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A gallery talk presented on 24 June 2010
At Public CONvenience
I am not going to give you a systematic introduction to the work of Tabaimo. Indeed the following thoughts are scattered, as scattered as the petals that pile up around the feet of the man in Hanabi ra. Scattered, unsystematic, partial, I want to try to enter myself into her world, as it presents itself in animation – to draw you with me, in order then to expand on my own obsessions, as I see them reflected, distorted, suggested in the works on show here. We weave, like one of Tabaimo’s butterflys, through the animations, alighting for a moment to spy and sup, then taking off in some unpredictable direction. It is something like entering into a world through the looking glass, climbing through the mirror of the screen in order to see something that is recognizable, and yet not quite right, not quite as we know it or think we know it. In Tabaimo’s Public CONvenience there are mirrors lining the walls of the pubic lavatory. The mirror in the lavatory is for personal contemplation of our own looks, for applying make up, for checking on self-presentation, such intimate acts. And that is indeed what the visitors to the public convenience do here, although the intimacy of their acts are beyond anything we might expect to find usually in such a public/private space. The mirrors that line the wall here propose something about seeing. What does the mirror do – it visions what passes in front of it and it does this indiscriminately. Whatever occurs the mirror just goes on reflecting, unblinkingly. Just as does the camera that rolls on regardless – or regardful. All of Tabaimo’s animations strike me as being about this seeing that might be characterised as a seeing too much, this seeing that exceeds itself – each detail salient and yet equivalent to all the other details that occur in the centre screen, on the edges of the screen, on the side screens, in the corner, at the top or the bottom – things one catches from the corner of an eye, things one misses, but the mirror-camera has seen, the screen has screened. The moth with the camera eye, which flutters into this scene, drifting, swooping, bobbing, whirring is just such another figure of a recording and a ‘seeing’ that will happen whether it is wanted or not. The animation might be seen as a big mirror, a panorama – especially when the screens curl round the walls. The animation is an indiscriminate reflecting of details, actions, behaviours, a mirror in which we examine the self, or, maybe something larger, as intimated by the Japanese title, a public collective body.
But Tabaimo, in an interview, has spoken of how the mirror metaphor was once adequate for what she produced and then it broke down, became un-useful for her sense of what her animations do in relation to her and her world. She said:
'When I was in Japan, …, I used to be able to express clear views on things and justify my standpoint. This was up until I experienced life abroad, but once I got to meet people and started building relationships, I began to see society differently. I was in this state of flux, and I wasn’t sure about exactly how I should draw. Up until that point, I looked at society and treated it like a mirror in which I could see myself, and I made work by looking at that reflection.
Now my viewpoint has shifted, and I’m not sure if I even see myself in the mirror anymore. I’m not sure if it’s functioning like a mirror, either. I was in an unstable condition, and I couldn’t look at myself through society. Since that was the case, I had to look at myself directly. Without the mirror, I began to face my feelings and other things that troubled me directly. This is such a completely ordinary thing, but since I began focusing on my own existence, which is the kind of thing everyone wonders about, my vision has started to expand, and I’ve become able to see so many more things that I can draw. By accepting myself in this state of flux, I was able to create works like midnight sea.'
The mirror was useful up to a point, but only when Tabaimo felt that she stood stably and squarely before it, no side angles, no viewing point from elsewhere. The shift away from a small world contained in the mirror into a bigger world is experienced as a displacement, a not finding the self in the mirror that is society. The mirror is no longer that stable surface of transient record, but rather is abandoned. The notion of ‘reflection’ has long been deployed in literary and visual analysis. Reflection, reflection theory is the basis of the doctrine of Realism. But, since the challenge to Realism in the 20th century, which identified it more often – say in the terms of Bertolt Brecht, as a kind of conventionalism, a superficial rendition, a naïve recording that cannot penetrate the secrets of the Real – the mirror motif has broken down. The efforts to frame and contain the world in blank reflection obscure how to reflect is to distort, turn backwards, back to front. This recognition is in Tabaimo’s work. But it is the place where curious behaviours are doubled and so amplified, where secrets are made half public, but remain enigmatic, where worlds behind the mirror form and break through the mirror-surface. Somewhere Tabaimo says: ‘‘I want to express something real whose reality escapes me’. Tabaimo now values flux. The mirror renders movement – without capturing it. But it is itself still. The ocean is a type of massive screen, a surface in permanent undulation, always restless. Tabaimo’s self-analysis – myself in this state of flux - suggests that this animated scene is what she sees and draws and what she is.
