I curate my Facebook feed very carefully so that it contains only nice things. It’s possible that my Facebook feed is the only one remaining on planet earth that still regularly gets cute cat videos in it. I prune my content regularly, and in particular I make sure that I hide or defriend people who regularly clog my wall with nastiness, internecine spats, or heavy quantities of political material (of any persuasion). One of my key considerations for whether to hide/defriend is whether the content a friend puts up regularly shocks me or creates a sudden feeling of discomfort when I see it. I guess, if it triggers me. Usually this is things like people putting up political material that features torture or animal cruelty, people who spam my feed with inspirational pictures, and people who regularly say or upload things that heap scorn on others. By ferociously following this principle, I manage to make sure that my Facebook is a world of happiness and light. But sometimes things still slip through that shock me or make me uncomfortable, and one regular occasional event on my Facebook feed is one of my female friends approvingly posting a Celeste Barber picture.

If you aren’t familiar with Celeste Barber’s work you can read about it in this Guardian profile, and you can see some more pictures here. Basically, she’s a frumpy 30-something (?) woman who takes “real-life” versions of models’ PR pictures and posts them alongside the original pictures on Instagram. For example, a model might take a carefully posed shot of herself “falling” out of bed, and Celeste will take an equivalent shot intended to show her “ordinary” equivalent of this posed shot. Some of these are cute, like the one where she mimics a model sitting in her underwear holding grapes, but Celeste is holding a wine bottle – this makes a nice juxtaposition between the perfect and the everyday. Others rightly take the piss out of some of the extremely silly poses that these Instagram models take (the model falling out of bed, for example). But a lot of them just seem to be making fun of these models simply for making a living by being models, or in some way mocking them for being prettier and more posed than real women.

It’s not clear to me what Barber is actually trying to achieve with these pictures. For example, when she takes a picture of herself in a wet t-shirt and juxtaposes it with a picture of a model in a wet t-shirt, what is she trying to say? Sure, her picture looks slightly silly and stupid and reminds us that standing around in wet t-shirts looking sultry is not what women normally do during their day. But the point of a model’s Instagram feed is that it is not normal – that they are presenting an image of perfection and of things outside the everyday, that we admire and look up to. The point of models is that they don’t look like us, and the idea of a model’s Instagram feed is to showcase her beauty and the best photographs depicting it. Most model’s Instagram feeds are feeds of professional shots, that they may have taken a long time setting up and preparing for – this is why they’re models. If the point of Barber’s photos is to show that models take posed photos that aren’t natural, it’s kind of vapid. We all know that.

But I don’t think this is the point of Barber’s project. I think she aims to mock the standards of beauty that these models represent and embody, more than the silly poses they are adopting. This is why actually many of her photos are piss-takes of relatively unposed pictures of models – that is, the model’s picture is obviously from a photoshoot, but she’s not doing anything super weird or super silly, she’s just being pretty in a picture. Some (like the Zayn Malik lover shot or the doorway yoga thing) could be construed as making fun of the extreme lengths that people go to get a good shot on Instagram[1], but many can only be interpreted as mocking the models themselves. They attempt to show that the models are doing something wrong by contrasting them with what an ordinary person looks like in the same position. She herself says

I get a little miffed with fashionista people thinking that they are much better than other people because they are very slim and have architect husbands and get to wear free stuff

But is this all she’s doing, popping the bubbles of these “fashionista people”? I think this statement artificially conflates being beautiful with being better, which models and fashion people don’t necessarily agree with (I’m friends with one or two models who don’t think like this at all, though I’m friends with one who probably does). She also says she’s campaigning against how the media presents images of women. But is this what she’s doing? Because what she appears to actually be campaigning against is how models present images of models. Is she saying that she herself should be considered as beautiful as these women? If so, how come she uses her photos of herself to mock these women?

I think what Celeste Barber is actually trying to say here is that feminine beauty – or the aspiration to feminine beauty – is wrong, and that it is not possible for ordinary people to be feminine and beautiful. I think she is mocking the ideal of femininity itself. This is why her photos only target female models – she doesn’t, for example, take aim at the ludicrous poses male underwear models carefully adopt, or at the over the top presentation of masculinity and machismo in many male sports and film stars. She isn’t alone in this – our society has a strong undercurrent of scorn for femininity and feminine beauty, presenting it as something that can’t be trusted, a mask or veil over who a woman really is. I think Barber is expressing this undercurrent of hatred. She’s saying that real women, in the privacy of their own homes, in their underwear, are not feminine at all, that femininity is just a mask they pull on to impress others, and that it’s not real or valid, and these models’ instagram feeds full of perfect images of femininity need to be torn down in this way because femininity itself is a problem. If she were trying to present a model of accessible feminine beauty she wouldn’t be mocking these feeds, but trying to reinterpret them in some more viable way. But she’s not – she’s laughing at them.

