Archive for November 2010
That’s the clarion call of the über-hipness that is Trans-Cool Tokyo, now on at 8Q – a tasting platter of things artsy, groovy and Nipponese, which makes you want to hop on the next plane for the world capital of Cool.
And then, of course, there’s Murakami: reigning doyen of the Japanese commercial art world. His signature motifs, ranging from the Mickey-esque Mr. Dob to a variety of menacing, fanged shrooms, are well-represented in Trans-Cool. All that was missing, perhaps, was one of his oh-so-coveted Murakami-ized Vuitton bags … I was also reminded of a paper I wrote on the connections between the artist’s pop-inflected visuality and the Freudian implications of the atom bomb for contemporary Japanese culture. (Clearly I’ve been recycling Freud’s notion of the Uncanny one too many times ..) In any case, I think parts of it are worth reproducing here:
Mr. Dob is a strange creature. Not unfamiliar, but strange, and not least because at present, by his creator’s own account, there exists some 100 versions of him, most of which differ each from the other in the minutest of details as well as in the most arresting and inexplicable of fashions. There is Dob in an early incarnation, as a beaming, wide-eyed, bi-coloured head, the epitome of kawai’i, the ubiquitous Japanese concept of cute, with two oversized ears that makes perfectly plain his descent from Walt Disney’s famous animated mouse. There is 727, in which a monstrous Dob, sporting an array of eyes and a mouthful of pointed, razor-sharp incisors, drifts across a distressed surface on tendrils of wispy cloud. There is a garish, technicolour Dob, recast as Tan Tan Bo. Then there is Dob in the Strange Forest, a massive sculpture of resin, fiberglass and iron that sets the chameleonic creature amidst a number of multi-hued, multi-eyed mushrooms of various shapes and sizes that, like Dob himself, will take on an iconic, metamorphic life of their own elsewhere.
The creations of Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who in recent years has enjoyed a tremendous surge of popularity both at home and abroad, particularly in the United States—he has curated several shows here, including one at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2001, as well as Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture in New York City in 2005—Mr. Dob and his fungal friends and their dizzying variety of types embody Murakami’s self-professed project of the “Superflat” (which lent its name to the MOCA exhibition), an interpretation of the traditional flatness and linearity of Japanese surfaces in a contemporary context where “society, customs, art, culture: all are extremely two-dimensional”, which finds a “visual correspondence in the reception mechanisms … of a screen-oriented generation …”
Beneath the deliberately depthless veneers of Murakami’s work, however, lurks a sense of something … more. It is a feeling of uneasiness, for instance, not an exclamation of “How cute!”, that the sight of Dob in the Strange Forest evokes: the immediate reference, at least for a Western viewer, is the enchanted world of the fairy tale, and one is reminded of the ambiguous nature of magic in those stories, of its capacity to heal or to harm in equal measure, by the expression of consternation that Dob wears, and by his hand held up in a gesture of defence as if to ward off the ring of silent, staring, mushrooms. Freud, in his 1919 essay The Uncanny, arrives, through a semantic interrogation of the terms heimlich and unheimlich, at the conclusion that the former, which commonly functions in the sense of “familiar” and “native”, “is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich.”He quotes from the 1877 dictionary of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm: “From the idea of “homelike”, “belonging to the house”, the further idea is developed of something withdrawn from the eyes of others, something concealed, secret … The notion of something hidden and dangerous … is still further developed, so that “heimlich” comes to have the meaning usually ascribed to “unheimlich”.Murakami, in an interview, has alluded to the role that the Shinto religion, and its concept of kami, plays in his art: “It is base don a belief in the existence of a multitude of divinities, in which “multitude” is metaphorically referred to by the expression yaoyorozu no kami—literally, “eight million gods”. These are pantheistic beliefs with connections to the fantastical world of specters and ghosts. In this view, any natural element, any object, has its own life—a soul.”He goes on to contrast this concept of the supernatural with the cute: “The notion of kawaii is extremely positive. It expresses the luminous side of an enchanted world. The ghosts, as divinities, are fairly close to its dark side.”The Janus-like merging of binary opposites that Freud identifies in the workings of the terms heimlich and unheimlich finds an analogue in the dual nature of Dob in the Strange Forest, the central dichotomy around which the image is structured being that of the cute, as represented by the figure of Dob, vs. the supernatural, as manifested in the eerie, anthropomorphic forms of the mushrooms, endowed, such as it were, with “souls”, and the spherical and ovular shapes that dominate the compositions of both find an echo in the large, round iron disc that serves as a base, which supports, encircles, and unifies, albeit in an alliance marked by uncertainty and tension.
