imomus (imomus) wrote,

On the importance of having big balls

Two inspiring things for you today. First of all, Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal has his first solo show in New York just now, a piece called This Situation at Marian Goodman. The Village Voice describes how it works. As you enter the large, empty room, six "players" greet you in unison with the words "Welcome to this situation". They're normal people, standing, sitting or lying on the floor, distinguished only by coats they carry over their arms. "Each of the six," reports the Voice, "will then walk backward in a generally clockwise motion, find a new spot to occupy, freeze in a mannered pose, and wait for a fellow player to utter a previously memorized quotation, all of which begin with a date and anonymous author: “In 1693, somebody said: ‘Be dead to the world but diligent in all worldly business,’ ” or, “In 1670, somebody said: ‘True eloquence has no use for eloquence.’" The players then spend anywhere from a few minutes to upward of 30 discussing the introduced idea. The afternoon I was there, topics included labor theory, gender relations, the art of conversation, technology, and environmentalism. Occasionally, one of the players will turn to a visitor and ask directly, 'What do you think?'" (It sounds a bit like a live version of Click Opera, actually!)

So excited was I by this idea that, after reading about it, I went to bed and dreamt I'd flown to New York to see the show. I ran into Zach Feuer, who told me he'd pioneered shows like these years ago, when he'd exhibited a cloud of fertilizer chemicals in upstate New York. So successful had the cloud been, Zach said, that he'd had as many letters about it from farmers as art-lovers.

The other thing I've really been inspired by is the amazing, crazy 2005 film by Seijun Suzuki, Tanuki Goten or Princess Raccoon. It may well be the 84 year-old director's last film (he suffers from emphysema and doesn't feel up to making more), but it's probably the most energising and visually glorious film I've seen all year. It's basically a musical, a revival of a genre popular in the 1940s and 50s, the tanuki film. Here's a scene from Suzuki's version, a song-and-dance number called "Man is an Epidemic":

The tanuki film tradition is perfect for Christmas -- it's like going to see a pantomime. There are frogs, fairies and princesses, sword fights, and above all lots of songs, in every style (there's even some Japanese hip hop in Suzuki's film). To show you what the genre used to look like, here's the wonderful torch singer Misora Hibari dressed up as a scarecrow in the 1958 tanuki film Shichihenge Tanukigoten.

The tankuki, or raccoon dog, is an important symbol in Japan -- as the 1991 Studio Ghibli animation Pompoko explains, tanukis are magical animals capable of transforming themselves into ghosts and other fabulous creatures. They've learned not just to use their own energy, but also to harness and amplify the energy of fire, electricity, levitation and other natural forces. They also have phenomenal testicles, the size of eight tatami mats (as anyone who's seen the statues of them outside Japanese drinking establishments can testify).

In his tanuki film, Suzuki uses a different kind of magic -- digital graphics -- to bring Misora Hibari back to life. She appears at the end of the film as Kwan Yin, singing a song, despite having died in 1989.

I think what Sehgal and Suzuki both embody is the idea that anything is possible if you give yourself enough license. Or, as The Guardian put it in their interview with the elderly director, "Suzuki puts anything he likes into his crazy little world, be it a femme fatale who lives among dead butterflies or a protagonist with a fetish for the smell of freshly boiled rice, or some ingenious assassination techniques - one victim is shot through the plughole of his sink... "

Such idiosyncracy comes with a commercial price, though: "The qualities for which he is celebrated by today's postmodern cultural magpies are the very ones that cost him half his career." Suzuki, you see, was blacklisted by the Japanese studios for more than ten years ("Your films make no sense!") but saw his fortunes revive partly thanks to being championed by Quentin Tarantino, who, in the 90s, loved and copied Suzuki's energetic, stylish 60s yakuza movies like "Tokyo Drifter".

The Tarantino endorsement produced a questionable tribute-to-the-tribute, 2001's too-Tarantinesque Pistol Opera. But, with Tanuki Goten, Suzuki has become a sort of King Lear of directors, outliving his enemies, outgrowing his fascination for gore, and reveling in his capacity to say -- and film -- anything. In the winter of his years, tanuki-like, he's grown eight-tatami balls.

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