I think this is an example of how some feminists have internalized a deeply misogynistic undercurrent in our society. There is a valid critique to be made of unrealistic representations of and expectations of women and women’s beauty, but this critique doesn’t have to throw femininity and feminine beauty out entirely. But this is what people like Barber do. This is why she doesn’t mock firemen’s nude calendars, or bodybuilder’s poses, which are just as ludicrously set up and unrealistic. These are okay, because masculinity and masculine beauty is considered to be healthy and real in our society. This is why we have a special qualifier for masculinity that has gone off the rails (“toxic masculinity”) but “feminine” is itself the special qualifier for ordinary social practices gone wrong (“feminine wiles”). Femininity is seen as an entirely negative thing, which if it is a deep-seated part of a woman’s character is purely a flaw – weak, diffident, vain and shallow – while if it is surface deep, is deceptive and untrustworthy. There is no model of femininity in mainstream society that is considered to be healthy, acceptable and good for a woman to adopt. We don’t talk about “toxic” femininity, because our society sees all femininity as poisonous. This is why feminists will share Barber’s mocking pictures on Facebook – because they think they’re saying something real about the way the media depicts women, when actually what they’re doing is channeling an age-old hatred of how women present themselves and who women really are.

Obviously someone like Barber isn’t going to have much effect on the adult feminists who share her pictures on my feed. But I wonder what impact this kind of material has on young women and girls growing up in our increasingly macho and competitive society. They’re told from all sides that being feminine is wrong, and presented with a world where the only valid form of beauty is masculine beauty, preferably achieved as a by-product of some serious activity (like sports, or soldiering, or firefighting), that beauty as an end in itself is wrong and that feminine beauty is bad for them and femininity is bad. But many women and girls want to be feminine and want to express their femininity through the kind of models of beauty that we see in these Instagram feeds (this is why these feeds are so popular – they aren’t getting all those followers from men). Then their feminist role models – the women who tell them it’s okay to want to work, that you can be anything you want to be, that no one can stop a girl chasing her dreams – put up pictures telling them that any aspiration to feminine beauty or any kind of construction of beauty at all (posing, make up, dream images) is wrong, and sexist. I think this must be hard on young women and I think that feminists watching Barber and reading this kind of thing need to consider the impact they’re having on young women and what space of beauty they leave open for young women to explore. I think that feminists should also consider whether their reaction to models of feminine beauty is first and foremost about whether they’re bad for women, or whether it’s a kneejerk, visceral response in a misogynist christian culture to the very concept of femininity itself. And is this a good thing?

I’ve been in Asia for 11 years now and one thing I have noticed since I left the Christian world and moved to a pagan country is that Asians have different expectations and views of both masculinity and femininity. In particular, they have no cultural attachment to the story of the fall, of the deceptive serpent and the woman who lures the man into sexual knowledge. As a result both masculine and feminine appearance and manners are seen as a much more natural and uncomplicated part of who humans are, and in my experience people in Asia have a much more comfortable relationship with women’s beauty and feminine behavior. I think this is something western people could learn from, and I think in particular western feminism could learn that instead of rejecting femininity and feminine beauty and reacting against it as a terrible expression of female repression, it should be seen as a natural part of who women are, and just as valid a form of expression of gender difference as anything else. It’s clear that many women in the west want to be like the models they idealize, but they grow up in a world where they’re told in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, shallow, or even self-hating to feel this way. But these women’s desires and ideals are not a construction – they’re a real and deep part of who these women are. The kind of mocking that Barber is performing, and the general social acceptance it has in the west, does not help young women to grow up into a stronger model of beauty and better gender relations. It just puts them down. Western feminism needs a better relationship with female beauty if it wants to reform this aspect of gender relations in a way that ordinary women are actually comfortable with, and western feminism needs a more critical understanding of its own assumptions and the role of Christian misogyny in constructing modern feminist attitudes, if it really wants to make a better world for western women. Which could start with not mocking girls who want to be pretty!


fn1: Which, btw, what’s wrong with this and what is up with the constant negative carping about how “fake” Instagram is. Instagram is a site exclusively for sharing photographs. Why would you not go to great lengths to take a good photograph for Instagram?

Flying in a blue dream …

Last week in Tokyo was Golden Week, the long week of public holidays that people traditionally use to travel. I stayed in Tokyo and chose to use one of the days to visit what I thought of as “the Mucha exhibition” at the National Art Center, Tokyo. This exhibition was timed to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the opening of the museum, the 60th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Czechoslovakia, and the Year of Czech Culture, 2017, so I guess it was intended to be something special. I had previously seen a Mucha exhibition at the Kitakyushu Art Museum in Fukuoka, where I saw primarily a collection of his illustrations and advertising work, and I was expecting the same in Tokyo but perhaps expanded, so I was completely stunned when I walked into the first room and found myself facing an 8m x 6m canvas of luminous beauty, The Slavs in their original homeland, pictured above. In fact this exhibition was displaying almost all of Mucha’s Slav Epic, a collection of huge oil paintings describing key events in the history of the Slavic peoples, which he painted over an 18 year period (1910 – 1928). These pictures showcase incredible art nouveau technique, while displaying striking mythical figures and key historical events in splendid beauty, and their impact cannot be appreciated by viewing them on any screen. Take the picture above, for example: The god on the right of the picture must be 4 or 5 metres high, and the two human figures at the bottom centre are almost human sized. The god doesn’t just loom over the viewer, but seems to actually float out of the picture, and really dominates the space around the picture in a way that even the best onscreen rendering cannot picture. The glowing fires at the centre left also spring to life with an almost feral radiance when you view the picture in person, the stars actually seem to sparkle, and those semi-corporeal distant figures on horseback are vague and indistinct in just the way you would expect if you were standing before that god, looking into the real distance to see oncoming soldiers.

