Reading Heidegger in Japan

»The relation of what is being thought and what is being done, or alternatively what is being imagined and what is being seen and heard, are motifs that keep reappearing.« –Philip Widmann

After his fellowship at Solitude in 2014 and 2015, film maker Philip Widmann became a resident at Villa Kamogawa in Japan. There, he is working on an experimental project that focuses on Japan and Germany, the relation of language – translation – understanding, and the interface of landscape, humans, and technology. The starting point is the writing of philosopher Martin Heidegger, who is especially well received in Japan. – In an online conversation, we discuss his work practices, the role of artist residencies, and being »lost in translation« sometimes while working between Germany and Japan.

Clara Herrmann: When and why did you decide to apply for Kamogawa?

Philip Widmann: After a short trip to Japan in 2014, I applied with the idea in mind that it would be good to have an opportunity to spend more time in the country and possibly work on a project.

CH: What are you working on there?

PW: At the moment, on encounters with people who read Heidegger in the German original or the Japanese translation. I am trying to set up round tables discussions with simultaneous translation from Japanese to German in order to find out about or reflect on the understanding and »translatability« of philosophical thought. This doesn’t only concern language, but of course also the relation between written text and the everyday physical and social life. As the text to be discussed is concerned with technology, I am also looking for sites and landscapes that represent »the technological« as a topos and might appear in a film.

CH: How do the topics of this project relate to the other topics of your work as a film maker?

PW: The relation of what is being thought and what is being done, or alternatively what is being imagined and what is being seen and heard, are motifs that keep reappearing.

Questions of translation not only between different languages, but also between different media, like image and sound or still and moving pictures, are also basic components of my work.

CH: You’re reading Heidegger – how does he influence your work and thinking? There is also a large and special reception of Heidegger in Japan, can you tell us something about this? Some say, for example, it’s because of Heidegger’s strong relation to death, which is also a topic of Daoism and Zen Buddhism.

PW: I wouldn’t say that I’m reading Heidegger. Rather, I have other people read Heidegger for me because of this relatively strong reception of his works here in Japan.

Regarding the reasons for this kind of reception, I have heard various hypotheses. But there are none that I consider fully satisfying.

CH: As one focus in your current project lies on language, translation, understanding: Were you »lost in translation« sometimes whilst working between Germany and Japan?

PW: Constantly. But people here go out of their way to help, and most times a combination of smiles, gestures, and chunks of Japanese and English works somehow.

CH: Talking about work practices, creativity, productivity: How would you describe your typical working day? For example, are there things which are indispensable for your daily working routine?

PW: I cannot say there is a typical working day. There are desk days and there are exploration days, on which I go out to look at things and places or to meet people, also in the surrounding area of the region like Osaka and Kobe. So, one indispensable thing is a magnetic top up card that is valid for all public transport and replaces paper tickets.

CH: Artist residencies seem to play an important role in foreign affairs and help diplomacy and countries build soft power. Considering this and being at Solitude and Villa Kamogawa, would you agree and where do you see yourself as an artist in this context?

PW: Yes, although I think at Solitude the official character of this is much less noticeable. In terms of diplomacy, the Goethe-Institut, which runs the Villa Kamogawa, is the institution representing German culture abroad, and in some ways the resident artists become part of that sort of outside representation. This facet isn’t there in Solitude, where most of the interaction happens between the resident artists and their diverse backgrounds. Here, it’s much more the interaction with a new place and the surroundings and people that are in the foreground.

CH: When you are back to Germany, what will happen? Are you involved in any upcoming shows?

PW: It’s not entirely clear yet. Fictitious Force, a short film that I edited in Solitude, is showing at festivals right now and will hopefully travel a bit more over the next months.