection on how art and activism can complement or interpenetrate each other and, more specifically, how art can be one of the instruments for materializing the ideas and principles of feminism(s) without losing it. its specific, individual and authentic contours. In Shimada's works, comfort and discomfort are two sides of the same coin: the comfort of the military causes the discomfort of Korean women, the artist's perception generates the discomfort of the Japanese who condoned the abuse, the housewife's safety is guaranteed by slave's violation.

I am an artist, I also work on themes related to women through different media -

- and I am constantly confronted with comments such as “what an aggressive work”, “your performance made me feel disconcerted” .. Of course there is an aesthetic path to chose and this may or may not be light and beautiful. But even a visually beautiful work, like that of Shimada and many other contemporary artists, when dealing with heavy themes that need to be revealed, brings with it a certain discomfort. Is it possible to address issues such as abortion, rape, slavery, abuse, colonialism, collective suffering without establishing a partial relationship with violence? Can art, when poring over these themes, be pleasant?

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