The other pictures in the series are similarly dramatic, and to stand near them is to feel as if you are part of the unfolding drama rather than a witness in an art gallery – and this despite the fact that, because it was golden week in Tokyo, this gallery was packed. The photo below, which I took in the area where photos are allowed, gives a sense of the scale of the pictures and the crowd at the gallery, and the way the pictures stand imposingly above even this many people. In some ways the crowd was a boon, since it forced one to move back from the pictures and view them from their proper distance, as well as helping to keep the scale of the images in perspective.

Let’s enjoy Red Square together!

I’m quite a fan of art nouveau – I visited the Tiffany Museum in Matsue when I lived there, and I’ve visited Mucha and other similar exhibitions before where I can. I know a lot of people probably view it as not real art – kind of effete and shallow, the way perhaps some people view the romantic poets or perhaps like the pop music of art, but I think it has an evocative beauty that also speaks of a rare period of time in history when our developed nations were not yet modern but were full of hope and idealism and looking forward and upward. I also think it reflects non-European influences and I appreciate its intricate connections with advertising and popular theatre, which gives it a kind of populism that I appreciate in art. It’s not as “experimental” as some of the other movements that came at the same time, and for that I think it gets frowned on, and I think some modern art critics probably don’t respect its simple enjoyment of classical or saccharine beauty (especially feminine beauty). But I think at its best it is able to capture something of the human soul or the desire humans have always had to find transcendent beauty in their surroundings, and I think it must have been really stretching the available techniques of the time to achieve that sense of liminal and supernatural beauty that it aspires to. If I ever had any doubt about just how well art nouveau was able to achieve these goals, Mucha’s Slav epic dispelled them. This series of works is a masterpiece, and a perfect showcase of all the best aspects of this style. Walking through the halls of the epic is like drifting through an art nouveau dream, full of diffuse lights and ghostly figures, radiant spaces, beautiful ethereal women and striking, tragic moments. After viewing these massive pieces there was a large collection of his other work but some of his famous pieces – like the four flowers – which would have been masterpieces if they had been shown on their own were anti-climactic after the gigantic dreamscapes of the main display.

This is probably the third really great exhibition I have visited in Tokyo. In 2007 I saw Ashes and Snow at a temporary space in Tokyo Bay, having no idea really of the scale of its content; then quite recently I saw The Universe and Art at the Mori art museum,  and now within a year I get to see this unique apotheosis of art nouveau. This is one of the really good things about living in Tokyo – it may happen only once a year and they may be very crowded, but the quality and global nature of the content is really high. This exhibition lasts until the 5th June, so if you are in Tokyo I strongly recommend getting along to see it. Even if you aren’t especially into this particular artistic form, I think it will capture you with its scale and ambition, and if you do appreciate art nouveau I doubt you’ll ever get the chance to see as good an exposition of its best qualities as you will when you visit this exhibition. So, go, and get lost in dreams of Slavic history.

jerome

On the weekend in addition to a fine session of Vampire: The Masquerade I managed to get my philistine arse down to the Tokyo National Art Center for an exhibition of paintings from the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice. I went with a Japanese friend, and while my friend was oohing and aahing at all the cool artwork, I was remembering my trip to Venice and imagining Drew smashing her culture chip and killing the Pope.

And so then I stumbled on this picture, which I think summarizes everything Drew was getting at when she got angry with the skeezy old men leering at the virgin Mary. I think this picture, which is called St. Jerome in Penitence and the Virgin and Child Appearing in Glory, contains a kind of potted summary of everything that is wrong with Christianity’s strange and tortured attitude towards sex. It features an old semi-naked man (Jerome) punishing himself for thinking lascivious thoughts, while staring at a small statue of a young man who was tortured to death by his father because everyone keeps thinking about sex, and all of this being stared at approvingly by the spirit of Mary, whose sole reason for being able to judge anyone for thinking sexy thoughts is that god made her pregnant against her will but she stayed pure. In this one picture we have sin, guilt, death, and purity, all deeply entangled with sexuality and heavily leavened with judgment. It’s hard to see on the internet version, but we also in the bottom left hand corner have a kind of terrified looking lion, nature subjugated – another core Christian ideal. It really is the Renaissance version of one of those tweets that people subsequently delete that tells you everything you need to know about their inner life, and wish you didn’t.

In addition to this picture of a skeezy old man punishing himself for being skeezy, the exhibition had a whole bunch of pictures of Mary being told that she was going to have a baby against her will. Impregnating someone against their will is now considered to be a pretty shifty form of abuse (even if it isn’t rape; it’s easy to find stories of abusive partners fiddling with contraception to try and get their partners pregnant), but it’s a central theme of Renaissance art (or at least it was in this exhibition). Mary looks pretty unhappy in most of the pictures where she’s being told this, but it’s hard to say that she really is – my friend said she looked like she was about to say “why me?” but in reality almost every person in almost every picture looked unhappy. I guess the Renaissance wasn’t a happy time, which is why all the models had Resting Bitch Face. But she certainly looked shocked, and the narrative accompanying some of the pictures made clear that she is supposed to be shocked.

