Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Shibuya: At the Center of the World

Many times I have seen the pedestrian crossing, and felt its energy in movies and music videos. But it's like the rest of this city - being in the middle of Hachiko is like nothing else I have ever experienced. The hoards of people are inconceiveable, the density of the people traffic so inspiring that it felt like I had been on a lifelong pilgrimage to be there, only I didn't know it till I got there. After one week, I think I am getting used to being in Tokyo, but still, the same things never cease to amaze me. And in Hachiko I am still astounded by the ease and comfort of being in the midst of these teaming crowds as they pour onto the pedestrian crossing in front of Shibuya train station. No one pushes, no one is in such a hurry that they need to be frustrated by my pace. I am slowed down by awe at the magnificence of the neon clad buildings, deafened by the noise of nightclubs, some kind of political speeches over loudspeakers, and wanting to absorb the thrill of being at what feels like the center of the world. And the Japanese remain as courteous and pleasant as ever, minding their own business, but when asked, ever ready to assist with my most inane enquiries. It is really the greatest privilege to be immersed in this civilized world - sorry G.W. you have no idea what that word means.

Today, for the first time I got lost, though it is a wonder it hasn't happened earlier. I went to visit a friend of a friend who lives in a building by the tracks of Shinjuku station. Always eager to be above ground, I made the fatal mistake of leaving the train station a few exists too early. Naoko had given me a map and very clear directions on how to find her building, but I learnt today that this system of locating an address is still liable to baffle me. Nevertheless, I was only five minutes late because I asked at a store and with the courtesy and respect I have now come
to expect, the lady telephoned Naoko, got the directions, and escorted me to the end of the street and pointed in the right direction - and we wonder why the Japanese think the French are rude!

Fumbling with the street map, negotiating exits from a train station, looking for a building that sits next to a big hotel, making sure to keep the train tracks on the right (even though it is not always above ground), I realized that, once again, this is a culture in which images make more sense than words. Space, movement through space, conceptions of space, direction, physical orientation and location are all conceived visually - just like the language. See My Day in Asakusa. The experience of looking for a building that has a number, but a number not displayed, on a street with no name, in a neighborhood divided into 15 sections means that I am always looking at and for where I am going. In anticipation of my arrival, I envisage or imagine myself in that space, I don't see it as the goal at the end of a journey. And when I get there, I see it and am in the space, rather than thinking or knowing I have arrived.

This said, if I am honest, I am way too Western to believe that I have adapted to the Japanese experience of space and their city. Later this afternoon, as I sat, immersed in the enthrall of being in the futuristic bubble of Shibuya's dazzling facades, I felt as though I was at the center of the world. I had arrived. I was at a place that is an end of a journey, a place from where every other pedestrian crossing must now forever pale in comparison.

Monday, May 25, 2009

"What's she saying?" A day in Asakusa

Today my mother and I visited the oldest temple in Tokyo, Senso-ji. The neighborhood is meant to be old-world Tokyo, but as is often the case, that speaks only for the street between the subway station and the major tourist attraction. The rest is very like a regular neighborhood: as my friend Keisuke described it "where real Japanese people live." The shrine was wonderful - mostly because there were lots of fun activities: lighting votive incense and candles, drawing fortune sticks (mine was "no. 91 good fortune" and mother refused to play for fear of what she might draw), cleansing the hands and mouth, throwing money to Buddha. What struck me throughout the day was the fascination of the Japanese language, mostly because, despite my protestations, mother behaved as though I was fluent, could read all signs and understand every conversation in Japanese.

Every sign we saw, and every voice we heard, she turned to me and asked "what did she say?" As though I had acquired fluency in Japanese by osmosis. As we left the restaurant where we had sushi lunch, she instructed me to take the name of the restaurant (left) so she could note it in her diary - as though she was asking me to pass the soy sauce. And when the water bus didn't arrive, she asked me what time the next one was due (below). On it went.

So I spent a lot of time looking at the langauge even though I don't read it. I can nevertheless appreciate its aesthetic. It is a beautiful language to look at, and delightful to listen to. It is indeed a visual language, not a semiotic language. It is conceptual and abstract, vertical in its presentation - though not always I realized when dutifully attending to my mother's needs this afternoon - and vertical in its logic, moving from one layer to the next, not along a horizontal axis. Like the series of images that it is, Japanese doesn't have a cause and effect narrative logic, it doesn't have a compositional telos, sentence structure or forward motion. More like an experimental film, it is a series of image grabs that, taken together, communicate concepts and ideas.