(Disclaimer: Going back to it now after some 4 years, I’m not so sure of that preceding bit anymore ..)
In Super Nova, executed the same year (1999), Murakami subjects the motif of the mushroom, sans Dob, to multiplication and mutation. Sprouting in a line across several panels joined together to form a long mural, the fungi seem more creature-like than ever. Their individual palettes have been intensified, and the number of their eyes increased (indeed, as one commentator has observed, the sight-organs come across as having a personality of their own); some feature gills hanging from the underside of the cap, which the artist has rendered in the shape of jagged, barracuda-like teeth, much in the manner of Dob’s own sharp-toothed alter-ego. In the centre of the long row, towering above its fellows like an implacable, demoniac growth, like a kaleidoscopic spectre of the atomic decimation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II, is the largest mushroom of all, the super nova. Resemblance to the now-iconic image of the atomic mushroom cloud does not bear repeating, a fact that the artist himself has acknowledged,but it is interesting to note his comments about the collective amnesia of the Japanese regarding the A-bomb, and, as a corollary, that of Japanese Imperialist aggression during the war. Apropos of the recurrent theme of the devastation of Tokyo by a weapon of mass destruction, which surfaces time and again in manga and anime narratives—a classic example of which would be Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira—Arthur Lubow, in a New York Times Magazine article, reports that Murakami “concluded that otaku raised a “mirror” to a reality that the larger culture preferred to ignore. Like many other Japanese intellectuals of his generation, he deplores both his country’s militarist past and what he sees as its acquiescent present.”Freud, in his theory of the uncanny, locates the driving impulse of the phenomenon in the act of repression: “…the uncanny is nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it…”What Murakami has effected with Super Nova, in Freudian terms, is the disruption of mainstream societal discourse via the return of a suppressed memory from the subcultural realm of the otaku, where it has been kept alive, so to speak: the trope of mutation here serves to defamiliarize the (once-)familiar, to render it bizarre, alarming, and menacing, as witnessed in the metamorphosis of the mushroom from round-eyed forest waif, to be understood in a relational context which includes Dob as the focus of attention (all eyeballs are oriented towards his person), to a gaudy, grossly oversized apparition with blade-like appendages for teeth, and a lidded gaze which directly and unabashedly engages the viewer and, at the same time, exudes a self-sufficiency of being and purpose, one that entices and resists all at once.
Freud, however, admits that while “a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it” is uncanny, and that “everything that is uncanny fulfils this condition”, the reverse is far from true: “Not everything that fulfils this condition … is therefore uncanny.”18 He cites the case of fairy tales, in which strange occurrences and supernatural incidents abound, but which he yet “cannot think of any genuine fairy-story which has anything uncanny about it”;despite that fact that “it is in the highest degree uncanny when inanimate objects—a picture or a doll—come to life; nevertheless in Hans Anderson’s stories the household utensils, furniture and tin soldiers are alive and nothing could perhaps be more remote from the uncanny.”Freud attributes this to what Coleridge termed the “suspension of disbelief”, since “in fairy-tales, for instance, the world of reality is left behind from the very start, and the animistic system of beliefs is frankly adopted”, and that “there are many more means of creating uncanny effects in fiction than there are in real life.”It is, in other words, context (here a literary or imaginative one) from which the uncanny may be said to derive much of its meaning, a framework in which the necessary circumstances may be articulated to generate the desired effect. Super Nova, as such, seeks to be understood within a particular discursive space, or within a set of discursive terms—if the image of the mushroom may be read as anthropomorphic, then the point/s of departure against which it is to be measured are not merely its counterparts of Dob in the Strange Forest, but the normative human body as well. The mutated appearance of the large mushroom, limbless, sinister and menacing—a dark red fluid of some sort may be seen to ooze from behind the creature’s fangs—reflects the fear of disfigurement, dismemberment, and of death, embodied in images of the immediate aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki produced by survivors. Most of these drawings emphasize not just the annihilation of the landscape, its transformation into a charred, blackened wasteland, but, to a greater extent, graphic depictions of the extreme violence enacted on the human body predominate, pictures of victims both dead and (barely) alive, a visual inventory of severed body parts, missing appendages, gruesome disfigurations: in one may be seen a woman “with her jaw missing and her tongue hanging out of her mouth”; another portrays “a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeball in his palm”;there is a watercolour of a single hand, missing the tips of 4 fingers: “… (it) was lifted to the sky and the fingers were burning with blue flames. The fingers were shortened to one-third and distorted. A dark liquid was running to the ground …” A drawing of the corpse of his wife as he found her on the morning of August 11, 1945, by one Fusataro Tanimine, both describes and itemizes the condition she was in: “1. She looked just like a ghost because her eyelids were badly burned and swollen. 2. Her lips, swollen and protruding, made her mouth look like a monkey’s. 3. Although she was under mosquito netting, the skin of her whole burned body on which maggots were breeding had the appearance of the crust of a crab.”One sketch simply shows the bloodied figure of an old (or bald) man dressed in a white robe wandering about a corpse-strewn scene, arms hanging limply down in front, in the manner of a revenant.