As you would be.

But anyway as a consequence of giving birth to this damned child who grew up to be killed by his own father, she gets to hang out in heaven with another baby (the same baby? Seems to be the implication of the title of the picture – is heaven a kind of Groundhog day where she is constantly pregnant but never gets laid?) and cast judgment on all the men who are secretly dreaming about doing God’s work inside her. And this is the only payoff any of these pictures offer – the chance to judge others. Sure, there’s one picture of heaven, but it makes heaven look like the bottom 10% of that Iron Maiden Number of the Beast poster, where everyone is screaming and dying or fucking, only in the Renaissance version there’s no fucking. Renaissance paradise looked a lot more like hell than I think they intended, but that’s apparently the reward for a life of Resting Bitch Face and self-flagellation. Which I guess is why Bassano produced this monstrous visual rendition of his tortured inner soul.

Just to be clear for all the doubters and whingers, I’m not saying the picture is bad or shouldn’t be held in esteem or whatever. I didn’t like it, but I’m no critic and I don’t think I can separate my appreciation of the art from the nastiness of the content, so I couldn’t really appreciate it, but if people say it was influential and important then I’m happy to believe them. My point is merely that it says so much in one dense little package about the origins of so many of our modern problems with sex and sexuality. In that respect it is a thing of (horrid) beauty.

Two other random thoughts I had while wandering the gallery:

  • I wonder if these artists, all male, had actually seen many babies or any naked women? I don’t mean this facetiously, I really wonder. If raising babies was women’s work perhaps they didn’t see many, which might explain why the babies are all a) the wrong size and b) horribly ugly and c) painted like miniature adults. Perhaps they didn’t see much of their children? In the same vein I noticed that their men were much better drawn than their women and I wondered if perhaps they had never seen an adult woman who wasn’t their wife? I then started wondering – a lot of the women in the pictures look more like teenage girls, in particular their breasts are kind of half-formed and not mature. It made me think – could it be that the only people they could find as life models for female subjects were the children of poor families, and the reason that their women are so badly drawn and strange looking is that they were extrapolating from the budding female bodies of local 12- or 13-year old milkmaids?
  • The same day I went to see this I had read an article about terrifying new findings of highly antibiotic resistant bacteria in chickens and pork, accompanied by more warnings about the dire threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Of course the Renaissance was a time before both antibiotics and the contraceptive pill, not to mention advanced cancer treatments, and it’s likely that most of the older people in the pictures are suffering from various ailments that we just can’t imagine being an issue for the kind of rich people depicted in the scenes – tooth decay, chronic pain, chronic headaches due to poor eyesight, that sort of thing. Maybe Mary looked unhappy in all those paintings because she had a chronic UTI? If so, anyone who doubts the threat of AMR for our future quality of life should check out a hall of Renaissance paintings and ask themselves – do I want to go back to that??

This exhibition really impressed upon me that I don’t like this kind of art. Of course I find it interesting and I engage with the exhibition, even if in this case my random speculations may seem a bit facetious. But ultimately it doesn’t seem like good art to me, and the messages it contains are quite horrible. As a document of our past it’s fine, of course we should respect it and view it etc., but when I look at art like this I always leave overwhelmed by all the horrible ideas behind it, and I really think that to properly present this art to a modern audience some kind of sensitivity to or discussion of these issues would make for a better viewing experience. In this case the majority of the audience were Japanese, so it’s probably just a curiosity to them, but for westerners looking at this art it is really rich in themes that we may not be able to express clearly in words but which I think hit us anyway, and a bit more engagement with how those themes affect modern audiences might help them to react a little less viscerally to some of the denser, nastier stuff. I can’t say I’ve ever seen an exhibition of this skeezy ancient art that has made any attempt to engage with these more controversial aspects, and I expect I never will. But I think it would be nice. And I think until we do begin to engage with these underlying archaic values consistently and clearly, we’ll never really see them swept away.

Which is what I want to see. I want to see this creepy undercurrent of death and guilt and dirt washed out of our sexual substrate, so that we can get on with the business of being sexual unencumbered by our necromantic origins.

 

Only what you see man, only what you see

Only what you see man, only what you see

Today a friend took me, without explanation, to see Sophie Calle’s The Unsold (売り残し) at Koyanagi Gallery in Ginza. I don’t often attend art shows – let alone modern art installations – and I almost never visit Ginza, so this was a real novelty for me, but despite my initial misgivings it was definitely worth it. Here is my review.

When I entered the gallery my first glance revealed an installation of everyday objects, including two dresses, that to my jaundiced and cynical eye immediately resembled Tracey Emin’s execrable bed-type stuff, and I was immediately disappointed. However, right at the door there is an introductory explanation (in Japanese and English) of the premise of the work, which changed my mind. Basically, three artists set up a flea market in the grounds of Yasukuni Jinja. They laid out their wares on three squares of cloth, as shown in the picture. One (I don’t recall which) sold worthless every day items, to each of which was attached a story that actually happened (i.e. a real story) with some relationship to the item but in which the item itself was not directly involved (so e.g. the typewriter on sale is not necessarily the typewriter from the story). Another sold a mixture of semi-antiques (cutely mis-spelled as “semi-antics” in this exhibition) and ordinary items, to which were attached completely fake stories with apparent emotional content[1]. The third sold actual antiques, and one of his original photos. For example one person was selling a completely normal bra for about 25,000 yen, and another person was selling a picture of a psycho-analyst (freud?) for 38,000 yen. One of the antiques was an ancient ceramic hot water bottle, and the picture was a pretty cool sea/sky thing. Each artist catalogued what they sold and the amount of money they sold it for – which was surprisingly large. Apparently an American tour guide passed by as this sale was going on and told his charges “there is nothing here, ignore it.” (Cute). The explanation finishes with the simple, curt phrase “These are the unsold.” So the exhibition consists of the material that was not sold.

