Making yourself at home in Nowhereland
By Emma McRae

“No man is an island, entire of itself...therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee." [1]

After all the hype, the books, television shows, plays, performances, magazine articles and academic interrogation that have been spawned by the incident [2], it remains impossible for us to know the motivation behind Issei Sagawa’s murder and cannibalisation of Renée Hartevelt in Paris, 1981. Such a layered narrative has been constructed around the 4-foot tall Sagawa, partly by the man himself, that we cannot tell what’s real and what has been manufactured for mass consumption. The known facts of the event are abhorrent and chilling – they do not explain an act so incomprehensible, so foreign to our moral sense of being, that, in the end, we don’t want to understand, because the realisation this might bring would confront us with our most dreaded reality: that which Dr. Kurtz so aptly named, the horror [3].

In Nowhereland: the Paris Human Flesh Incident, we are confronted with exactly that. Entering a recreation of Sagawa’s cramped Paris bedsit, we see the remains of food, books, clothes and other belongings scattered around a ‘re-imagined’ representation of what the room looked like on that June day in 1981 [4]. And yet everything here is hyperreal – a simplified, tacky, pink and red version of reality. Placed around the room are also a number of surveillance monitors that play back a grainy recreation of the event, interwoven with cropped images of the audiences’ bodies as we move through the installation.

This new work by Eugenia Lim presents us with an investigation of the body as self and symbol. Visually and thematically, through the monocolour surveillance video aesthetic, the investigation of social taboos, and the inscription of women’s bodies by women in images, Nowhereland sits within a strong history of video art since the 1970s, inviting us to re-examine, in a very personal way, the objectification of the female body. By casting herself in the roles of both Renée Hartevelt and Issei Sagawa in her video recreation of the incident, Lim performs multiple acts of objectification: objectifying herself for herself, and her body for the attention (or desire) of the audience. Like previous works in Lim’s trajectory of performance videos [5] , Nowhereland has a powerful sense of intimacy; we are drawn into the dark narrative and become voyeurs as she dares to question the implications of this incident, and invites us to do the same. Yet in playing both roles, Lim also provides us with some hope in this disturbing rendition of human nature; she shows that we are simultaneously inflictor and inflicted, and in this lies the potential for understanding.

But – we resist. We prefer to distance ourselves from the serious interrogation of how a human being could be capable of such an act. We prefer to see anyone who could cannibalise another as an abomination – they represent the possibility of our demise. To cannibalise is an act that undercuts Darwin’s theory and threatens our survival, and we shy away from absorbing this person, or this action, into our image of ourselves as human beings. Yet, as voyeurs, we remain morbidly fascinated by this person who is so bold – or insane – as to consider themselves as outside the social contract; who can follow through with an act of such extreme, all-consuming desire. Perhaps a part of us envies their absolute freedom, and so we, in turn, consume them: through the media, through images, through words; vicariously experiencing this absolute taboo act.

In the installation, Lim allows us to indulge in the circumstantial evidence surrounding the incident, while she herself engages physically in an existential investigation (although the act itself is never shown in the video). We hope that by knowing what Sagawa wore, what he ate, where he lived, what he read, etc. it will help us to understand how a person can go against our natural instinct to preserve life. As communal creatures, unless we are threatened, we want to share experiences and express our care for others. We know love can be intense, even overwhelming; it can make us want to merge with another, to feel them as a part of us. But as Marina Abramovic and Ulay showed in their 1977 performance Breathing in – Breathing out, the only way to absorb the life of another person into our own is to destroy it. Yet, within the installation, we cannot remain as distanced voyeurs. Captured within the grainy, black & white video images that are played back to us in real time, our image becomes merged with the event in a way that uncomfortably involves us – involves our bodies – in something we don’t want to be associated with. It takes a moment to notice them, but once we do, the clumsily placed cameras that surround us in the room are like beady eyes looking out from between the furnishings. Like Fred and Renee Madison in Lost Highway (who are sent videos of themselves recorded in their own house), we become victimised; we lose control over our own bodies.

