February 27th, 2005


Susan Ciancolo

In one of those co-incidences that never seems quite as surprising as it should, I spent Saturday lunchtime reading an interview with the New York artist Susan Ciancolo in a United Bamboo magazine I found in Bonjour Records, Daikanyama. Later, up on the 7th floor of Tower Records in Shibuya, I discovered Susan in person giving a little presentation of her new record, a raw, gentle, hippy-folksy music project called The Magic Star Band. I ended up going for dinner with some of the organisers of the show, Trees Are So Special, including Yoyo, an old friend from my Paris days.

I'm a big fan of Susan Ciancolo's art, which mixes installations with applied art -- cooking, sewing, mystical sketches, stuffed toys, odd and delicate clothes, music. I went three times to her Run Restaurant installation at Alleged Gallery in New York back in 2001, in which Susan constructed a sort of Japanese cafe from plywood, decorated it with folksy stuffed toys, drawings, and floor cushions, and invited guest cooks to prepare lunch menus. She herself was the "waitress", calm, self-possessed, self-effacing yet secretly controlling the whole thing. For some reason the installation appealed particularly to musicians; when I visited Bjork looked in, Michael Stipe was browsing the bookshop, and members of Blonde Redhead and the Magnetic Fields sat on the scatter cushions.

I wouldn't hestitate to call Susan's gentle, playful work "feminine". Flowers, embroidery, cooking all point us in the direction of what are traditionally thought of as feminine values. This work is much better received in Japan than America, where such values are seen by both the left and the right as suspect, so Susan comes here often. Asked by one of the Japanese girls in the audience at her presentation "What do you think of Japanese girls?", Susan replied in her characteristically gentle, slightly spaced tone, "I love them... When I'm here, I see the fashions worn by girls, and it's always been very beautiful to me, since I was coming, since '98. Because it's completely open and forward and I think no-one is afraid of what they wear and how they express... Yeah, it's so inspiring for me coming here."

As we walked to the restaurant through streets thronging with happy, excited Saturday night Shibuya crowds, I asked Susan about something I'd read in her interview. She spoke about a close encounter with death, and how it had changed her outlook, made her more spiritually-focussed, less willing to take life for granted. It turns out that she was assaulted last year in Prospect Park, near her Brooklyn apartment, robbed and badly beaten up. This happened during the day. A friend of Susan's walking with us, a fashion designer called Monica who lives on the Lower East Side, mentioned the recent murder on Clinton Street, where an actress was robbed and, when she challenged her assailants with "What are you going to do, shoot me?" was shot to death. Episodes like these give a real poignancy to Susan's phrase about Japanese women, "no-one is afraid". It isn't just women who feel this way here. I'm also unafraid as I walk around the streets of Tokyo. There are no gauntlets to run, no areas off limits. Tokyo citizens are almost brazenly unafraid. Sitting on the Chuo Line yesterday morning I was astonished to see the man opposite me take out a fat wad of ten thousand yen notes, count them in front of all the other passengers, and put them back in his inside pocket. There must have been $5000 worth there. Nobody in the West would be so trusting of fellow subway users (including an odd-looking foreigner with an eye patch).

I think this issue of safety in Japan is very much overlooked when people talk about the status of women here. Much is made by foreign observers of the problem of Japanese train gropers and the fetishistic mindset of many Japanese men, but the big picture is often overlooked: that this is an overwhelmingly safe place for women to walk about in. The very sexy and expressive way that Japanese women dress is a direct result of their sense of ease and security in public places. Safety and expressiveness go hand in hand. It's also important that Japan doesn't have the West's big race and poverty gaps. The New York assaults I mentioned were the result of one group of people feeling that acts of almost random violence in public places were justified by racial and economic injustice. Since the gaps between rich and poor, black and white are being increased by the current US administration, American cities will only become more dangerous in the short term. That means less expressiveness on the part of the citizens of American cities; restrictions on liberty of movement, restrictions on women's freedom. It might also explain the sharky menace, the brooding aggressive mood I noticed in the foreign magazine section of ABC the other day: in stark contrast to their Japanese equivalents, American magazine covers featured images of men in black walking through sheets of flame carrying machine-guns, dark-helmeted heads with hard cold light reflected in their visors, menacing rappers oozing "don't mess with me" attitude. The gentle imagery that Susan Ciancolo produces -- delicate drawings of deer, plants, girls, clothes -- could easily be found on a Japanese magazine cover (I bought a copy of Relax for Girls yesterday, a magazine which very much embraces this style). But it's getting increasingly hard to imagine it featured anywhere in an American magazine. Neither America's left nor its right wants girly girls or "girly men". In an unfortunate cultural pincer movement, the US left (in the shape of feminism and the ideology of equality of opportunity) has masculinized women just in time to co-incide with the right's masculinization of the streets and the world by sending in soldiers, increasing social tensions, upping hatred and resentment.

The paradox is that the more the US becomes an Israel-style security state, the less secure it becomes. You address security by working on its root causes -- hatred, resentment, poverty -- rather than filling your cities, and the world, with machine-gun-toting gooks. In a recent column for RealTokyo magazine, Maeda Keizo describes what it's like for a Japanese to visit New York now: "I'm in New York once again. Even though prepared to find security measures being drastically re-inforced since 9.11, the endless lines at the customs and the fingerprints and facial portraits they're taking of travellers don't exactly make entering the USA a nice adventure. Once in the city I find policemen with huge dogs all over the place, and although I understand that this is the price people have to pay for an almost impersonally clean subway and safety in everyday life, I have the feeling that it's a bit too much. Due to the watching eyes I'm constantly feeling in my neck I'm getting slightly depressed. But somehow the people I meet and the usual cafes I visit again this time help me clear up."

It's another sunny day in Tokyo, crows are cawing outside my window and I'm just about to catch a Chuo line train to Kiba to see the show of art by women at MoT, Life, Actually curated by Michiko Kasahara. I'm sure the work will offer new insights on this troubling question of the relationship between security, expressiveness, and the feminine.