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Our first visit Super Deluxe is on Pecha Kucha night http://www.pecha-kucha.org/ an evening where anyone can present 30 slides of their work, limited to 20 seconds per slide, the presentations are pretty dam interesting, a man who demonstrates a drawing machine, a group of Japanese students that have taken up farming and think it's the funniest thing on earth and a number of more architecture centred presentations – Super deluxe is after all run by an architects office. During one of the presentations a eco conference was mentioned, at which the delegates on arrival had to plant 2,000 trees which in 35 years would negate the impact of thier travel to the conference, youch, 2000 trees, 35 years for a few people to say the same stuff they've been saying for years and maybe a couple of illicit shags. Surley this sort of thing can be done via the web (omit shagging), much as they all love that knee to knee thing. It does make me think about our project and its environmental impact 10 artists flown half way round the world and back.
A second visit is more practical to discuss the Grizedale presentation on the 27th July. Maybe we will also do a presentation on the 26th another Pecha Kucha night. Mike the programme manager is a fund of interesting information and enthusiasm, the club is well set up to do most any AV presentation, it all looks easy, let the happening commence.
Every major city should have a Johnny Walker, in New York it’s Jackie McAllister, in Dublin Queveen, someone who is the social centre of the art world, who knows too much about everyone. Johnny is a larger than life self professed screaming queen, with a line in name dropping that is almost Teurrets like, sometimes a story will just peter out, all the relevant names have been dropped and the punch line was never the point anyway. Johnny is of course utterly charming or as a rather flowery friend of mine might have said, ‘oh no no, Johnny’s not utterly charming he’s utterly, utterly charming’.
We have charmingly been invited to attend a dinner to welcome Wim Wenders and the opening of his photo project (a tribute to Japanese filmmaker Ozu) in Otomosando Hills (another footballers wives temple to the god of handbags and Eva Longoria hips). Another consumer driven development by Mighty Mori (Marriko’s uncle and Tokyo’s richest man). The dinner is held in a Jean Nouvelle building on the 47th floor, it’s a rather horrifying lift experience leading to a beautiful view from a room filled with maybe not so much beauty but a lot of naked ambition and career seeking missiles. We have a lot of fun talking, talking.
The last day of the trip and I fuck up my dates getting a meeting down on the wrong day, so on returning to the hotel I am handed a message from the desk and realize I’ve left Jamie (web designer) sitting waiting for me. Jamie has traveled in from some distance, he is remarkably good natured about it but I feel like shit about it, I had got through all the complications and convolutions of the tour only to be pole axed on the last day.
Ikebana - A giant among flowers
Passing an Ikebana school Alistair notices they offer English instruction at 1.30 and suggests I might like to do it. I dutifully present myself at the rather tiny desk for enrolment to be met with near hysteria, which is a little off putting but having started the process there is clearly no way out, despite my protestations that if it isn’t appropriate for men etc. I am eventually ushered to the back of a classroom filled with tiny tables and chairs and tiny delicate women artfully arranging tiny delicate flowers. The principles of Ikebana turn out to be much like the principles of English landscape painting of the 18th century, subject, object, fill and asymetry, all groups in odd numbers, 3,5,7, easy! There is a simple system for getting proportions right, 2 x diameter + 2 x height of vessel = height of subject, 1/3 height of subject = height of object. Painting with flowers. My efforts do look a bit like Frankenstein’s monster arranging a posy and I do slightly feel like I have ruined everyone else’s afternoon, silence reigns, I ‘ve made everyone self conscious and I am utterly ignored, like the my friend who once waited in the Antiques Roadshow valuation que with a standard plastic garden chair for 2 hours.
A revisit to Lord Geordie’s bar in darkest Kuwengi finds John on great form, we are hoping that he will perform the part of Rambo in Nathaniel Mellors performance ‘First Blood’, John seems keen he certainly has the presence for the part. The bar itself is surrounded by Americans of various sizes whilst the rest of the bar is entirely filled with Japanese women all desperate for John’s attention and food/cooking gifts. John manages to run a kitchen that dispenses food as special favours there is no asking for specific food, food appears as and when, Spanish in style and always excellent. My kind of bar, no decisions, if only all restaurants were so reliable. John maintains a entertaining banter with all and sundry, always walking the tightrope of decency and the individuals standards of acceptablity, we see another side of Japan. John calls apparently respectable women, dirty old slappers, and asks them who they are gonna shag tonight, the answer is invariably, laughingly ‘you’ he talks about their past boyfriends suggesting they have spent a lifetime under fat sweaty Americans. There is a lot of sex banter, the Americans – David – a charming and funny first horn in the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra seems to have a special relationship with a number of women in the building and describes many more. We hope he might provide a horn section for the performance in Ikebukuro.