Takashi Murakami, Puka Puka
It is in these grotesque, mutilated figures that one may perhaps locate the seeds of the “uncanny” in Super Nova, for, to quote Freud quoting his predecessor in this area, E. Jentsch, “(he) has taken as a very good instance “doubts whether an apparently animate being is really alive; or, conversely, whether a lifeless object might not in fact be animate”… Jentsch says: “In telling a story, one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton …”The “ghost”-ly, or otherwise un-human, aspect of the representations is worth nothing in this regard, and Freud, in Totem and Taboo, offers numerous explanations as to the cause of the belief, both among “primitive” and “civilized” races, of the demonization of the dead, why the deceased are often perceived to be antagonistic towards their living brethren, returning in various unearthly guises to harass and harm. Freud writes: “…originally, however, the dead were all vampires who bore ill-will to the living, and strove to harm them and deprive them of life. It was the corpse that first furnished the conception of an evil spirit (italics mine).”His recognition of a visual source for the belief in demons and the undead strike a particular chord here, a belief encoded in the distinctly dehumanized figures of the zombified man, the jaw-less woman with her red, lolling tongue, the man with his eyeball in his palm, the crab-skinned corpse with the monkey lips and lidless, blood-shot eyes, and, in the same vein, the mutated image of Super Nova—the eyed, toothed, frighteningly large mushroom-form, with blood perhaps dripping from its maw, an almost convincing portrait of otherworldly voracity.
Ryuji Ikeda, Data.matrix (no. 1-10) [snippet]
Kiichiro Adachi, e.e.no.24 [snippet]
A recently-spotted rant on Craigslist Singapore:
Apologies if it seems like I’m just pointing out the obvious, but this really needs to be said.
Dating in Singapore is beyond farcical sometimes. Not that I haven’t been disappointed by the singles scene elsewhere, but here it’s like I’m starring in my own badly-scripted sitcom ..
A couple of anecdotes/observations:
1. Within seconds of exchanging personal stories during an online chat session, the other party asks if I speak with an accent. (Having learnt that I’d spent the better part of the last decade abroad.) Why does it matter ?! Seriously, what is with this obsession with how people speak ? Is someone ineligible to go out with locals unless s/he can deliver a pitch-perfect Singlish monotone complete with a lah, leh or lor ? Is every Singaporean out there obliged to speak like that ? Have we forgotten the art of code-switching ? And, by the way, folks, enunciating properly is NOT speaking with an accent – please, learn to tell the difference.
2. The ang moh/local hierarchy. Absurd … it’s as if every white face out there, regardless of personal character, cultural background, appearance and comportment is automatically one up on the ladder of desirability. What a f*cking heap of fetid bullcrap. C’mon, we’ve all heard too many stories of interracial hook-ups gone wrong to believe that particular fairy-tale anymore. Sure, the (white) expat comes equipped with a formidable armour of economic clout and outsider allure, but they’re certainly not all suitable dating material. And half the time they have so many natives simply throwing themselves at them that they end up cynical serial assholes with zero respect for us Asians. Can you blame them ?
3. Having said that, local men can be rather lacking in the sophistication department. While having post-dinner drinks with someone I was meeting for the first time, I’m very unfortunately subjected to a five-minute soliloquy on the individual’s pet hamster collection, including a detailed exposition on hamster feed: which brands are best, what he likes to throw into the mix, what it does for hamster health. It made me want to commit hara-kiri with a rusty chainsaw. Thank god for beer. To adapt the refrain of an old folk tune: where have all the social skills gone ?!
Between rodent-crazy locals and misbehaving man-whore angmohs, where are the people who are into people, and not speech patterns or skin colour or any of those inanities ?
Actually, who am I kidding ? I wrote this ……
Read the original here.