This exhibition consists of three pieces of cloth on which the remaining items are laid out, attached to each of which is a tag with the price and the story. Behind each installation, on the wall, is a photo of the original setup, so you can see what was sold. On the opposite wall are the tags for the sold items, with their corresponding story. These tags have no information about the item to which they correspond, so you have to wander across to the original picture and guess. The stories are really interesting and believable, though whether they are actually true or not I have no clue. Investigating on wikipedia I discovered that the Eiffel tower story is true, and just as unbelievable as it sounds – Sophie Calle certainly knows how to do crazy things (I can’t remember if the item attached to this story was sold or not).

I’m an uncultured barbarian, so I have no idea what this installation was trying to tell me about whatever, but I thought it was really cool. Trying to understand why people bought these ludicrously overpriced objects because of their vague stories, or didn’t buy some object even though its story was cool, was an exercise in intruding into someone else’s private life. The stories themselves were fascinating, disconnected monologues, none of which I believed (but some of which I have subsequently learnt are real!) I can’t speak for the Japanese but the English used in the broader narrative descriptions – what the exhibition is about, how the artists met – is clear, sparse and strong. The structure of the main introductory sign and its finishing statement, “These are the Unsold” is particularly powerful, and suits the style of the exhibition. It’s a simple idea done well, and it holds your attention. Why did the passersby leave the charred bedspring and buy the useless typewriter? This, I cannot fathom. I wouldn’t buy the red bucket some guy pissed in, but why would someone else buy the bottle. Also the story of the horn is acutely sad and the horn is quite cheap, but apparently un-sellable. What does that mean?

I didn’t know anything about Sophie Calle before this exhibition, but reading her Wikipedia page I get the impression that she is a powerful, prodigious and generally unethical talent. My friend has also seen the exhibit Take Care of Yourself, which as the quoted reviewer says seems to be both shallow and deeply engaging. Her attempt to get blind people to define beauty sounds like it has the potential to be very powerful (I don’t draw any conclusions!) and the work where she gets a guy to shadow her and then presents pictures of herself sounds really interesting. Invading others’ privacy, not so much. How come medical researchers have to get ethics approval, but French artistes can pursue some guy across the world, or hijack a stolen diary for money?

Don’t answer that.

Anyway, I’d never heard of Sophie Calle before today and I think her work is a genuinely interesting and challenging example of modern art at its finest. I don’t know what she’s trying to say with this exhibition and I can’t really say what I think of it, but it’s really cool. It would be better if she followed it up with some kind of article in a peer-reviewed journal giving her conclusion about what the purchases and non-purchases mean, instead of leaving it to an ignorant rube like me to try and understand, and if she had found a way to summarize what was bought and wasn’t (e.g. rankings with stories, or a website where you can see all the objects with what was bought and what wasn’t, and its story) then the exhibition would have been even cooler. But despite these missed opportunities this exhibition is very cool, and in general I have to say Sophie Calle’s work seems pretty interesting. I hope more of her stuff comes to Japan, and I recommend visiting it if you are in Japan, or keeping an eye out for her work if you are not.

 

 

 

fn1: I may be mis-remembering the exact nature of what these items were, but I hope you get the general gist.

Magnetism, by Ahmed Mater

The campaign setting I am currently playing in, Punjar, has a vaguely middle Eastern subtext, with the city of our adventures presented as a chaotic, slightly exotic free state of souks and temples, such as western readers might associate with somewhere in pre-modern Oman or Turkey. While gaming there I try to hold in my head images such as the opening scenes of The Exorcist, though obviously (unlike the priest of that ill-omened scene) my character is a local who understands what is happening around him (and might even understand the meaning of the statue he dug up, if he could make the Arcana check!)

Simultaneously with my entry into this world of bazaars, brothels and giant barking toads, the British Museum has opened what looks like a fascinating exhibition on the Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca that constitutes one of the five pillars of the faith. The Guardian has an interesting review, with links to some of the artists involved (one of the artists’ pictures is on the top of this post). The review certainly makes this exhibition sound like a masterpiece of the curator’s craft: it combines historical documents, objects and art with modern art, video of some of the scenes of the Hajj, old news footage, and modern diaries and spoken accounts of people’s pilgrimages. The review makes reference equally to high art and the diary of a North London schoolgirl. It also appears to show something of the complex relationship between Britain and its ex-colonies in South Asia.

