March 18th, 2009


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Just to give you a glimpse of my gallery docent schtick, here are a couple of clips of my recent performance at The Real Thing, the show curated by VVORK in Eindhoven's Mu Gallery. In the first I talk about "arrogant rectangles" then sing my song Scottish Lips, in the second I discuss how setting Gertrude Stein's work in Comic Sans would completely change its meaning:

I suppose this act is basically real-time blogging; a fairly sincere disquisition on things -- though one in which I allow myself to mix lies with the truth, and just say whatever the hell comes into my head at the time -- combined with a wish to create a parallel world in which academics and authority figures were a lot more playful and eccentric, and occasionally burst into song and imitated baboons.

Also from VVORK's YouTube page I really love this video (in three parts) of Miltos Manetas talking us through the picture book The Artist in his Studio by Alexander Liberman. The appeal is quite similar to the one I tried to describe in my January entry The writer in his shosai; European painters in their studios, like Japanese writers, are just the coolest people in the world, for me. To work in a big space, surrounded by your own creations and the smell of white spirit -- really, what could be better than that? I suppose there's also something of What are you wearing, Living National Treasure? about the book, too: these elderly painters usually dress with a quirky elegance.

Staying with art, I want to look at a couple of recent examples of the infuriating phenomenon I'd call "political correctness racism", which hinges on the twin -- and false -- ideas that there's something inherently abject about being black, and that only people born black can ever be allowed to look black. Racism, in other words, plus rockism; an unsightly pairing.

On the right hand side of the picture above you see a performance art group called either Red Spiral City (if we're to believe Tokyo Art Beat's Katrina Grigg-Saito) or MiracleIPassions (if we're to believe Andrew Maerkle in The Japan Times). They did a piece at the recent Geisai 12. "Performance art group red spiral city went horribly awry with a black-face minstrel show," comments Grigg-Saito, while Maerkle dedicates five entire paragraphs to the performance, pedaling an almost-tabloid combination of trumped-up outrage and promotion.

"As an unregulated forum for creative expression, GEISAI can... confront visitors with disturbing material," Maerkle begins, implying that a performance featuring Japanese people in face-darkening make-up would be weeded out by the "regulation" of a responsible, tasteful curator-policeman. Group member Sohei Wakusaka makes the perfectly reasonable statement: "We wanted to revisualize the liberation of blacks through as Pop a lens as possible. We knew doing blackface could be offensive, but anyway, it's comedy. We anticipated that there would be varying reactions, from people who might laugh to those who might get angry, but that's what we're interested in seeing." Despite this pretty clear statement, Maerkle concludes that "MiracleIPassions didn't seem fully aware of the potentially incendiary nature of their blackface performance". In the fine old tradition of outrage-manufacturing journalism the group is "pressed to explain their motives" and the organisers "decline to comment on the offense they have caused".

If Maerkle (whom I've met, and liked in person) really thought this performance was offensive, he might have noted it briefly then spent those five paragraphs describing some of the other art in Geisai 12. His reaction reminds me of some of the weary early-90s-style PC on display in this Meta No Tame thread about Obama sketches in Japan. I'll say it again: the assumption that it's inherently demeaning to look black is, itself, inherently demeaning to black people. A world in which you can imitate anyone except a black person because that's assumed to be inherently cruel is a much more racist world than a world where you can imitate anyone you like, because the former implies there's some sort of inherent abjection in negritude. And a world in which Caucasians and Asians couldn't draw on black forms and styles because it was automatically assumed to be insulting would be a world in which black forms were denied the universality they deserve.

The two Japanese girls on the left side of the picture above are Trippple Nippples, a retro-80s Tokyo concept pop band who resemble a Malcolm McLaren project circa Duck Rock, or a girl version of Sigue Sigue Sputnik crossed with the Nippon New York New Wave of The Plastics. Trippple Nippples -- seen above during their visit to Harajuku hiking chic store Tokyo Bopper -- are perky, funky and fun. They also get themselves ostranenied up from time to time in non-pc-non-racist black faces and bodies. Here they are doing their nightclub act in big nose-rings and frizzy wigs. And here (with random Harajuku images pasted on top) is their track R I P Meat:

Trippple Nippples are Yuka-nippple, Nabe-nippple and Qrea-nippple. "We're making nipple milk all night," they rap in PPP, a track on their MySpace page, "why don't people like our nipple milk today?" Probably because they're boring-ass early-90s-minded people who can't wait to tell you you're objectifying women and black people by rapping about your breasts while wearing chili chili hair, is the answer. Those people should haul their boring asses down to Le Baron on Friday to check the girls' show there. But don't bother pressing the club's management for a statement about the offense they're causing to women and black people everywhere, please.

I'd like to end by stating, quite unequivocally, my outrage as a Scotsman, that the Hara Museum has seen fit to subtitle their Jim Lambie installation videos in English, even though Lambie is speaking in English already, and in the slowest and clearest way he knows how! Are you saying Scots are incoherent, and Japanese are idiots? How dare you! I'm reporting you straight to 1991.