And all over the temple are written characters, symbolizing something important, ancient, divine. Perhaps the banners that decorate buildings and walls, the streets, the subway cars are also decoration? Where in the West we might fight images, in Japan, the language seems to function as both image and text. Given how language dictates our identities, our culture, our beliefs, our prejudices, even our desires, I wonder if the "real Japanese people" - as opposed to those masquerading in Shinjuku and Harajuku! - live their lives in imitation of their language? And what then does this life look like? A life in which the on going search for identity is given an image, not a narrative, in which notions of ambition, success, and the relations between people are not overtaken by accummulation (of wealth), a rise to the top of a corporate ladder, and the desperate need to be better than the neighbors?

All this would be to assume that, in spite of the characters, that is, the visualization of the Japanese langauge, there has been no impact of the West's overblown (super) ego on Japan. And judging by the number of men in the "women only" subway car (left) and the hoards of Japanese people with dyed hair and makeup (below), we have indeed managed to taint the images with our words.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

What to believe: the spread of H1N1 .... or empty hysteria?

My friend Keisuke reassured me tonight that most Japanese people share my frustration at the inability to grasp Tokyo. The longer I stay here, the more daunting and mesmerizing it becomes as each day offers insights and information that I have no idea of how to process. It's the ultimate postmodernist conglomeration of surfaces reflecting off surfaces, no matter how contradictory, or incompatibile.

The daily irreconcilabilities are everywhere: take the baffling hysteria around Swine Flu. The conference I was scheduled to attend in Tokyo was cancelled due to Swine Flu. Daily, schools and universities are closing across the country. The government continues to issue warnings as the pandemic supposedly spreads. And yet, there is not a single sign of this panic in the streets. True, there are people with masks - but aren't there always? I watched one of the sushi chefs sneeze tonight, and though he did it away from the counter, he turned right back round and continued making maki. Someone coughed irregularly on the subway this morning and no one around him batted an eye. Clearly no one on that train was concerned about catching swine flu, and neither were the other diners in the restuarant. As a result, I remain suspicious of the government's assiduous effort to deter movement and tourissm. Perhaps it's the people on the street who I should treat with suspicion? The dilemna of who and what to believe.

Then again, maybe I need to take what I see and hear at face value instead of diving into suspicion. Tonight, my mother and I ended up in a restaurant on the basis of the design of the calligraphic sign out the front. I asked the woman at the door if she had a menu, to which her reply was a simple "we serve chicken." Of course, I immediately assumed that her English was poor and she didn't know any other words. Afterall, what restaurant serves just chicken? That would be absurd. So mother and I propped ourselves at the bar, were lavished with pickles and some kind of radish mash with a raw egg in the middle, water, tea, empty bowls and plates. The glass counter in front of us was filled with rows and rows of skewers each with different meats (or so we thought). Dutifully, feeling like locals, but definitely not looking like them, we pointed to the safest option - chicken. I got adventurous and pointed to another with what looked like meat balls - it was chicken. When the man next to me had what I thought was shrimp, I asked for one of those - it was chicken. Mother joined in the adventure and pointed to what looked like lamb - it was chicken. We ordered soup - chicken, and by the time I glanced down to the other end of the counter to see eggs, I knew who had produced them. Why did I not believe the woman in the first place? Because like the swine flu, something about it didn't gel with my cultural conditioning.

However, given my mother's reaction when I suggested we ask the couple next to us if they could tell us what they were eating, as they were obviously not Japanese, I can't even be certain it's cultural conditioning - I certainly don't get my healthy dose of suspicion from her. She looked at me in horror - as though I had suggested she walk to the top of Mt Fuji: "hell no, they might be Mexican!"

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Harajuku Art Walk

Today, my Australian friend joined me on a walk through Harajuku's streets in search of the contemporary Japanese art on exhibition in small, supposedly experimental galleries. It was clear from the minute we stepped outside Harajuku station that the art was not going to be on the walls, but on the streets. While we dutifully followed the path to what are supposed to be Japan's up and coming artists,
we just kept coming back to the
freaks on Takeshita-dori. This is dolly girl, cutesy heaven. It was infectious enough to have me madly searching for my size socks and shoes so I could go part way to imitating their crazy teen girl style.

However, what I found more striking was that Tokyo has a place for the costume drama of identities in motion where so many major European cities do not. It's true that teen style is at its most flamboyant on Takeshita-dori, spilling over onto neighboring streets, but it also infuses much of the city with cool abandon. This may be a world in which public behavior is rigidly and complexly coded, but it is also a city where certain codes are flexible and fluid. Gender and sexuality being the most visible on the streets. The teen-girls in their fancy dress costumes, the young guys with outrageous hairstyles, some wearing women's clothing, others in tight tight jeans and t-shirts, make up and piercings are not given second glances on Tokyo's streets.

That said, even in their chintzy girl costume, women always remain excessively feminine, while it is men who seem to cross the gender and sexuality lines with ease. It's a city that is so audacious in its visual aesthetic, that the lurid performance of gender and sexual identity among the young - and often the older - is easily absorbed by the bright lights.