Let us take Tabaimo’s lead and follow her into the focus on her self.
Everyone who talks about Tabaimo’s work seems to alight on the issue of hands. Unsurprisingly. Hands are prevalent in this work. Hands force themselves to the fore. The work is, after all, and may well remain so, hand drawn. Despite the use of scanners and other digital equipment, this is predominantly hands-on animation. The hands on show in the animations show or stand in for the hands that made the drawings, each and everyone, many thousands, that had to be brought technically into life after being drawn. In various animations hands appear, wandering hands, poking fingers.
Tabaimo has looked at and into herself. She talks of a skin condition that led her to stare at her hands, indeed stare into her hands, which seemed to take on a life of their own, the skin a whirl of colours. It is this that is animated in Guignorama, where the hands twist and dance in permanent restlessness. When I stepped into the darkened room to watch this work, I was immediately thrown back to the origins of animation. A tumble of associations came in. The title draws on the word Guignol, the name of a French hand puppet – here the hands were the puppets. Straightaway too I thought of the lightning sketchers who developed proto-animations, by speedily sketching drawings before a live audience. What was observed by the crowd was not just the drawings that dashed from their pens, but the sketchers hands whizzing across the pages. Here the hands tumble and move constantly, a reminder of their presence in another time and another place making this work come into being, frantically drawing and redrawing. Another association with early mechanical visual culture struck me straight away, another proto-animation form. The animation Guignorama begins with spots of light and colour in blackness. The dancing colourful hands move across the screen, like butterflies fluttering, bigger and smaller. This reminded me of the magic lanterns, which reached a highpoint here in London in the 1860s. The mechanical slides could be manipulated to make the images move. These lantern images appeared to viewers as magical because the source of their movement could not be seen. The two or more glass slides were manipulated so that dissolves and swoops, changes of scale or colour seamlessly occurred. Fishes swim. Skeletons appear and disappear. One scene transforms into another, day exchanged for night. Flowers blossom, acrobats twirl – anything and everything happens, the more colourful the better. Some say that the magic lantern is a more sophisticated version of the Chinese and Japanese magic mirror, a highly polished disc of bronze from the 5th century AD. A small bright light source reflects from the mirror onto a screen and produces an image, though none can be seen on the bronze mirror itself.
The magic lantern proliferated into various devices, some of which took on the ‘rama’ suffix. But one of them, which arrived already on the late eighteenth century was the Phantasmagoria, a magic lantern turned to the darkside. This device usually showed scary scenes, swiftly changing in size and extremely mobile, and the images seemed quite magical and sinister to viewers – and definitely presented a real unreality. Such displays were live events, but they developed a set of film-camera movements that were taken up into film: the ‘zoom’, ‘dissolve’, the ‘tracking-shot’ and superimposition.
Optical entertainments. The very name of Tabaimo’s animation Guignorama – indicates this world and word. Balzac’s novel Pere Goriot from 1835 illustrates the initial impact of these entertainments, which enter the world of industrial modernity and mutate – into animation, film, special effects, video games – and never go away again. Balzac writes:
… (t)he invention of the diorama, an ex-hibition which carried optical illusion beyond that of the panorama, had set the artists in their studios to ending all their words in “rama.” The fashion had been introduced into the Maison Vauquer by a young painter, one of the dinner guests.
“Well, Monsieur-re Poiret,” said the employee at
the Museum, “ how goes your healthorama?’
Balzac tells us that their other coinages include: Frostorama. Patriarchalorama. Sexorama. Deathorama. We could add to this nearly 200 years later something like Japanorama, a tv programme from 2006, presented by Jonathan Ross, which focused on what seemed to be the quirky side of Japanese life. What seems to the Western eye a quirk is the everyday reality for a Japanese person. But Tabaimo’s displacement to London meant that she developed an eye for quirks – animation is an apt mechanism for presenting the quirks of the real. In animation every thing is always slightly strange, even, or especially, when it is almost real.
