This article was published in the Sept 2011 issue of Artlink magazine, guest edited by Virginia Fraser and Natalie King. The issue's theme is 'surveillance' and I wrote about NOWHERELAND.

The Sagawa/Hartevelt Feedback Loop

Everything you see
On the movie screen is tame
Everything's gonna be arranged

– Rolling Stones, ‘Too Much Blood’

The story of Issei Sagawa is one of pathological consumption – of flesh, but also of images – flickering simulacra of the Perfect Woman as filtered through Japanese media and a disturbed mind. Through the cyclic and fickle nature of media, an otherwise invisible man became an anti-hero, gaining a legacy as a proto otaku, living to this day in the outskirts of Tokyo and the margins of our cultural consciousness.

What the Japanese call Pari jinniku jiken or The Paris Human Flesh Incident – became the subject of Nowhereland, an installation work I created in 2009. Sagawa’s output has been prolific: he has penned memoirs and enjoyed a dubious celebrity in his native Japan, appearing as a public speaker, as a bit-part actor in pinku-eiga (pink film) pornos and even on TV cooking shows. He still fancies himself an artist and has churned out endless naïve canvases depicting less than empowering images of his objects of desire: women.

In 1981, 32 year-old Sagawa was spotted while dumping two suitcases in the Bois de Boulogne, a park in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. Inside the cases was the body of Renee Hartevelt, a Dutch beauty who’d captured Sagawa’s attention while they shared a class at the Sorbonne University. Sagawa had lured Hartevelt to his bedsit under the pretence of dinner and a language class. Thinking him benign, Hartevelt agreed and they struck up the beginnings of a platonic friendship. Unbeknownst to Hartevelt, the sociopath in Sagawa would interpret this as license to break three social taboos in one: murder, necrophilia and cannibalism.

As friend and curator Emma McRae writes, “such a layered narrative has been constructed around Sagawa, partly by the man himself, that we cannot tell what’s real and what has been manufactured for mass consumption” .

Confounded by Sagawa’s crime and his parasitic relationship with the media, I wanted to interrogate themes of representation and power by using surveillance technology and on-camera performance in my work. Based on grainy police images of Sagawa’s cramped bedsit, Nowhereland comprised hyperreal plastic ‘replica foods’, dinky furniture, photos of Sagawa’s occidental ideal Jean Seberg as well as CCTV technology. Spy-cameras dotted the room, quietly capturing gallery visitors as they moved about the pink and red-themed installation, transmitting real-time imagery to black and white monitors that switched between my pre-recorded performances as both Sagawa and Hartevelt and the unwitting gallery goer. Surveillance was my attempt at collapsing time, truth, space, fiction, identity and the relationship between viewer and viewed. An ongoing preoccupation within my videos is the representation of Asian identities. Nowhereland was the uncomfortable flipside: exploring the objectification of women and the West in Japanese/eastern media. It is easy to objectify someone if they remain a foreigner, if we are unable to communicate with them. The switching monitors in Nowhereland and my performances as both players in the tragedy were a way of fracturing and the myth, giving the memory of Hartevelt and Sagawa’s objectified female subjects a semblance of the weight and physicality they deserve.

Eugenia Lim is a video and interdisciplinary artist based in Melbourne.
May 2011