If then, the surface is so carefully chosen and so well-polished to reflect uncertainty and confusion for me, the Western viewer of Tokyo, the question I came away with from my day in Harajuku, is: what exactly lies beneath the facade? I have no idea, and given my lack of access to the language, I don't imagine I will be finding out over the next week. My only task is to sit back and receive the visual stimulation, be inspired by the aesthetic .... and find those shoes!

Friday, May 22, 2009

The Ease of Tokyo Tourism

Hearing of my impending trip to Tokyo, people who had been before me set about describing the city, and invariably ended up emphasizing its overwhelm, intensity, its difference from anything we know. And these descriptions came with a look of trepidation, and the vibrations of uncertainty in their voices. Despite having travelled untrodden ground such as Cold War Soviet Union, I was prepared for cultural alienation, geographical/spatial disorientation, energy draining days and nights sequestered in the hotel. After only two days, my experience couldn't be more different.

It's true, there is a language barrier, the Japanese speak little to barely to no English. And yet, it's easier to communicate with them than it is with the French whose language I speak. There is a lot to be said for the communicative powers of respect, good manners and politeness. There may be no such thing as an address of a building or location in Tokyo, but finding where I am going has not been a problem thanks to the Japanese efficiency: where we give metro stops and door codes, the Japanese give metro stops, name of the line, no. of the exit from the station, exact distance in meters from that exit, and a street map. And if all else fails, the man in the police box will get out of his box and personally escort you to your destination.

This, contrary to the warning of a man I sat next to on the plane who told me I couldn't possibly step foot outside my door in Tokyo without buying a map. Given the meticulous instructions on how to get anywhere, it's unclear to me why I would need to buy a map. And I could go on - there's absolutely nothing draining about this city. It may be overflowing with people, have an energy like no other, its scale mesmerizing, its facades dazzling and its beat insanely fast, but being in amongst it all is a very pleasant experience. In two days, I have heard one siren, not one person has elbowed me, pushed in front of me, snarled at me, stared at me or given me the proverbial "absolument pas." Neither have I had to hold onto my bag for fear of having it stolen, or apologize to car drivers for crossing the street on the pedestrian green light. Given the safety of the streets, and the good nature of the people here, the respect for personal space, and the ease with which people move through this dense urban conglomeration, I have never felt more relaxed in a big city than I do here in Tokyo.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Two-Legged Horse, Samira Makhmalbaf, 2008

This film is by far the best of the recent release films I have seen. Directed by Samira of the premier Iranian filmmaking Makhmalbaf family, and written by her father Mohsen, The Two-legged Horse is beautiful, painful, and a political tirade all at once. This film does what lesser films aspire to but are never able to do in its ability to take an everyday relationship that is both real and an allegory for more urgent, political relationships. Set in a poverty stricken Afghanistan, two boys build a relationship that is a profound and deeply troubling sado-masochistic master-slave affair. The one has no legs, the other no money. And they need each other for survival, the one to get around, the other to stay alive.

The mentally retarded boy, Mervais, wins a competition to become the human horse for the maimed wealthy boy.

What’s so powerful about this film is the fact that the relationship develops from this business arrangement between the one who has legs and the one who has money, moves through power struggle between the two – the master whips his horse, deprives him of food, throws stones at him, humiliates him and cruelly debases him from human to helpless animal. And yet, the animal comes back for more. The animal also knows that his master is dependent on him and though they are few, there are moments when he leaves the young legless boy to fend for himself. And the bond turns from a business arrangement to a something more human, real, a genuine connection between the two. If a scene where the two share a both and watch spiders in the rich boy’s house is the turning point, or the climax of the film, from here, The Two-legged Horse only gets darker. Instead of deepening a relationship based on compassion and comradeship, the film then sees the “master” exploit Mervais with greater cruelty and violence. Eventually, the boy is “transformed” into a horse with saddle, horse shoes (the scene where they are nailed into his feet is not for the squeamish) and even a head, living in a barn with the other animals, eating hay. The abuse is so final that there is nowhere to go but for the human horse to walk away. At the end of the film, there is a call for his replacement that echoes the opening when scores of young boys plead and beg to be the human transportation. And so the nightmare of exploitation will continue.

Ultimately, this is a searing indictment not only of the brutality of human exploitation, but also of the debasement of the people of Afghanistan by its oppressors. Even though the film never moves outside of the small village, or beyond the lives of the two boys, this is a narrative that is set firmly in the desert of a country that has been exploited and bled dry in the interests of someone else’s profit. The fact that the legless boy’s mother stepped on a landmine that killed her and maimed him, makes the stakes clear, and his story as the sadist, tragic. We also know that his sister has a deformity that has taken his father and her to India for a cure, leaving the young boy alone. We might learn why the boy takes his anger out on his slave, but we never feel sorry for him. Rather, these details ensure that the message about sado-masochism ricochets outwards from the two young boys to that at the heart of their country’s recent history.

