11:45 min., color, sound
Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
Brothers and artists Bruce and Norman Yonemoto have collaborated since 1976 on highly stylized films, objects, photographs, and installations that challenge viewers to look beyond appearances and recognize the role that mass media plays in our perceptions of identity, reality, and fantasy. Produced by KYO-DAI, the Yonemotos’ own company, their works refer to the conventions of soap operas, Hollywood films, and advertising. While those references are unmistakable in their work, they also employ Freudian psychoanalysis and filmic deconstruction techniques to expose the mechanics of those genres.
In addition to the manufactured fantasies of film and television, the Yonemotos’ videos incorporate personal histories that counter the illusions put forth in the media. Bruce and Norman are two of four brothers born during the Baby Boom after the end of World War II. Like many Sansei—third-generation Japanese Americans—from the western states, their parents were imprisoned in internment camps during World War II. Also like many Sansei, they identify with American cultural norms and values; however, they still relate to the immigrant identity and trauma of their family’s experience.
The Yonemotos address that history in Framed (1989). Influenced by Eisenstein’s montage sequences, they constructed a new interpretation of archival footage of interned Japanese American citizens. The original recordings were propaganda produced by the U.S. government to cast the internment camps in a positive light. The Yonemotos edited the same imagery focusing on facial expressions and details that suggest the real, negative feelings of the unjustly imprisoned. The viewer watches the film through a two-way mirror in a small room. When the lights come up at the end, she is faced with her own image and thus implicated in the process.
Green Card: An American Romance (1982) features a young female Japanese artist in search of opportunity in California. She eventually realizes she needs a green card to remain in the country. To stay, she convinces herself she is in love with a surfer and marries him, thereby relinquishing her dreams and independence. While the film refers to the actual experiences of many immigrants, the Yonemotos incorporate lines from famous films into the dialogue. In doing so, the disjunction between real-world distress and Hollywood-style commentary subverts popular notions of the American Dream or an “American Romance.”
Also bridging the personal and the popular is the installation La Vie Secrete (1997). The viewer sticks her head through a hole cut into a movie screen whereupon she peers into a video monitor that displays the back of her own head. Again, the Yonemotos remind viewers not only to question the ideologies filtered through the media, but also one’s own actions and beliefs. Further, while the Yonemotos deal with serious topics and areas of concern, they also eschew rhetoric and instead deploy spectacle, wry humor, and melodrama, particularly in their series of soap operas.
In addition to Made in Hollywood (1990), a parody of cliché romantic narratives, and Based on Romance (1979), which portrays the end of a relationship set in the context of the L.A. art scene, the Yonemotos have also deconstructed fairytales, as in Vault (1982). Drawing on television shows like Dallas and films like Casablanca, as well as the surreal wit of Luis Buñuel, Vault both celebrates and critiques the portrayal of romantic love in popular culture. Accompanied by searing orchestration, a quickly paced montage depicts the saga of a concert cellist/pole vaulter and her lover, a cowboy/Abstract Expressionist painter. As they meet, fall in love, and ultimately separate, viewers observe lingering gazes that become flashbacks of defining moments in the characters’ childhood. In Freudian fashion, the black-and-white scenes of past illness, death, pain, and suffering subconsciously inform the protagonists’ behavior and activities later in life.
Towards the end, in an emotional scene, the woman declares, “eventually we all believe in the reality of our fantasies. I want a world where people know we transform our lives into truths,” to which the man replies, “I know what’s true. I know what’s false. I love you.” Despite such awkward dialogue and delivery, Vault aptly suggests we believe in and conform to the illusions presented in the media. Our ideals and dramas are shaped by them, thus turning fantasy into reality. Nonetheless, while we might enjoy indulging in such sensationalism, the Yonemotos point to the attendant manipulation by the media and call on viewers to recognize “what’s true” and “what’s false.” —Kanitra Fletcher