When I saw Guignorama I thought straight away of early phantasmagoric shows, writhing, spooky, delightful lights, as the hands twisted and transformed. I also thought of Annabelle and Loie Fuller, frolicking for their butterfly, sun, flag and serpentine dances in billowing skirts. These dancers appeared on the very first film programmes of the 1890s. The image of material, their light and twirling reams of cloth, renders most obviously the material of the image, the material that constitutes this image, its specific photographic qualities of sheen, cut, kinetics. The girls’ bodies disappear, are simply parts that enable the endless animated flow of material to twist and turn and display its material qualities, and in so doing reveal the way in which film can and must fabricate movement. Around one third of films made in the first twenty years were of this type, handcoloured and short. So popular, their own materiality was at issue. They were projected so many times, they wore out and needed to be reprinted or re-filmed. All of the ‘fathers’ of cinema made this type of film: Edison, Dickson, Louis Lumière and Paul Nadar. Loie Fuller, one of the dancers, danced on stage as well. There she added coloured electric lights and mirrors to bathe and multiply her body and she decorated her clothing with phosphorescent designs. All this Edison and others tried to capture on film, through lighting, hand-colouration and the sheer sheerness of filmic material. The Futurists loved her. She was shape in motion, an abstract proposition, a confection of cloth, electricity, celluloid, colour. In one film, Fire Dance, from 1906 Fuller is entirely subsumed by her material which then hangs suspended in the air, for an unnatural period of time, effected by the trickeries of film.
Tabaimo’s animation brings a similar sense of embodied abstraction to the screen. The hands twist and twirl, hand-coloured, shape shifting, constantly in movement, flitting like butterflies across the screen. Those hand movements remind too of that ancient art of ombromanie or shadowgraphy or Chinese Shadows, casting shapes onto walls or screens using only the hands twisted into forms, ancient and declining because non-electrical light sources cast much better shadows. Film too is a play of light and shadow – as never bright and never dark but always the play in between.
At the time that I saw Tabaimo’s show first I was reading a short tract called ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Jun’ichir? Tanizaki. Written in 1933, it is a treatise on Japanese aesthetics within the everyday. Its impulse is a bewailing of the end of certain practices, flushed out by Western style – including the purging of shadows by the new electric lights, the replacement of wooden and foliage toilets by shiny porcelain, the metal nib replacing the brush, blue ink replacing black, crinkly paper replacing soft yielding paper. The book skitters around like a butterfly, alighting on subjects, seguing into other ones seemingly illogically. A reflection on Kabuki theatre turns into a description of an old style of puppet theatre that stemmed from Osaka in the 1870s and is called Bunraku. The Osaka theatre was lit by lamplight, even though electric light had become available. Tanizaki loves lamplight, because it produces the shadows that make life beautiful, interesting, mysterious. What struck him about the puppets was that they had only a head and a pair of hands. Everything else was concealed by a long kimono, so that the puppeteers need only work their hands within the costume to suggest movement. According to a modern source, incidentally, it can take 30 years for a puppeteer to work up to being the main operator of the puppet, which involves manipulating the right hand, while standing in darkness in a dark costumes with the feet and left hand operators. For Tanizaki, this head and hands is ‘the very epitome of reality’, for women of the upper ranks were largely hidden, shielding herself from the eyes of others in the dark recesses of her palanquin, as she was carried through the streets or sheltering in the twilight of her home, clothing always dark and teeth blackened according to the fashionable custom. This for Tanizaki is beauty – not in the thing itself, the beauty of a woman exposed in glaring lights, but rather, as he puts it, the ‘patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates’. Maybe this has nothing to do with Tabaimo – why should it necessarily. But maybe it does – maybe it casts its own shadow across her work, its fascinations with the darkness, ‘a pitch darkness’ that Tanizaki says ‘has always occupied our fantasies, and out of which in Guignorama and perhaps Haniba-ra, out of which fluttering things emerge, obscurities that cluster. Or out of which all film emerges, in the interplay of lights and darks. But I wanted to say that Tanizaki is obsessed too with skin – in ways that make for uncomfortable reading, for our modern sensibilities. For him the skin of the Japanese people however white is may be, through powder or nature, gathers shadows around it, between the fingers, around the nostrils, the nape of the neck – and its is this shadowiness that has produced the predilection for the shadows, to hide in and to find beauty in. And they produced a darkness beyond darkness, a darkness that Tanizaki experienced in an old teahouse in Kyoto, with large rooms and high ceilings, and where, before electricity, ‘something seemed to be flickering and shimmering’. It was a darkness in which ghosts and monsters were active, and there were layer after layer of screens and doors and thick curtains. He speaks of a woman there:
The darkness wrapped round her tenfold, twentyfold, it filled the collar, the sleeves of her kimono, the folds of her skirt, wherever a hollow invited. Further yet: might it not have been the reverse, might not the darkness have emerged from her mouth and those black teeth, from the black of her hair, like the thread from the great earth spider.