Filmically, The Two-Legged Horse is beautiful, the camera lingers, and the editing creates connections, rather than telling stories. Mervais is likened through the sharing of the mise-en-scène to the horses, cows and donkeys who appear to have more freedom than he does. In contradistinction, the film periodically cuts to the developing relationship between a mare and her new born pony. Like the one between the amputee and the mentally impaired, that between mother and child horse is filled with contradiction: oscillating between brutal kicking and loving licking and kissing, we are reminded that the bonds of sado-masochism are everywhere in the animal world. The allegory is complete as we are shown the destruction and violence of the master-slave relationship is everywhere, even presumably, in our daily lives.

This is the sado-masochistic relationship at its most virulent, made all the more powerful, poignant and painful by the impotence, and surely, the innocence of the couple of kids. The Two-Legged Horse is a fine allegory of both the abuse we inflict on each other and of the desperate and devastating political world that we live in.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa, Yan Pei-Ming at the Louvre

The fact that he paints in grey was enough to get my attention and to draw me like a lemming to Yan Pei-Ming’s exhibition of five monumental grey paintings currently at the Louvre. Hung in the galleries devoted to the largest French nineteenth-century canvases and opposite the Salle des Etats, home to a number of masterpieces of Italian Renaissance painting, including the Mona Lisa. On reflection, it is still the grey and the paint that are the most interesting and endlessly fascinating aspects of Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa.

A tear strained Mona Lisa is the centerpiece of the five huge canvases. On either side of her sit battlefields of skulls, and in turn, on either side of them, a blown up image of the still living artist with his eyes closed on a mortuary examination table, and at the other, his deceased father with eyes open on his death bed. They are surrounded by the excesses of the Louvre collection: the grandest, most magnificent nineteenth century French paintings, including the exquisite and seductive figure of Ingres’ Odalisque (1814), discretely placed in the corner. The stark, cool paintings discourse on some of the hottest themes in contemporary art: the blurring of distinctions between public and private, the interweaving of past and present, then and now, fiction and fact, the representation of memory and history, and so on. These discussions are interesting enough, but to my mind, they don’t say anything that hasn’t been said elsewhere.

For me, these thematic concerns were somewhat secondary to the intense luminosity of five soaring contemporary paintings in the midst of the maroon and gold spendors of the Denon wing. In Yan Pei-Ming’s world, the excess is transposed to the canvas itself: the confident, determined, even aggressive brushstrokes are applied quickly and thickly. The excess paint coagulates and runs off the surface such that it reaches out to us. In the midst of the legends, fantasies and the hermetically sealed narrative worlds of David, Ingres, Géricault and Delacroix, the reality of Yan Pei Ming’s paintings are exaggerated by the dense materiality of paint. The rich painted surfaces are thickly textured, indulgent, completely sumptuous, and yet, they are lugubrious. When I stood before the Mona Lisa I could feel the heaving and howling of professional mourners as they followed the painting, the dead Mona Lisa, through the streets of Rome, veiled, wailing to underline the devastation of someone else’s grief. The intensity of the paint, and its arousal of the senses tugged at my heart as I stood before these paintings. Again, it’s not what is represented in the paintings, it is the stuff of paint itself.

Yan Pei-Ming often paints in grey – his critics and commentators call it sombre. On the contrary, his grey is brilliant. He explains that the grey is only in these paintings because white cannot otherwise exist. The color of mourning in China is white, but we will not see it if it is not supported by grey. I find this fascinating because it reminds me of the meeting of East and Western modernism in Yan Pei Ming’s art. The Mona Lisa? She and her brother David in the Accademia dell’Arte in Florence are the icons par excellence of Western art. Curiously, so is grey paint. Gerhard Richter, Cy Twombly, Jasper Johns, Anselm Kiefer, Agnes Martin, and the list goes on, the big names of postwar Western modernist painting, either paint with a predominantly grey palette, or they turn to grey in their quest for the truth of painting, a truth that resonates with the ambiguity, contradiction and self-effacement of grey paint. Surely, paintings such as Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa is involved in these kinds of questions as well? Contrary to popular opinion, it’s not the death of painting at stake in Yan Pei-Ming’s grey, it’s the iteration of the essence of painting.

With their glowing luminosity, these works in grey literally shine a light on the deep red walls of the Louvre, walls that signal reverence, excess, wealth, beauty, in effect, the sublime magnificence, of this institution’s collection. In the beam of Yan Pei-Ming’s monumental canvases, the great paintings come alive. Standing in the midst of Les Funérailles de Monna Lisa it is as though the paintings are designed to the illuminate the stage on which the ordinary and the contemporary are played out on a Friday night in Paris. They bring the high-mindedness of 16th century painting into the spotlight of the present.