January 19th, 2006


Lust for panel discussions

After a trip out to the beautiful Hara Museum in Shinagawa to see some Olafur Eliasson installations yesterday afternoon, Hisae and I headed to well-heeled Ginza (willow branches, fine coffee, hostesses in kimonos) to attend a Motion Graphics conference featuring the likes of TGB, Katsuki Tanaka and Groovisions.

There were DVDs being projected, of course (the highlights for me were an amazing 45° elevation animation by Groovisions of a man chasing a runaway horse through a generic city where everyone was dancing in time with each other -- even a dog watching his master peeing against a wall -- and a Katsuki Tanaka piece consisting of an endless zooming out through worlds within worlds). But, this being Japan -- and despite the predominantly visual nature of the subject at hand -- the whole thing culminated in words, and, more precisely, a panel discussion.

The format was classic: four men, eminent in their field, in relaxed mode, as if they were sitting together in an izakaya, full of solidarity with each other, holding microphones, being asked (very long) questions by a "charismatic" host (in this case, a guy with straggly peroxide hair poking out of a baseball cap). Because so many kids had come to see this, we had to sit on stools behind a sheet of glass in an overspill area, and I found myself swivelling between the actual artists and the image of them being relayed to a TV nearby.

The television framing felt a lot more natural than the real-life one, which made me think that this panel format mimics the variety comedy shows that dominate Japanese TV in the evenings, when a bunch of talento comedians blether away "spontaneously" for hours or play party games of one sort or another. Japanese TV is boring for me because I don't speak Japanese well, and these panel events are boring for the same reason. (I have just enough Japanese to tell you that these men were recounting how their careers began in the 90s thanks to commissions from musicians like Konishi, Cornelius and Towa Tei.) But as a result of my inadequacy I focus on body language; for instance, I admire Hiroshi Ito's good looks, or watch whether the audience is laughing when the panel cracks up. (In this case the answer is no; the audience sat stony-faced, which actually made the whole thing feel more like TV than ever.)

But my boredom at this sort of inevitable Japanese panel event (even if it's Makoto Aida at Nadiff or something) is mixed with a total admiration at the Japanese for making their artists much more visible than we do in the West. You quickly get to know the faces of famous artists here, and they even reach a wide public thanks to popular TV shows like Takeshi-no Daredemo Picasso, Takeshi Kitano's "Everyone is Picasso", which often features people like Yayoi Kusama and Takashi Murakami. You even see the faces of Western artists in Japan much more than you do in the West, and see them talk on panels about their work. For instance, in Japan I've seen German artists like Karsten Nicolai and Beate Gutschow doing presentations on their work, yet I never saw that in their hometown of Berlin. And that makes Japan seem admirable, and the West seem weird.

The weird, warped and occluded ways that artists appear in media in the West forms the basis for a very interesting booklet (you can download it in pdf format here, 3.7MB) by Temporary Services. It's called "Framing the Artists". After watching hundreds of hours of tapes of Western film and television in which artists and art appear (even very briefly), Temporary Services submitted their notes in the form of this booklet. It gives amusing examples of art in popular media, from Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh in Lust For Life to jokes in sitcom Absolutely Fabulous. "Many depictions center on artists’ unusual behavior, love affairs, or self-destruction through drugs and alcohol," they conclude. (Certainly true of The Observer's weirdly hostile and defensive "psychoanalysis" of Tracey Emin last Sunday.) "Jokes about not being able to understand modern art are endless. Very few biographies of actual or fictive artists seriously attempt to consider the artist’s creative process in a nuanced way."

No matter how boring and wordy I find these Japanese artist panel discussions (and it's mostly my fault; I need to learn Japanese), they are, if nothing else, "serious attempts to consider the artist's creative process in a nuanced way". And for that, a Christian hallelujah!

(If you have your own examples of silly or strange portrayals of artists in the Western media, Temporary Services want to hear from you. E-mail them at servers@temporaryservices.org.)