Masaru Iwai’s online-offline project ‘Broom Stars’ focuses on issues of cleansing

The Japanese artist’s project, featuring photos of people occupied in an act of cleaning, discusses normative beliefs around cleaning and decontamination at Yokohama Triennale.

by Shailaja Tripathi Published on : Sep 28, 2020

In the recent months, the pandemic has ensured a reserved space for words like infection and decontamination in our lexicon. The virus has challenged notions and raised questions. Artist Masaru Iwai charters into this territory through his project Broom Stars. He probes the idea of ‘cleansing’ in the project, which is part of the ongoing Yokohama Triennale in Japan. It’s a project which takes place in the real world as well as online. Iwai invites participants to make their masks, clean a spot and document the act of cleaning. The members then meet online to discuss their photographs and experiences. Around 50 people have participated in it so far and their photos are now on display at Yokohama Museum of Art, which is the venue of the Triennale. The Yokohama Triennale 2020 has been curated by the well-known Raqs Media Collective, which includes Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta.

“Through the presentation of their documentation photos, their experiences, and discussions, we communicate our discomfort and discoveries to each other. The making of mask, cleaning and recording as protocol traces that in decontamination. The participants need to wear a mask and take a photographic record of the cleaning scene. That sequence of steps is important. This project, which is based on such real-work procedures, in a way, might be like Japanese critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma said, ‘secondary derivative works by the tourist’,” says the Japanese artist.

A participant cleaning the floor as part of Broom Stars | Broom Stars by Masaru Iwai at Yokohama Triennale 2020| STIRworld
A participant cleaning the floor as part of Broom Stars Image: Courtesy of Takuro Someya Contemporary Art

The programme has three stages – making the masks, cleaning and discussing. Online sessions are conducted in every phase of the programme. In the first one, participants are shown a video that teaches them about how to customise their masks. Giving further insights, Masaru states: “The video is very important and is a ‘how-to video’ that is not available to the public and can only be viewed by the participants. It consists of images and videos of the decontamination I was involved in, and the narration explains the importance of the masks and the need to record them. Before carrying out cleanup actions, we need to be aware of what is clean and what is dirty. We discuss where the boundary between the two comes from and who decides what is clean and what is dirty. The religious aspect also came up as a topic”.

Masaru remembers one particular incident involving a participant who was unable to attend the funeral of his father. His father passed away during the tenure of the workshop. “The funeral company asked him not to come from a ‘contaminated’ area. That participant cleaned the roof of his apartment building, which seemed to be touching the sky. Another participant, who works in the house cleaning business, shared real-life experiences of working in the field, handling sludge without gloves, and cleaning without a dust mask”.

One of the participants raised a question: What is important - cleaning or the photo?

Another participant vacuum-cleaning the house for project Broom Stars | Broom Stars by Masaru Iwai at Yokohama Triennale 2020| STIRworld
Another participant vacuum-cleaning the house for project Broom Stars Image: Courtesy of Takuro Someya Contemporary Art

The artist adds, “According to the protocol/procedure for decontamination, no matter how clean the site is, if you don't have the photographs, you can't show the evidence and you can't get paid for it. In other words, we need a procedural ‘photo’. This is where we again interact and deliberate on ‘what is clean?’”

Masaru feels cleansing is an act of breadth and depth. He says, spatially it includes cleaning up from our living rooms and kitchens to the outer space debris. “Historically we have cleaned and purified many things. This includes everything from filth to symbolic objects and people. As such, I consider cleaning/cleansing to be multi-faceted”. Though the name of the project can be seen as literal, it draws from the fact that in Japan and China, Halley’s Comet is also known as Broom Star because of its prominent tail.

A participant posing with a broom for project Broom Stars | Broom Stars by Masaru Iwai at Yokohama Triennale 2020| STIRworld
A participant posing with a broom for project Broom Stars Image: Courtesy of Takuro Someya Contemporary Art

The mask has an important role to play in the project. The participants are sent brown paper-bag masks covered with graphite. “Some people made masks that resembled animals, some masks were more abstract and had no discernible prototype, while others used only some part of packaging. Originally, paper bag masks did not have a mouth, but many people made masks with decorative mouths to make them look like humans. A novelist recently took part in customising a mask, and he decorated it by cutting out the words contained in the packaging, such as ‘chocolate’ or ‘best before date’. Unconsciously and consciously his tastes and preferences appeared on the surface of the mask”.

Masaru feels extremely thrilled to note independent interpretations of the participants, enriching the story with new perspectives.

A participant of Broom Stars collecting garbage from the road as part of the project | Broom Stars by Masaru Iwai at Yokohama Triennale 2020| STIRworld
A participant of Broom Stars collecting garbage from the road as part of the project Image: Courtesy of Takuro Someya Contemporary Art

Brown paper bag is covered with graphite to hint at its nuclear associations. Graphite is used in pencils, a commonly used object and was also used as a neutron moderator in the world's first nuclear reactor - Chicago pile 1. Iwai adds, “The plutonium went into a nuclear bomb called the ‘Fat Boy’, which was dropped on Nagasaki. I was thus interested in the properties and history of graphite and decided to paint the surface of the mask with graphite”.

The 45-year-old artist, who has a Ph.D. in Fine Arts from Tokyo University of the Arts and music, has often focused on the subject of washing and cleaning. Over the years, he has transformed refuse into art, sanitised a building along with people in a slum area in Cambodia during a residency and cleaned carpets in Tehran in people’s homes, using an adhesive tape roller and much more.

Iwai is now having a solo exhibition, Control Diaries at Takuro Someya Contemporary Art in Tokyo (September 5-October 10, 2020). He believes it to be the counterpart of Broom Stars. “It documents my personal experiences and observations in decontamination. However, the meaning of ‘decontamination’ seems to have changed slightly due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis. According to me both control and fragmentation are about invisible contamination and fragmentation in society, and we have experienced that it is impossible to erase. So, I would like to rethink the idea of decontamination and control. Although it's not an art project that works directly with participants, like Broom Stars, it seems to have both a personal attachment and a documentary aspect to it, like a diary”.

But be it Broom Stars or Control Diaries, Iwai remains preoccupied with removing the layers to reveal the real surface. Broom Stars, part of Yokohama Triennale 2020, is on display till October 11, 2020.

More photos from the project can be viewed here.

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