January 7th, 2010


To be a pilgrim

Well, all those mentions of the Broad&Market style blog paid off; yesterday I got to reprazent Abeno, Osaka (apologies to all the much cooler Abeno kids who wouldn't have looked as chubby as I do in the lead picture; it's all layering, I swear). The most important part of the interview Maggie includes is the bit where I say: "My policy is probably to evoke some kind of otherness and to refute the global monoculture in some way... I’m struggling against it by using other reductive norms like workwear — that’s a bit of a paradox... So workwear, or like, kabuki clothes or gardener’s clothes or peasant’s clothes, or sportswear like golfing wear."

To that list of othernesses I'd like today to add a new category: pilgrimwear. From Friday to Monday I'll be traveling in Shikoku with Hisae and Yoyo (seen above on Christmas day in the amazing tea pavilion that stands in the garden at her family house in Hinoo). Now, art, friendship, hot water and food are really the goals of our "pilgrimage" (we hope to visit the art island of Naoshima and bathe in Shinro Ohtake's amazing bathhouse), but Shikoku is also famous for its 88-temple pilgrimage. Below you can see the traditional white garb of the Shikoku pilgrim. Dōgyō futari on the sign means "two traveling together".

Pilgrimwear is a good dress lexicon to adopt for various reasons. First, it's an ancient dress style, yet not dodo-dead; it's still worn by pilgrims in Japan today. Secondly, it's leisurewear, not workwear. So it avoids the usual recontextualisation paradox by which the look of other people's unfreedom is shiftily reframed as the look of one's own freedom. (To all those wearing jeans, you do realise that you're voluntarily wearing the clothes cotton-picking slaves were forced to, don't you?)

The otherness quotient of pilgrimwear is fabulously high, and yet the look doesn't stifle itself in piety, as, say, priestwear would (though I must say I have a yen for the conch-playing priest's garb in my Tiger Mountain video). Pilgrims, after all, are secular amateurs merely visiting, in a touristic way, religious sites. And as any reader of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales will tell you, pilgrims can be a rowdy, bawdy lot. A religious trip can be a pretext for carousing and even become arousing; in The Art of Love Ovid sees temples as pick-up joints, and Chaucer's set of scabrous stories begins at the Tabard Inn in Southwark, where brothels, palaces and cathedrals stood side-by-side. What could be more natural than following the ingestion of incense with the letting-off of sexual steam?

So, although Japanese pilgrims evoke the same kind of ancient otherness the Hasidim do, you don't have to feel like a hypocrite, anti-semite or satirist walking around dressed up as one. You can just be... human.

But don't you have to be super-ascetic if you're going to be a pilgrim? Not really. Modern Japanese pilgrims take taxis, cars, buses and trains on their 88-temple pilgrimage. They eat hamburgers. Buddhism stresses "the middle way", not total asceticism. There was an interesting action recently by Chim↑Pom touching on this. Hisae and I attended the finissage performance for a show the renegade artist group held at Yamamoto Gendai gallery in Tokyo. Good to be a Mummy saw Chim↑Pom collaborating with friends Yasuyuki Nishio, Sachiko Kazama and Yoshimitsu Umekawa to make an exhibition themed around self-starvation.

Motomu Inaoka, a Chim↑Pom assistant, became a living sculpture for the show, losing so much weight during a fast that his ribcage began to poke uncomfortably through his chest skin. The idea of Sokushinbutsu (or "living body Buddha") was that a monk fasts while meditating then dies to become a mummy. A rather scary sculpture was made of Inaoka at his thinnest, but by the time we caught the show he'd put the weight back on again. Chim↑Pom passed a big heap of McDonalds hamburgers out to the crowd during the blow-out finissage party. Munching on this stereotypically monocultural food, I immediately wanted to embark on a fast (followed, perhaps, by a multi-temple pilgrimage) myself. It smelled and tasted like shit.