I’m not in London now so I can’t visit things like this anymore (though sometimes the British Museum’s exhibitions end up in Japan), but it looks like something that would be well worth visiting for those living in London. This exhibition also hints at the complex and fascinating campaign setting that the Islamic world offers to enterprising GMs. Obviously most of us, as outsiders to that world, can only really hope to present a cheap simulacrum of that world (like, say, Punjar) but even a very shallow investigation of the world of Islamic art, history and culture would no doubt throw up a wide range of interesting and exciting adventure settings. I’ve no doubt, too, that the political context of almost any period in Islamic history – from the time of the prophet onward – would be easily as challenging as those of the Victorian era. Also playing on the opposite side of the nations of the Great Game – e.g. as Afghan adventurers during the Russian and British interventions there in the 19th century, or as adventurers in any city of the Middle East during the Crusades – could be a lot of fun.  The breadth of the Islamic world, which ranges from modern-day England to 12th century Indonesia, and the diversity of its cultures, offers a plethora of settings, and the Hajj is the classic opening scene (“the adventure starts with the PCs on a routine mission, guarding a rich merchant on his pilgrimage to Mecca”). In fact, it could be like Monkey, with the entire campaign occurring on the journey to the Hajj. You set off from somewhere in India at level 1, and 8 months and 20 levels later you arrive in Mecca. Your ultimate mission, of course, is the pilgrimage itself. But in the face of a hazardous journey over a whole continent, can you even keep the faith that you set off in service of? Or, in the words from one piece in the exhibition: “Are you leaving as you had come?”

Steampunk Scorpion Girls are GO

On Sunday I went to a Gothic Lolita live rock event, run by a la mode Tokyo, a gothic lolita night club organizer (they don’t seem to have any kind of web presence that I can find, though they seem to be connected to this group and can be found on Artism). This seems to be the central group offering live and club events connected to the Gothic Lolita scene, so obviously it’s going to be an interesting excursion, as well as potentially a very pretty one.

The event was held at the Live Inn Rosa in Ikebukuro, from 4pm to 10pm on Sunday the 8th January. There were a total of about 8 bands playing, with an MC who also sings and a couple of “mini-live” performances of 10 to 20 minutes each. There was also a collection of stalls selling goth-lolita goods but they were small and inobtrusive. Some of the bands had a table selling (or giving away) products. Admission was ¥3500 with a drink (about $40 including 1 drink). This may seem like a lot but it’s worth remembering a couple of things about Japanese live performances: you usually get to see a lot of bands, and the bands are usually extremely high quality. Japanese live performers are universally very very good, and so even if you don’t like the genre you’re not going to be subjected to that classic of the Aussie pub rock genre, a band whose music you just can’t understand because they’re sloppy and out of time and drunk. I didn’t stay for the last two bands, but what follows is a brief review of those I did see. Pictures were taken on candelight setting on my crappy cheapest-in-the-shop Olympus camera, but I hope they give a sense of the scene.

Strange Artifact

Gasmasks and Lace: Indeed, a Strange Artifact

Billing themselves as a steampunk band (whatever that is), Strange Artifact were basically a bass-guitar / vocalist pair, with drums and guitar on backing tapes. Their music is close to Visual Kei in style, with a female singer and perhaps a little more electronic influence than the average Visual Kei performance. You can see a video of one of their songs from the weekend here or hear a studio song on track 9 of this compilation. The singer isn’t operatic (as you will see, this is relevant) and this performance was probably the closest to a rock/visual kei genre. It was fun and energetic and well presented, and I really enjoyed it.

Essential Steampunk Goods

I’m not sure how this band is steampunk and I should say right away that I don’t understand the lyrics of songs in Japanese, so I don’t know what they sing about. This Steampunk genre is a complete mystery to me!

Miyahi Aya

And down the rabbit hole we go ...

Miyahi Aya was a sudden change in pace. A solo singer with all her backing music on tape[1], singing a strange blend of synthpop, J-pop and cabaret-style music. You can sample some of her songs at her Myspace page, where you can also find a slightly less blurry picture of her. In between her songs she maintained a fairly entertaining patter of banter with herself and the audience, most of it quite shy and self-deprecating and a bit silly. Again, I’m not sure about the content of her songs but the atmosphere for this 30 minutes was one of light-hearted silliness in between songs presented in a demure and slightly wistful physical performance. Good if you want your J-pop blended with gothic industrial themes and a dash of synthpop, in a lacy dress.

Tamamushi Naoki

Old-fashioned elegance returns

This was possibly my favorite performance of the night simply for the way it encapsulated a spirit of gothic elegance that I think has long since drained from the scene in other parts of the world. Tamamushi Naoki is one half of the duo “Pudding a la mode,” and you can hear one of their songs on their last.fm page. I don’t remember Tamamushi sounding anything like that, though: her songs were more powerful single vocal pieces, with a more gothic-rock backing style and a more sedate and solemn pace. For the duration of her performance she also had incense and that little lantern burning, and she performed in front of the visual screen rather than on the stage, giving it a more intimate feeling. Her make up and outfit were superbly gothic in the old style, and that dress was very splendid. She danced in the classic gothic mode (waving her arms and stepping backwards and forwards – it’s about all you can do in clothes like that) and gave a very self-conscious and simple performance without any of the artifice or posing that often accompanies modern live acts. She was, however, only on for 10 minutes, and her performance was slightly distracted from by the projection screen behind her, which was playing the Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland over her face.