It is just an old book. It may have nothing to do with Tabaimo. It may be a nostalgic vision of old Japan that was already gone when Tanizaki wrote about it. Or did not exist in the way he hoped it had. But the book, the imagined world it communicates may have had its shadowy reality and may have left traces. What it imprints of the past might still lurk in the shadows of a collective memory. If nothing else, the strangeness of that vision of a woman with her black hair, the surrealistic inversion of white teeth to black, the invocation of an insect – all this is well attuned to the animated world of Tabaimo.
At Hanabi –ra
Tanizaki presents the exquisiteness of an unsubstantiality, folds of material topped by a puppet head, a light and manipulable hand and foot. Hanabi-ra, flower petal, uses the passage of time – animation’s medium – to desubstantialise a man. His body tattooed or festooned with flowers and fauna remains still, inanimate, while the wildlife submits itself to natural cycles and then drops from him as leaves drop from trees. A butterfly delicately sups from his non-existent nectar, emblem of transient beauty. The man is part of this nature and is not nature but a man with drawings on him. The man is drawn in toto – he is a drawing as much as anything else in the frame - and he is drawn on, seeming to be underneath those drawn drawings part of another order of represented reality. But the man too is snatched back into the order of drawing, of representation alone – as he becomes caught up in the process of shedding, of wilting, of dropping. Eventually this man’s back that seemed to represent the three-dimensionality of a man shows itself to be only a flatness, as flat as the screen, as flat as a petal, as flat and insubstantial as art itself, or art in its guise as illusion. The man’s skin here is like the screen itself – it is marked by drawings, drawings that seem to possess the life that his body – or the screen, as vehicle, does not possess. It is the flimsiness that captivates me here.
Flimsy is a word for a thin material, a barely present covering. Its etymology is unclear, but it has existed since the early eighteenth century and is thought to be a metathesis of film. Flimsy is filmlike. Film is flimsy – in its material structure, quite unsubstantial, less than a millimetre of thickness. The projector slips a flimsy strip through its sprockets. The screen is a flimsy medium, a surface upon which the shadows and the light dance. Film – and then in the guise more specifically of animation - appears as a cultural form in a moment of modernity that is, if one follows Charles Baudelaire, in toto contingent, swift-changing, or flimsy. How apt, then, that film, and none more so than animation, should also have been dismissed specifically as lacking in depth, as implausible, insubstantial, fantastical or flimsy.
Such flimsiness, such affinity to shift, flight, surface and superficiality, is what film needs to work with. But again and again film needs to re-vision, re-focus, to return seeing to sight. To take one of a zillion examples, think of Stan Brakhage’s film. Mothlight (1963) was made without a camera. Moth wings – an echo but also a re-substantialisation of Annabelle’s butterfly wings from the earliest cinema – were pasted, together with flower petals, leaves and grass, onto a clear strip of film and run through the printing machine to produce a film of immediate sensuous impact. Tabaimo has moth wings and flower petals – carefully redrawn, but none the less flimsy, and so a substance or insubstance of film itself. The blackness that begins the film is the blackness of crows – but it is not. That is an illusion. It is the blackness of film, of art. Everything will fall away and reveal itself to be nothing, insubstantial, a trick, a confection in time, an illusion.
