"Film History According to SHIMURAbros''
Tsukasa Ikegami

It was just a few years ago that I came to know the work of SHIMURAbros. Looking back on it, I must have encountered it at a group exhibition some time around summer 2009, but I have no clear memories of this. The first time I saw a show of only their work, in autumn 2010 in Kyoto, I was awestruck. Why did it take so long for me to notice them? In fact, this simple question contains a clue to understanding the work of SHIMURAbros, as I will explain later. First, let me retrace my steps.

SHIMURAbros (Yuka and Kentarō) are a sister and brother art unit formed around 2000. At the time Yuka was studying abroad at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London, and the pair were initially based in Europe. Their work was first shown primarily in movie theaters, at events like the 2005 Berlinale Talent Campus (an initiative of the Berlin International Film Festival), FAMU Fest (Prague, 2006), and the Short Film Corner at the Cannes Film Festival (2007). They were active, in other words, as upcoming young filmmakers, whereas these days they are more likely to be shown in museums and galleries. It was one of their major early works, Sekilala (2006-2008), which catapulted them to greater recognition and gained them attention in the world of contemporary art as well as that of film.

Sekilala, made with Super 16mm footage shot in Prague, is “the drama of a family bound together by advanced virtual-reality technology,” but it cannot be understood with just a single viewing. It is an immersive three-screen video installation with no conventional storyline, presenting futuristic fragments randomly configured in 26 sequences. The possibility of viewing the same combination of images twice is virtually nil, and there is no definite beginning or ending. Consistency and continuity of plotline, taken for granted in an ordinary film, are here dismantled, laying bare the process of editing and turning the subjective interpretations of the viewer into an indispensable element of the work. Sekilala could be seen as a montage, with hints at common themes running throughout all of the sequences, but the lack of a single chronological axis clearly distinguishes it from the majority of films and video art, even the more experimental. This structure itself illustrates the kind of subjective experience that “advanced virtual-reality technology” might have the capability to deliver, in which multiple streams of information are rendered equivalent and interchangeable. The flood of images projected on the three screens seems to reveal the tangled memories of the three family members portrayed. It is hard to imagine people going to see this as a film in a movie theater, but it works perfectly as contemporary art. In fact, SHIMURAbros received the Excellence Prize in Art Division at the Japan Media Arts Festival in 2009 for Sekilala, and it was shown at the National Art Center, Tokyo. It was a Ikegami 1 little while afterward that I first saw it myself in Kyoto, but other works by the duo began appearing in group shows with increasing frequency around the time they earned the prize, and I came across them more and more often.

At first, though, I confess the point of what they were doing escaped me. In the context of a group show of contemporary art, works such as Eicon (2008), which reproduces an acting style of early slapstick films with a high-speed camera, or MMY: Mouse Made in Yokohama (2009), which references the famous Disney character, appeared to be more of the high-tech media art we have gotten used to seeing lately. There are plenty of contemporary artists out there, such as Studio Azzurro and Hachiya Kazuhiko, who create interactive media art, and while undeniably superb from a technical standpoint, the work of SHIMURAbros does not stand out as more advanced than the rest. There are also a lot of artists, including trailblazing figures like Christian Marclay and Ming Wong, who create new video works by slicing and dicing existing films. What I didn’t realize at first, though, is that SHIMURAbros were focusing specifically on the tactile and historical aspects of the film medium.

On view at their exhibition I saw in Kyoto, in addition to Sekilala, was another of their best-known pieces, X-Ray Train (2008), and what was their latest at the time, Film Without Film (2010). In X-Ray Train, the film medium is imbued with a thickness and three-dimensionality that it inherently lacks. Inspired by the famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1897) by the Lumière brothers, history’s first filmmakers, they projected CAT scans of a locomotive onto a series of 12 screens so that the approaching mass of light can be viewed from any angle – an unprecedented video art experiment. Meanwhile, in Film Without Film, they recreated the 1922 filmic experiment of the same title by Lev Kuleshov (who pioneered the fundamental technique of the montage) and then used a 3D printer to generate sculptures of motifs from the film. This work captures the movement of light, on which all film is based, and renders it static and tactile. The resulting sculptures are tiny objects that fit into a 35mm film frame. In fact, they appear at first glance to be sculptures, but this designation does not really fit. Nor could the piece be called video art. My experience as a curator gave me no hint as to how it should be categorized.

While the work was clearly strong conceptually, I felt puzzled by the radical jumps in technique from piece to piece. I made my way to the back room, where I watched Sekilala for two hours or so and finally figured out what SHIMURAbros were up to. Dismantling the concept of editing, transforming image into object, converting the movement of light into cold dark matter–what tied all these works together was an attempt to bring the world on the other side of the silver screen (an intangible world separated from this one by the indefinable gap Marcel Duchamp termed “infrathin”) into our own. The artists employ different techniques each time, but each one represents their own take on the history and nature of film and the image. They are scholars of the medium, but what they produce are neither films nor research papers: it can only be called art. With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why their working modalities are all over the map. Here the issue is not the form of expression but what is being expressed. This is why seeing only one of their works in a group exhibition does not give you a picture of the overarching concept that ties it all together. And that is why I have overlooked their work for some years.

The creations of SHIMURAbros baffle the viewer on first encounter, and this has surely been true since they first began showing movies in European theaters. It is difficult to label them either as art or as film. The artists by no means reject conventional cinema as we know it. On the contrary, they are attempting to restore, in the contemporary era, the tactility of film during its early days as an awe-inspiring experimental medium.

For Road Movie – Road to Singapore (2013), recently produced and shown in Singapore, I was involved as a staff member from the planning stages. At first, it appears to be an abstract work of “expanded cinema,” with colors and shadows swimming about, but to my eyes it is actually a marvelous piece of cinematic entertainment. SHIMURAbros created the piece as a site-specific video installation for the NUS Museum, drawing inspiration from the 1940 Bing Crosby film Road to Singapore, one of the earliest examples of the “road movie” genre. The work layers things and people, moving around in conjunction with the exhibition, as well as images related to archaeological material collected by the archaeologist and historian John Miksic and exhibited in the Lee Kong Chian Gallery. The work features images of alternating light and shade falling on crates during shipment, and while watching, the viewer begins to sense that the crates are still and he or she is the one moving. While X-Ray Train propels light out into the world, this work seems to draw viewers into the screen. Along with Silver Screen (2012), which debuted in Yokohama last year, it represents a new direction for SHIMURAbros.

The work of SHIMURAbros has taught me the importance of approaching art with passion and an open mind, without getting hung up on distinctions between film and art, or contexts such as venue, nationality, and occasion. I intend to keep lending my ears to their delighted discourse on film, and I look forward to being stunned by more of their creations. The history of film according to SHIMURAbros has only just begun.


ranslated by Christopher Stephens

*Excerpt from Road to Singapore - a solo exhibition catalogue published by the National University of Singapore