Kokushicho (黒死蝶)

Lesbian Metal Lolita Explosion!

Perhaps the most outright entertaining of the acts, Kokushicho (Black Death Butterflies, in English) describe themselves as a “Symphonic Gothic Unit” and, true to their name, give a fairly robust metal/goth crossover performance involving a good amount of power chords, some (dainty) headbanging, and robust vocals of the girl-metal variety. They came on stage in pirate outfits, belted out an excellent symphonic metal job, then disappeared and returned to the stage in the more classic costumes you see above. I can’t see any of their music online but their site is here. This “Unit” told us after their first song that they are lovers, and they seemed to be riffing off of this a bit in their banter with each other in between songs – presenting a kind of light comedy teasing like a couple. Like most of the other bands playing today, all of their music was on backup tape like a J-pop band, and we only saw the vocal performance, but it was an energetic and exciting performance with an entertaining metal theme.

ElupiA

Operatic Elupements

Elupia was perhaps the first of the “main” acts of the night, and also happen to be a band we have a connection to: The Delightful Miss E is friends with the keyboardist (not the one to the foreground in this picture, but the one tucked away in the furthest, darkest corner of the room). Elupia are operatic goth rock, like a Japanese Nightwish, with a little more Visual Kei influence. Apparently the singer actually has operatic training, and it certainly seemed that way during her performance. Their Myspace page includes a couple of samples and a promotional video, and I think it’s safe to say they’re a pretty impressive act. They’re all well-polished performers, and seemed very skilled and popular with the crowd. I’m not a huge fan of operatic metal (I’ve tried getting into bands like Nightwish and consistently fail) but as a live act these guys were awesome. Sadly, though, they were only on for half an hour.

Gurimo Rizumo

The Goth-loli Circus Comes to Town

Gurimo Rizumo regaled us initially with an introductory speech, very much in the manner of a woman telling a children’s story or narrating a wildlife documentary. Each of their songs is a story and comes with an initial narrative, presented in this faux-serious way. The music could probably best be described as burlesque/cabaret goth, which is also not a genre I’m particularly fascinated by (largely because of the enooooormous load of pretentious wank that associates with burlesque), but this band presented as a genuine performance, wank-free and very confidently theatrical. It’s a very interesting style, and you can see an example of it in this youtube video. The second video (about 6:23) is the song they presented first, about the murderous circus. I really like these kinds of performances, where the performers are putting in a real effort not just to sing a song but to build a whole image and performance style, even if (as in this case) the crowd is quite small and the venue very normal. Thirty or forty years ago bands like The Cure and Marillion were doing this sort of thing, with varying degrees of success, and if they hadn’t taken themselves seriously we would be a sadder world now.  And one thing I certainly like about the Japanese music scene is its seriousness. As you can see from the shot below, the setting isn’t special, but this band were really giving it their all to take us to the circus …

Goth-loli geeklove...

Overall Impressions

Corsets, feathers, lesbian pirates ...

The bands in this live event had quite a few things in common, which I guess are a property of the music attached to the gothic-lolita scene. All the singers – and in many cases, all the members – were women, and although the music ranged across a couple of genres, it had a general operatic/cabaret theme, with a strong goth/metal base. Of course, like most Japanese gothic rock it was heavily influenced by Visual Kei, but had a nice variety of the carnivalesque that suits the image this scene presents to the outside world. There was a heavy focus on performance and presentation, which is nice, and although much of the imagery in the costumes is very western the style of the performances was very Japanese. As always at a Japanese live event the performers were stylish, skilled and dedicated. They were also friendly and engaging both on and off stage.

This music scene also harks back to an era that I think has been lost in British and Australian goth: an era when the scene was focused around women and women’s voices, and privileged elegance over raunch, and creativity over aggro. Now in the goth scene we see a lot of emo and tattooed blokes thumping out whiny songs about their ex’s, and women’s clothing and presentation has been pornified in a way that I find disappointing. Sure, it’s nice that young women can come to goth clubs in essentially their underwear, but I liked all the corsetry and elaborate make-up, and the focus on beauty and elegance over tits ‘n arse. So it’s nice to see this scene in Japan preserving that old-fashioned gothic shyness and elegance, while simultaneously exploring new avenues of musical expression. It’s also nice to see cabaret/burlesque worked into a music scene without the inevitable explosion of poseurs and wankers that accompany it in the west. It’s a typical unassuming, humble approach to a music scene that really has gotten a little ahead of itself elsewhere.

In summary, even if you aren’t that into cabaret-style metal, this music scene is definitely worth exploring if you’re into goth music and in Tokyo.

fn1: Incidentally, I don’t know how to say this. It was recorded and played but do we still say “backup tape”? Is it “backup iPad” now?

fn2: Actually, to their credit, so were a couple of men

Where is the floating girl when you need her?

Yesterday I visited the Studio Ghibli Museum for the first time. It’s in Mitaka, Tokyo, close to my home, and is a museum about the development of animation in Japan, through the eyes of Miyazaki Hayao and the Studio Ghibli team. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Ghibli, they are the creators of Japan’s most-loved Anime movies, including Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, My Neighbour Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Miyazaki Hayao has had huge artistic and cultural influence in Japan and was also a big influence on industry practice, and is genuinely a household name in a way that I think even Disney would admire. His movies (at least, the earlier ones) are amazing and well worth the respect the Japanese public offer them.

