Spelling Dystopia (2009) has certain features that it shares with many of Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani’s photoworks and video installations of the past ten years. First of all, the main protagonist of the work is an urban or architectural space, instead of these being merely a setting to narrate events. It has that in common with a diverse range of earlier works, such as Palast der Republik – Weissbereich (2001), a two-channel video installation and a series of photographs featuring the then empty (and now demolished) Palace of the Republic of the former German Democratic Republic in Berlin, followed by Radio Solaris (2004), in which another vacant state building of the German Republic stars, and the single screen installation The Rise (2007), featuring a brand new and half-empty office tower in the freshly developed financial district in the South of Amsterdam.'1 An island, as in Spelling Dystopia, was already the topic in the series of eight panoramic photographs L’Avventura Sensa Fine of 2000, although the rocky, uninhabited island off the Italian coast in question hardly resembles the deprived urban setting of the man-made Hashima coal-mining island near Nagasaki, Japan.
The second main element in Fischer and El Sani’s work is the reference to, and use of features of, films by Tarkowski, Hitchcock, Antonioni and others, usually directors who also have a special eye for landscapes and architectural or urban environments and have those play an active role in their scenarios. L’Avventura Sensa Fine is a follow-up to the enigmatic role of the island in Antonioni’s L’Avventura, the surrealist atmosphere and sudden appearances in the vacant communist radio broadcast building in Radio Solaris obviously is a direct response to the strange events in Tarkowski’s Solaris. The same could be said of the devastating and endless climbing of stairs in The Rise in relation to the confusing moments and violent apotheosis on the staircase of Hitchcock’s Vertigo.
How are these reoccurring elements explored in Spelling Dystopia? The dystopian of the title firstly refers to the desolate state of Hashima, as it is registered on one of the two screens of this video-installation. Long panoramic views of the island, which resembles the form of a large battleship, shot from a boat speeding around it, are alternated with a sometimes staccato montage of images of the discarded and demolished interior of the 1974-abandoned coal-miner’s island, such as squares, residential areas, a school, mining structures etcetera, making clear that it once must have been a very densely populated seven acres of land. These images respond to the voice-over that recollects life at Hashima when it was still in use, as experienced by a former inhabitant, the son of a miner. The second dystopian feature is its reference to the film which story is also located on a deserted island: Battle Royale by Kinji Fukasaku. This science fiction blockbuster from 2000 is mainly known because of its bloody violence, its story centred around a class of 42 school children who, as a disciplinary measure, are left on an island with no other objective than to kill each other. The last kid who survives is the winner of the ‘game’. Battle Royale II: Requiem of 2003 by the same director (and his son) is its sequel which was actually partly shot on Hashima, and so is the final stage of the 2005 computer game killer7. Hashima thus mainly survives in the collective memory in a spirit of extreme violence. In Fischer and El Sani’s emulation of this background we see a class of school-costumed juniors from Sapporo who spell out in a disciplinary way some words and phrases, that relate to the history of the island, by their collective positions on an empty square, each position starting after a loudly yelled order by someone outside of view.
Fischer and El Sani’s shift of focus in their rendering of the architectural ‘blind spots’ is striking. Up to The Rise they presented them as phlegmatic spaces, silent proofs of past ideologies awaiting a new definition, another function, gentrification or simply demolishment, with no more than a camera gazing their interiors such as in Palace of the Republic or, as in Radio Solaris, hosting dreamy events and performances. In short, the architecture and whatever Fischer and El Sani made happen in there were presented as living under the aegis of liberated time, of time liberated from regimentation, either capitalist or communist'2. But with The Rise these relaxed fantasies and sense of in-between has made way for a grimmer vision of labour. There we see a bank employee incessantly climbing the stairs as a metaphor of upward career movement, which is presented as devoid of any positive connotation and utterly unrewarding.
In Spelling Dystopia they deliberately use the shift that the Japanese island made from the memory of individuals – people who happened to have lived there – to the collective one. From the voice-over we learn that it was a prosperous and advantaged city in the 50s and 60s, a place worthy to live in and with a certain luxury standard (the island was owned by the Mitsubishi Company). However, the images of the demolished architecture on the one projection, as well as films such as Battle Royale and killer7 as referred to by the school children under command in the other projection, conceive it as a very hard place to live, a kind of Alcatraz or Blade Runner’s Los Angeles – or for that matter a Japanese work camp, which it has actually been during the second world war.
Norman Klein argues that popular movies shape history and let us forget how things actually were.'3 We perceive the images of Fischer and El Sani’s video diptych as dystopia, but it is one that is spelled out, indeed, by filmic image and not by the history as it was experienced from first hand. Indeed, all their previous film installations use film as natural mood makers for prescribed perception. To the contrary of its documentary look, Spelling Dystopia not so much tells us a history of an island, but rather presents to us a history of horrification that has come in its place. In a world where capital and images are ubiquitous, on a global scale, fiction has become more real than reality itself.
Jelle Bouwhuis is curator at Stedelijk Museum Bureau Amsterdam, the Netherlands
The titles and headings in this text are quotations from commentaries by Nina Fischer and Maroan el Sani on their works.
