January 22nd, 2006


Palace of mirrors

How does Europe look from Japan? What do you call a "nostalgia" for something you've never experienced: a cultural simulacrum, an exotic projection, a misconception, a mistaken memory? (Speaking of those, Eno's "14 Video Paintings" DVD tops the best-seller lists at Tokyo culture shops like Bonjour Records and Nadiff this week, and includes his 1980 video "Mistaken Memories of Medieval Manhattan", whose title I borrowed for a Kahimi Karie song.)

Call it "nostagia for the unknown" or call it "projection", but Japan is scattered with 1:1 scale holograms of imaginary parts of Europe. The Anniversaire wedding hall in Aoyama, the French chateau and German beerhall at Ebisu Garden Place.

These are small, projected parts of Europe made by the Japanese, invested with dreams and emotion. (There's a chapter of Ian Buruma's "A Japanese Mirror" called "The Paris of our Dreams".)

If you've experienced Europe (and of course many Japanese have, but we're not sure what they see, snapping it from the coach window), you might merely be referencing its reality in clothes or buildings like these. But if you've never seen the real thing, or seen it through dreams, you create it rather than recreating it. And this becomes interesting to people who know the real thing, because it's different from what they know to be the case; a hallucination, an idealisation, a parallel Europe quite separate from the real one.

And now I should mention Tokyo Disney Sea, or Mary Poppins, or wax museums in the desert, and now I should begin to sound like an intellectual waxwork of Baudrillard, and remind you of early 90s populist-pomo pop songs about "hyper-real feelings" and simulations "even better than the real thing".

And of course the globalist 90s were a time when everyone was looking at other cultures with romantic eyes, because we were selling things and travelling rather than waging war and doing the "clash of civilizations" thing we're doing now.

But I think this pomo theme of playing up to, and playing with, cultural projections is still a fascinating one, because nostalgia or misunderstanding or exoticist projection is much more interesting, with its accretions of fantasy and dream and wish, than "correct" cultural perceptions, whatever those might be. (And it's certainly more appealing than war.) If understanding is about perception, misunderstanding is about production.

It's much more easy to insert yourself into a lie, a fantasy, than to insert yourself into the truth, a reality. And it's much more easy to change it. For an artist, a lie invested with human emotion is the best raw material there is. The palace of mirrors: how I see how you see how I see you seeing me.

The reason I got annoyed yesterday with people who made links between Gothic Lolita and Goth is that, for me, the style fits much better into the context of cultural projection rather than the context of horror films, post-Christian imagery, death obsession, and so on (the signifiers of Goth style). As the Wikipedia entry on Gothic Lolita says, it's about "tea and cakes in the chill-out room, doll decorations, and other items designed to appeal to the Gothloli sense of European nostalgia".

We Europeans can use that Japanese "nostalgia" for Europe, just as we can use an American "nostalgia" for Europe. These things might even give us more inspiration than the real Europe, which might be (look at Venice!) a pale, fatally tangible imitation of the fantastic dreams Americans and Japanese dream about it.

I travelled to Japan in 1998, videoing the decora girls of Harajuku ("imagine Marie Antoinette as a cyberpunk milkmaid"). That influenced my "Little Red Songbook" album. But I was also spending a lot of time in America at that point, and getting very interested in how Europe might look to Americans. Exotic old Europe!

The bitchy Enlightenment wit who animates and presents my 1998 album (I later named him The Earl of Amiga and played him in a cabaret; in fact incarnating Amiga onstage was the pretext for my move to New York City in 2000) was a response to the irrepressible urge to ham up my Europeanness to American audiences (mostly little cabaret audiences at the Fez Club on Lafayette Street). Another persona I started chanelling in my writings at that time was Alexis de Toqueville. Me and Toog stared out at America from our tour van like little Toquevilles, and when we got to the venue we'd ponce about the stage like Malkovitches in "Les Liasons Dangeureuses", poisonous parody Europeans.

(My coffeehouse wit, dandy, poet, composer and ponce character even got a big -- and real -- lawsuit from a rival composer, as if life were imitating the plot of "Amadeus", or at least the Falco song.)

This year I'm working on a novel called "Lives of the Composers" and also playing a Panglossian tour guide at the Whitney Biennial, so the Enlightenment charade continues. This play on foreign perceptions of Europe.

And of course Britain, my culture of origin, is perched precariously on the rim of Europe, and isn't really "inside" it (just as it isn't inside the Euro currency mechanism), and so Europe for me was always as exotic as it would be to a Japanese or an American, even though I later lived in Paris and Berlin. It retained its otherness. It became a space for the insertion of dreams.

It's funny that Sofia Coppola's new movie is "Marie Antoinette". One of my Kahimi Karie songs is about Marie Antoinette ("Le Roi Soleil", the only one me and Cornelius wrote together). It was Kahimi's most expensive video, and the clips I've seen of the Coppola movie look exactly like it.

But, just as "the Japanese are almost Japanese", and seem to see each other, increasingly, as foreign tourists would (self-alienation leads to self-exoticisation, which leads to national narcissism), so the Europeans these days are "almost European". They want to rebuild Europe as the kind of simulacrum that Japanese tourists would feel comfortable with.

The German Bundestag voted on January 19th to approve the demolition of the Volkspalast, the old communist parliament of the former East German state. A sustained campaign to turn the gold-glass 1970s building into an art centre failed. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, and many others, want to replace it with a reconstruction of the Imperial Palace that once stood on the site. But there's no money in either the city or federal budgets, so who knows whether the simulacrum will ever be built. Perhaps it could just be a projection, a 1:1 hologram. That way, when retro-fashion changes, you could easily flip the slide and make it a hologram of the Volkspalast.

Next weekend a new show opens at the Mori Art Museum up on the 53rd floor of Tokyo's Roppongi Hills building. Tokyo - Berlin / Berlin - Tokyo "traces the fascinating cultural links between these two great world capitals from the end of the nineteenth century until the present day. Through two world wars, a devastating earthquake, high-speed economic growth, failed ideologies, and economic recessions, both cities experienced similar periods of ruin and rebirth. Cultural contact between the two capitals at these times was not limited to art, but included numerous fascinating exchanges in such fields as architecture, photography, theatre and design."

Now, the big decision is whether to see this show in Tokyo, or whether to see it back in Berlin (it transfers to the Neue Nationalgalerie in June). Despite being totally the same show, it'll be two completely different shows.