Toge is a scattered village of 31 houses set on the upper reaches of a mountain, there is the quality of a Swiss mountain village about it.
Our first visit of the day coincides with the visit from the Buddhist priest, we quietly wait while the ceremony is completed, some intonation of various texts, the local popular form of Buddhism is very much centred around the household - not Zen like attainment of higher planes of existence, a much more workable down to earth form. All the houses have shrines dedicated to the ancestors, whole rooms dedicated to them, normally you would pay your respects to the ancestors on arrival, it’s not an option we are offered.
Our 2nd visit is to the village headman, he who had spoken so extensively at the meeting. He explains the complexities of village life and the power struggle between the two factions in the village, the old and the older. We discuss at length agricultural conditions, very similar to the UK, a once rich farming tradition reduced to the single cash crop (rice). There is less of an expectation of impending doom, many ideas for new approaches and ways forward an enthusiasm for enterprise. We discuss tourism, principally the photographers, the desire to generate an income from the visitors. The headman complains that they have reached saturation with the cars, up to 50 in a day driving through the village, mmm they’ve got a shock in store if tourism really picks up, our local anti car village has recorded 2,000 cars in a single day winding through similarly small roads. We are looking for a way in through some kind of creative activity so we quiz fairly extensively about winter activities and despite denial of and creativity slowly a body of crafts activitiy eventually start to emerge, there is ink painting, straw plating, golden rice arrangements, paper folded constructions, Ikebana, screen making and photography - pretty good going for a village of only 31 houses. Additionally there are flower gardeners, a hunter, a general interest in wild food particularly spring mountain vegetables and mushrooms, a few people that fish, footpath clearing group and of course skiing (cross country) and a keen enthusiasm for Kareoke with several machines in the village and regular village hall nights, although these have apparently died away recently..
We smoke a good deal.
The Hardware store in Tokamachi (nearest bigger town) is a wonderous spectacle, there is a chainsaw testing area, a trough of earth to get a feel of your prospective plough, and as many bits and bobs as your eyes can stand to see.
On this evening we find the fabled Matsudai art bar, run by a former art front employee, it is an art bar, cluttered with odd and lightly humourous items, a Kermit puppet, a snakeskin banjo, a whiskey collection collected by the owner on her tour through Scotland.
Later on Kondo arrives and talks about being polite, the Japanese royal family and a conspiracy theory where the historic records of a 100 year period have been suppressed and the royal family’s rice farm inside the Imperial palace where they are obliged for the good of the agragrian nation to farm a ceremonial rice paddy.
There is evidently some considerable concern around how polite the artists will be and me I suspect. The importance of a big hello is repeatedly impressed upon me, ‘konichi wa’ and a big bow, evidently my diffident style of politeness is not appreciated – what is required is more of a Yorkshire thing, bellowing bonhomie. The other big hurdle with politeness is the custom for audible food appreciation, slurping noisily is polite, appreciative, difficult for us to achieve after a life-time of censure.
Heading north to Tsumari and Toge AKA Snow land
The car is fitted with a chip that registers the road toll as you pass the barrier - very efficient, each time you pass a barrier the chip emits a tak tak – the real sound of one hand clapping
As we pass through the 11km tunnel through the mountains that divide north from south we move from sunny spring to frozen winter, the coolness is a relief.
I am completely shocked by Tsumari, the snow - which is melting - but still piled up 4 metres deep has destroyed the place, it’s like an annual earthquake, the trees are all broken up the sides of hills totally scalped. It seems almost impossible that in 3 months time this will all be a scene of verdant abundance. There is a pressing urgency to get rid of the snow and get the rice in the ground, it's a short season, the snow is already 2 weeks late. This really is a tough place and one wonders why the people still hang on under such conditions.
Toge village meeting
40 old people lined up on their knees (of the 31 houses in the village 28 turn out for the meeting), these are very tough people and outside of the translation I could smell the word joker hanging in the air. There were sharp questions, ‘how does he (me) know what you are translating is what he is saying’ mmm. I suggested that we might help in some way - they suggested weeding amid much laughter, sounds ok weeding rice fields in 40 degrees hot rain from 6am till 6pm I am hoping the Samurai are up to it, like an endurance test if we fail we are lost.
