May 23rd, 2008


Freshness, banners and flow

I went on Wednesday evening to see the Osaka kabuki troupe Heisei Nakamura-za performing Natsumatsuri naniwa kagami at the Berlin Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

Despite the fact that the HKW has a constant turnover of contemporary art shows, and that this kabuki piece was classical theatre, the gull-winged auditorium felt fresher, not fustier, than usual. Banners fluttered in the early summer breeze on the walkways, temporary huts housed craftspeople, the audience sported lively kimono patterns, and the actors milled around the stage and stalls in yukatas, their energy enhanced by the clacky-twangy-drummy expressiveness of the live music -- acoustic, but loud as only wood smashed against wood, massed shakuhachi and huge drums thumped by semi-naked men can be.

We often hear things like cuteness, politeness, uptightness or even some kind of evilness, some kind of original sin, celebrated as "typically Japanese", but something terribly important about the atmosphere of Japan often gets overlooked and understated: the emphasis on -- and energy of -- freshness. The way wind blows in off the Pacific and flutters banners, the way seasonal celebrations and rituals are always giving people new things to celebrate, the obsession with transition and ephemera, with youth, fresh linen, with fresh goods flowing not just for the sake of making someone rich, but of keeping everyone fresh.

And of course there's the Pacific freshness of sushi, of fish in the fish market. Japan's location on the Pacific gives the whole island a particular freshness, and you feel its cities and mountains freshened by sea breezes, summer rains, violent typhoons, ocean goods, the fruits of the sea, according to the season. That's something a landlocked city like Berlin can only really experience by osmosis, when the kabuki actors arrive. Sure, we have our spargel cult -- the seasonal celebration of white asparagus, trumpeted in every streetside eatery -- but it's not really enough. We don't have the Asian density and intensity. We can't ever feel as fresh.

There's a link between freshness and flow, freshness and markets, freshness and production and consumption, freshness and sex, freshness and masculinity and femininity. Freshness needs us to spawn, to make fresh flesh, and we spawn in our genders; the women womanly-fertile and proud of it, the men manly-fertile and fiercely, freshly proud too. Naoko, the Japanese friend I attended the kabuki with (Hisae is in Osaka, freshening a friend's wedding with her presence), gasped and applauded at the most manly moments in the play.

I could feel a manly freshness-energy coming through strongly in the performance, as drummers hammered matsuri drums and acrobats did backflips. The fact that it was all happening in May -- the pre-eminent month of regeneration and freshening, the month of blossom and fluttering flags, of oak leaf-wrapped kashiwa mochi (pink and green) eaten at the Tango no Sekku (male children's day) festival, celebrated with streaming carp banners -- made it all the more intensely gendered. Somehow -- Lazarus and the risen Christ aside, and they're stale in stinky winding sheets -- revitalisation just isn't celebrated in Christianity in this way. Possibly because Christianity was battling to displace exactly the sort of fertility religions we see in Shinto -- the world's most active agrarian cult, and the only one seriously to have marked an advanced industrial nation. That successful persistence is ultimately what I put this fluttering, refreshing freshness down to, and I must say I really miss it in the West. Somehow antiquity and ritual freshens Japan.

Speaking of freshness and Japan, Japanese musician Tomoko Miyata will freshen my singing with her water bowls this Saturday in Vienna when we perform at the event, part of the Wiener Festwochen (hey, a kind of Viennese matsuri!) at the Technical University on Karlsplatz. Chemistry, our installation-performance, starts at 8pm on Saturday and continues until 11. Basically, Tomoko is playing her evocative bowls and I'm singing the Periodic Table of the Elements over the slippy liquid tones. Admission is free, and I think you'll find it refreshing.