The Ghibli museum is set in a smallish building on the edge of Inokashira Park in Mitaka, about a 10 minute taxi ride from Kichijoji Station. The building itself is designed to resemble the classic style of the houses in many of Miyazaki’s movies, but is set slightly back from the road in amongst trees, to resemble a house in a forest. Inside it is built on three levels, with the Laputa robot on the roof, exhibition spaces on the bottom two levels and a shop and children’s play area on the third floor. The children’s play area is, of course, a Cat Bus. The building itself is small, and admission has to be booked up to a month in advance because of the limited number of people who can enter, but is itself cheap (¥1000). For the price of admission you get access to the museum and one-time admission to the movie theatre, which plays a different short film every month. Sadly only elementary school children can play in the Cat Bus (hrmph!)

The bottom level of the museum has the main exhibits, including a room containing a very brief history of animation, all expressed through Ghibli characters – this has an excellent example of strobe-lit animation using extremely cute Totoro characters, showing the basic process by which animation works. The next level contains an example of an animator’s studio, perhaps modeled on Miyazaki’s studio back in the day, which is very interesting. You walk through a room furnished as if it were a studio, with storyboards and sketches on the walls, books that Miyazaki used as sources, and examples of an animator’s workbench or the types of texts and background material he or she might draw upon – whole scrapbooks of pictures of plants, crystals, planes or animals cut from magazines and books, for example, or textbooks full of scenery from around the world. It gives an insight into how the animator develops their work from idea to final production.

The museum also contains a library of children’s books from around the world, all translated into Japanese (some of which can be purchased), and is constructed with bridges, nooks, crannies and mysteriously-placed windows designed to make it explorable for children – and certainly children were going crazy exploring the building while we were there. It also has a cafe, which I’m sure is very cute, but it was so busy we didn’t dare go near it. Finally, it has a cinema. The ticket to the cinema is a framed clipping of a couple of cells from a film reel, and can be kept as a souvenir. Our film was Chu Zumo, “Mouse Sumo,” which was a cute adaptation of an old folk tale, the story of which (in Japanese) is here.

Mouse Sumo

The basic story of this 13 minute film concerns an old couple who live on a steep mountainside. They are poor and have to work hard, and every day is spent farming on the mountainside with no break. Nothing interesting happens. One night, however, the old man goes outside to take a leak, and sees a bunch of mice sneaking off through the grass into the forest. One is carrying a firefly light, one is carrying a leaf as a penant, and the rest are wearing little sumo thongs. He follows and finds all the mice of the surrounding area gathered around a sumo ring to watch a bout between the mice of his house and the mice of a neighbouring area. These mice are bigger and white, and they wipe the floor with the mice from his house.

Horrified, he returns home and the next day he and his wife set about making the mice into great Sumo Rikishi. While she makes dango powder, he goes down the mountain to get some fish; when he returns they bake Tofu Dengaku (YUM!) and sanma dango, stitch together some better quality sumo thongs, and leave them out for the wrestlers. The mice come down to eat the food and put on the thongs, and immediately become stronger and bigger.

Soon there is another match, and of course the mice from the old man and woman’s house win in a tense battle, because of the strength they gained from the food and support of the old man and woman.

It’s cute for the simple fact that it involves mice, doing sumo, with a frog judge, and mice watching in the crowd, in a classic Japanese image of classic Japanese countryside. The old man and woman are done in classic Ghibli style: the old man’s brow is so furrowed that you cannot see his eyes, and have to read his expressions entirely in his pursed lips. They are, of course, sweet and kind and happy, as befits the classic Japanese stereotype of old people. So it’s a cute, sweet story with lots of funny moments (the frog referee, particularly, is hilarious), and a fine showcase of Ghibli’s talent and style. Screenshots can be seen here.

The movie is also an interesting allegory for common Japanese attitudes towards the state of modern Sumo. Here we have 5 small, weak mice who have to take on 5 bigger, more skilled white mice, from a foreign mountain, who always win. However, the story has us believe that if the wrestlers are supported by the locals, and given a bit of special Japanese magic (in the form of food and support) and just try a bit harder, then they will triumph. Of course, this isn’t happening in real Sumo. The big foreign mice are dominating the sport because all the local mice would rather not enter a sport full of bullies and old-fashioned training methods, which requires years of devotion and suffering for little gain. The local mice are already trying as hard as they can. What’s needed is a change in how they try, but this means changing the hidebound traditions of a near-mystical sport. It would all be so much easier if they could take a few performance-enhancing drugs and, with just a bit more support from the local old people, throw the bigger and tougher foreign mice. Sadly, that’s not how sport works. A change in organization style, structure and training – as well as recruitment practices – is needed before the local mice can beat the big foreign ones. No matter how much support the old locals give them.

The Studio Ghibli museum is smaller than expected and a little crowded, but it contains some interesting insights into the animation process and is very pretty and well laid out. It also comes with a movie that can’t be seen anywhere else. I recommend a visit to this place if you are coming to Tokyo. But remember to book ahead, or you will be disappointed!