The relationship between consumption and destruction has been an ongoing theme in Lim’s work. She has explored the erasure of individuality within consumer culture (Makeshift, 2005) and the cultural/personal destruction wrought by the mass construction of uniform housing estates (Australian Landscapes, 2008). In Nowhereland, Lim turns her attention to the formation of stereotyped images, and how these stereotypes enable the objectification and consumption of another culture. The event, dubbed by the Japanese as The Paris Human Flesh Incident, is here translated in fake food, exploring the notion that by fetishising other cultures, we transform our fear of the unknown into fascination, even obsession. Nowhereland explores the stereotypes we create that allow us to absorb a version of a foreign culture into our lives, in which the loudest, most colourful, most markedly different parts of the culture are augmented until they come to stand for the culture as a whole. Judging someone on the basis of a cultural stereotype – on surface appearance and linguistic difference – rather than as a person, reinforces disconnection rather than working towards understanding and communication.

As an Australian whose family are of Chinese-Singaporean descent, Lim knows that to be caught between two, even three cultures is to not fully belong to any, but to perform the role, the appearance, of belonging to all. In Nowhereland, Lim challenges us to feel and acknowledge the confusion, struggle and loneliness of cultural alienation. She does this through the displacement and absurdity of presenting herself as a short Japanese man and a fetishised Aryan Dutch student in Paris (knowing full well the wigs will never transform her into something she’s not), and by highlighting the extreme unreality of cultural stereotypes. Our Western image of Japan is based on impressions of a highly technologised society, bizarre inventions, an excessive formality in interpersonal interactions, love of cuteness, and traditional practices perceived to be perversions of the flesh (the exploding and erotic bodies of anime and manga, Kinbaku-bi – Japanese rope bondage, the eating of raw meat). It appears to us as a culture so focussed on controlling and containing the power of the body, that eruptions and explosions of the flesh are inevitable. Living as a Westerner in Japan, there is a persistent sense of alienation; a fundamental foreignness that is compelling but reminds you that try as you might, you will never belong. The written and spoken linguistic barrier adds greatly to the aura and mystery; as it did, in the reverse, for Sagawa – an exchange student struggling to learn French [6] and living within a foreign European culture. Sagawa indulged his own stereotyped image of the West through the accumulation of objects (Beethoven records, Shakespeare’s plays) and images of ‘typical’ beauty (Grace Kelly, Jean Seberg). Nowhereland presents a simulacrum that blends our image of Japan with Japan’s image of the West. This space is one of heightened artificiality: plastic food, pin-ups of Western movie stars and the eating of flesh that all combine to lay bare the emptiness of the stereotype and show us that we cannot assume to know a culture, let alone a person, through a simplified image.

As Lim shows, the impression of belonging only holds for as long as you can maintain appearances. Through her performance, she conveys a sense of emptiness that is haunting; a quality of wistful aloneness that is often present in her video works and pulls at your heart. In Nowhereland, Sagawa and Hartevelt never appear on screen at the same time, their isolation and Sagawa’s nervous energy and palpable frustration only increase the dread of having to acknowledge the reality of the actual incident. The extreme loneliness and desperate exclusion Lim explored in Gravity (2006) is carried further in Nowhereland, where aloneness becomes a motivation for action. Lim is, in a sense, inviting us to go with her to a place that no one wants to go, beyond the taboo-line where the social contract breaks down and we’re left to face reality alone. Only through attempting to understand such an incident can we confront the fear that any one of us could potentially be a Hartevelt or, worse, a Sagawa. In Nowhereland, Lim doesn’t shy away from this frightening possibility, as most would prefer to do. She confronts the possibility head on, challenging us to do the same.

Emma McRae is a Melbourne-based writer and curator

1 Meditation XVII, by John Donne, 1624
2 “Cannibalizing Japanese media: The case of Issei Sagawa”, by Barak Kushner, Journal of Popular Culture; Winter 1997; 31,3; Academic Research Library, p.56
3 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, Penguin Books Ltd ,1973, p.100
4 Based on discussions with the artist
5 Especially Lim’s works Makeshift (2005) and Gravity (2006)
6 See “The Question of the Other: Kara Juro and Letters from Sagawa” by Mark Morris, Japan Focus, 1 December 2007, http://www.japanfocus.org/articles/print_article/2592