That the CIA worked to stem the global tide of communism during the Cold War is common knowledge, but the extent of their activities is often hard to comprehend. “The Imperial Ghost in the Neoliberal Machine (Figuring the CIA),” an exhibit that recently opened in the Mansfield Freeman Center for East Asian Studies, examines the long-reaching effects of these operations, specifically within East Asia. The exhibit consists of contemporary art exploring the different forms anti-communist political sentiment has taken since the Cold War, interspersed with declassified accounts of CIA operations.
“The Imperialist Ghost in the Neoliberal Machine” features works by three artists. The first of these, “O Tannenbaum,” is a video installation by Minouk Lim. The piece centers around the socialist anthem “The Red Flag,” a song about the international labor movement sung to the tune of the German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum.” The song is perhaps best known as the anthem of the British Labour Party, but Lim’s video installation explores its history in Asia, where translated versions of the song gained popularity with both the Japanese Communist Party and Korean independence fighters protesting Japanese rule. In Japan, “The Red Flag” is often associated with the Utagoe (Singing Voice) movement, a socialist choral movement known for performing protest songs and labor anthems.
“O Tannenbaum” consists of video footage of a car broadcasting “The Red Flag” and other labor songs from the Utagoe songbook while driving near the Tokyo Imperial Palace. The piece references the 1952 May Day protests in Japan, when protesters chanting labor songs broke into the Imperial Palace and were met with violence from Japanese police officers, and thus serves as a reminder of Japan’s long and often violent history with leftist movements.
Royce Ng’s piece “Kishi the Vampire” uses a combination of written narrative and video to tell the story of Manchukuo (also known as Manchuria). From 1932 to 1945, Manchukuo was run as a puppet state by Japanese technocrats and military leaders. “Kishi the Vampire” focuses on Nobusuke Kishi, Manchukuo’s finance minister, who went on to become the Prime Minister of Japan. The narrative consists of three historical chapters, which take place in 1927, 1937, and 1987. In the 1927 segment, Ng describes Kishi’s implementation of a Western-style capitalistic system in the face of Japanese economic stagnation, against a backdrop of gruesome images from Japanese manga. The second segment, which jumps to 1937, takes place during the beginning of Japan’s war on China. Ng draws on Kishi’s own accounts of his racism towards Chinese workers, his involvement in opium trade, and his sexual appetites. Onscreen, the animation grows more and more distorted, with clusters of industrial architecture, brothels, and drug dens forming one large skeleton. The third and final segment takes place in 1987 during Kishi’s final days, while onscreen a skeleton dances in front of a pan-Asian conference room, images of Kishi’s grandson Shinzo Abe, as well as South Korean politician Park Chung-Hee, flash briefly, anticipating their eventual impact on East Asian politics. Ng’s combination of the historical and the fantastical—most obvious in his casting of real-life political figure Kishi as a vampire—helps to reveal the grotesque realities beneath the deceptively mundane surface of state-guided capitalism.
As evident from its title, Yoshua Okón’s video installation “Salò Island” is a direct reference to Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s notorious 1975 film “Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom.” The original “Salò” explores themes of corruption, power, and fascism through a lens of sexual depravity, and “Salò Island” recreates a scene from Pasolini’s film, relocating it to modern-day Newport Beach, Calif. The montage is set in a surreal, late-night version of Fashion Island, an enormous shopping center that opened in 1967. The complex is fully lit but silent and devoid of customers, like an abandoned temple to corporate commercialism. Along with updating the setting, Okón also replaces the teenagers of Pasolini’s film with a group of aged, decrepit beings who wander without sentience through the labyrinth of mall architecture. The end result is an eerie reminder of the violence of mindless consumerism, and the connections between the neoliberal capitalism of the current era and the fascism referenced in Pasolini’s work.
Taken together, the works of Lim, Ng, and Okón consider the ways in which the politics of one era can echo throughout history.
“Neoliberalism shares characteristics with the wildest dreams of imperialists and reactionary spiritual movements,” Koichiro Osaka, the curator of “The Imperialist Ghost in the Neoliberal Machine,” writes in an essay accompanying the exhibit. “A constant push for labor efficiency, cultish ethics, covert, intrusive media tactics deployed for total governance—all accomplished on the premise of a systematic lie.”
Tara Joy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.