One man explains that the photographers come to Toge and take pictures, the village get no money. Music to my ears the very subject we had been thinking we could help with. I know Art Front (the Triennale managers) are ambivalent about this idea, they are concerned about being confrontational to the tourists and they don't like the mention of money. Both aspects I think are levelers, the real subject, a measurable response, a real currency. The dialogue with the tourists should not be confrontational, once there is communication everyone is humanized and interested in each other. The idea of generating money for the village is certainly a straightforward attempt to give direct benefit, but it should be money generation that the village can easily maintain. Money is a great leveler, unattached to art, the village will be faced with the quandary of what to spend it on.
But these are very practical tough people existing in a tough environment, they remind me of Aberdeenshire farmers, no time for jokers, this is going to be hard.
The people in the village have some time in the winter, they don't make crafts much, as one villager later pointed out to me all the people who wanted to develop themselves have left. They do have afew traditional activities like rope and straw work, mostly farm related equipment. There is a lot of ‘well we used to do that’ lost activities, a sense of an end of a way of life, an impending doom, without inhabitants the village will be flatten by the winter snows within a few years (we see several flattened houses). In the 5 month winter and 12metres of snow they as they ‘laughing in the face of adversity’ say ‘Ski and shovel snow’.
After the meeting I walk through the one house frontier town looking for Alistair and Lisa, the click of my heels echoes down the street, it’s 9.30pm and there is no sign of life – a man in a poncho steps out from behind a house, there is a low whistle …. A single lit beacon leads me to a bar and the sound of a Scottish accent confirms the occupancy, the sole occupants. While we drink and chatter excitedly about the day I notice the barmaid is working on complex lace patterns which she studies in a book – it’s craft Spock. Lisa and Alistair have had a full evening bar side and when we leave the bill seems unfeasibly large, we click clack our way up the street, suddenly a car races up the street and pulls in sharply, the barmaid leaps out shouting ‘mitake, mitake, solly, solly’ and bowing she hands me back half the value of the bill. Lisa comments that you would’nt find that sort of service in Coniston and I regret thinking of Lisa and Alistair as dipsomaniacs.
After a slightly horrific flight from China it is a relief to arrive in Japan, an established well oiled organization with a 80’s vibe. The first meeting of the trip is a planning meeting for the Ikebukuro project, a site visit and a go through of the practicalities. Of course as often happens in Japan it is rather different than I had imagined, for one there are 12 people at the meeting, many of whom don't say anything, an impressive turnout for a Sunday morning. The meeting is long, going through various phases and this is only the preparation meeting for another meeting later in the week.
We visit a disused school that is to be the rehearsal space, it’s vast, the air conditioned rooms are recommended, reminding me of the extreme heat we are likely to experience in July. There is an unfeasibly large collection of unicycles which no one comments on as well as an 8ft straw owl in a case. The school had its own radio station and well equipped music rooms. The decline in population means that there are 6 schools in the area all closed and a need to find alternative use for the spaces. The school is currently used for adult ed and community use at the moment.
A new venue/square has been added to the programme replacing the previous dusty square, the new square is very designed, it has a beautiful cascading fountain at one end, and is planted with elegant trees, the two works planned for the square are a ‘opera’ piece where 2 brothers sing to one another, one a failure and one a success, and a work that dramatises in a formal manner the final scene from ‘First Blood’ the original Rambo film. The square is also the site of the hangings of the Japanese war criminals (sacrifices in Japan terms) and has a commemorative site that is clearly still well tended. This seems a little overcharged as a context but the only question asked is how best to remove the blood from the 1st Blood performance, and this is discussed in some detail. The issue of meaning and connections, though raised by me, does not seem to be of importance, the somewhat horrific nature of the work equally insignificant - Japanese theatre I am told is filled with gore (but no sex). During our visit to the square there is a demonstration against the purchase of organs from excecuted Chinese criminals, there are some very explicit images of roughly sewn together and presumably relativly empty people.
There is an active extreme right wing in Japan, they drive around at weekends in Kamikazee head bands standing on the roofs of crazy quasi army vehicles or white vans, shouting extreme right wing stuff through crazy megaphones, its performance art and no doubt especially as they are entirely ignored by the vast swathes of rabid shoppers. Could such a group be enticed to contribute to the performance in the square?
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