1 A full survey of these and other works is to be found in Nina Fischer & Maroan el Sani – Blind Spots (J. Bouwhuis, N. Fischer and M. el Sani, eds.), Zurich/Amsterdam/Berlin/Yamaguchi 2008.
2 Inspired by Sven Lütticken, who expands on Nicolas Bourriaud’s idea of Relational Aesthetics, in ‘Liberating Time’, The Art of Projection (Stan Douglas and Christopher Eamon, eds.), Ostfildern 2009, pp. 57-70; esp. p. 66-67.
3 Norman Klein, The History of Forgetting, New York 1997, esp. chapters 3 and 4.
Several places that were once hallmarks, centers of political culture, avant-garde art, and social developments, have become more or less temporally blind spots in contemporary society. With our work we want to bring them back to today`s consciousness in their altered, mystified phases: not utopian anymore, not obsolete, but rather not yet redefined.
Our new film project focuses on the public perception of the uninhabited island Hash ma near Nagasaki, which has a vivid history. Like in our previous work, we are interested in the aspect of collective memory and the insecurities of evocation and transmission of memories.
Hashima has been an important location for Japanese coal-mining until 1974. It is a man-made artificial island, based on the use of concrete which was a newly discovered construction material in 1916, when the construction started. During the World War II it was a work camp for war prisoners from Korea and China, later in the 60s it became the most dense place on earth. With a size of only 160 x 450 m the island was inhabited by over 5000 people in its best times, working in the Mitsubishi-owned coalmine. The density of the population was higher than in Tokyo`s most crowded parts today. From 1974 the island was abandoned because the resources were exploited. Today the island is uninhabited and the concrete-architecture is left to natural erosion. In the year 2000 it became the film location of a science fiction blockbuster „Battle Royale“, and came back into the japanese consciousness, with a different connotation. The younger generation started to know the place mostly from movies, mangas and video games, as an abandoned ghost island.
In our film, we combine the memories of a former inhabitant of the island - the son of a coal miner, who lived on Gunkanjima until 1974, and who is leading an organisation today, with the aim of preserving Gunkanjima as a world heritage site - with the narration of two high school students who recall fragments of the movie “Battle Royale”. Thereby, the island appears almost as their fantasy, an imaginary playground for their games, where various images and layers of reality and fiction already got in a state on mingling.
Fischer / el Sani, 2009
Viele Orte, die einst bedeutende Zentren der avantgardistischen Kunst, der politischen Kultur oder auch der gesellschaftlichen Entwicklungen des 20. Jahrhunderts darstellten, sind in der gegenwärtigen Gesellschaft zu mehr oder weniger blinden Flecken geworden.
Mit unseren Arbeiten wollen wir diese Orte wieder ins Bewusstsein zurück bringen. Sie sind nicht mehr utopisch, auch nicht obsolet, sondern nur noch nicht neu definiert. Wie entscheidet sich heute, an was wir uns morgen erinnern?
In unserem neuen Film beschäftigen wir uns mit der japanischen Insel Hashima, die aufgrund der Geschichte ihres kometenhaften Aufstiegs und jähen Niedergangs eine globale Symbolkraft besitzt. Uns interessiert dabei speziell die unterschiedliche Rezeption der Geschichte der Insel. Es geht uns, wie auch schon in unseren bisherigen Projekten, um den Aspekt der kollektiven Erinnerung und die Unsicherheit beim Hervorrufen und bei der Übertragung von Erinnerungen.
Ehemals nur ein Fels im Meer vor Nagasaki wurde auf der Insel Hashima Kohle entdeckt und 1887 mit dem Abbau begonnen. 1916 wurde auf der Insel das erste Stahlbetonhochhaus Japans errichtet. Während des 2. Weltkriegs war Gunkanjima Arbeitslager für Kriegsgefangene aus China und Korea. 1959 bewohnten mehr als 5000 Leute die Insel, die nur 160 x 450 Meter misst. Damit betrug die Bevölkerungsdichte rechnerisch 83.476 Einwohner pro Quadratkilometer – eine der höchsten jemals aufgezeichneten Bevölkerungsdichten der Welt. Im Jahr 1974 wurden die Zeche geschlossen und die Bewohner mussten die Insel verlassen. Seitdem ist Hashima unbewohnt, und jährlicheTaifune tragen zur schnellen Erosion bei. Der jüngeren Generation ist Hashima eher bekannt als Geisterinsel, als Drehort für düstere Science Fiction Szenarios, wie in dem japanischen Blockbuster „Battle Royale“, oder als Motiv für Mangas und Videospiele.
In unserem Film werden Erinnerungen eines ehemaligen Bewohners der Insel – Sohn eines Bergarbeiters, der bis 1974 auf Hashima lebte und heute eine Organisation leitet mit dem Ziel, die Insel als UNESCO Weltkulturerbe zu bewahren – mit den Nacherzählungen von Schülerinnen zum Film „Battle Royale“ verwoben. Dabei erscheint die Insel fast wie eine Phantasie der Kinder, als imaginärer Ort für ihre Spiele. Ein Ort der Erinnerung, der neu besetzt wird, an dem sich Geschichte und Fiktion bereits intensivvermischen.
Fischer / el Sani 2009