In Hanabi ra there is the suggestion that fish, fowl, flora and human are all one – all equally nature, and at the same time all equally drawn of colour, light, shadow and time. In Yudangami, similarly, we see represented a point of indifference between things, the raison d’etre of animation, permanent mobility not just as movement but as transmutation, one thing becomes another. Hair is like water, a rough sea, hair can be insects, hair is a curtain or curtains framing a stage, hair is a tie – hair is careless. Hair is a line, like the line of the drawing, that draws us in and cordons us off. Hair extends, Hair is cut. Like the film strip it extends and it is snipped.
A little while ago I wrote something about William Blake, which sprang to mind as I wrote about this work. Let me quote myself and him – on the line:
'William Blake asserted the power of the line-drawing mind over nature. It is the line that evidences this mental power. In ‘A Descriptive Catalogue’ (1809), Blake observed:
"He who does not imagine in stronger and better lineaments, and in stronger and better light than his perishing mortal eye can see, does not imagine at all. The painter of this work asserts that all his imaginations appear to him infinitely more perfect and more minutely organized, than anything seen by his mortal eye. I assert for myself that I do not behold the outward creation, and that to me it would be a hindrance, and not action. I question not my corporeal eye any more than I would question a window concerning a sight. I look through it, and not with it."
Blake clung to outlines, what he called his ‘Mother outline’, but these ‘hard and wirey’, ‘definite and determinate’ lines were not in nature. Outlines are the mind’s contribution to its dialogue with nature. As he remarks to Lord Byron in the wilderness, in ‘The Ghost of Abel’: ‘Nature has no Outline: but Imagination has’. Outlines are sought and made by one whose mind is attuned to see them: ‘Madmen see outlines and therefore they draw them’. Blake sought a new geometry – an internal one. These lines stood firm against chiaroscuro’s blurriness. They asserted the power of the imagination to form. The line is the drawn line, but it also becomes the graphic line and the line that makes up letters in words, and, indeed, the line of words. In Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell words, images and lines jostle on the page. The page’s surface is brimful with data: small outlines of figures, snakes, vegetables, twiddled lines, words, colour washes, coloured words, scenes of struggle and repose. There are graphic lines between the lines of words. There are lines in the drawings above and below the words on the page. Vines and letters coil into each other. Strands of hair become cascades of water. The curls of a serpent are echoed higher up the page as a long spiral filling up the space of a short line. The argument of a line’s words turns into a graphic representation of its sentiment. The top edge of a drawing offers itself again as a horizon line for wandering figures. All this detail makes the page’s surface a dynamic space of interrelating elements. It fizzes with life. The surface swarms. Blake’s ‘infernal’ procedures of printing allowed him to entangle words, illustrations, lines on the same copperplate. This is a dance of gyres and twirls, entwining with lines of text. All is part of a world of imagination that is composed of line projected into or onto nature.'
Yudangami began life as illustrations for a novel, Shuichi Yoshida’s Akunin – an image/text collaboration that appeared serially in an evening newspaper. Given this common context of print culture – rather than art - given the interest in image and text entwinements, given the commitment to transformation and transformability of elements - I wonder to what extent it might be thought that Blake is the father of animation, as revealed in the work of a young Japanese artist.
Why hair? Hair, real hair, is dead. It contains no living tissue though its strands carry fats, pigment and water as well as vitamin and minerals. Hair care products can, so we are told, coax this dead mass into a simulation of glossy vitality. It is dead, yet the best heads of hair have what is called ‘body’. It is dead, yet it seems alive, ‘bouncing’, as Pantene Curl Defining Scrunching Gel puts it – making it sound animated, though with a paradox, for it also provides ‘flexible hold’. Hair is the skein spanned between the realm of the dead and that of the living. It forms the relay between opposed dominions. This is how the theorist Walter Benjamin saw it, characterising hair as ‘a frontier region lying between the two kingdoms of sexus’, the organic and the inorganic, the living and the dead. Hair plays a specific role in Walter Benjamin’s erotology – it is erotic because it skeins life and death, as does nay fetish – we know too that our figure here is a woman of dubious repute. Hair is flighty and dead, like animation itself.
The screen curves round here, a part after-image of the panorama of the early days of optical pleasures. It is as if it would scoop us up and encompass us in its loop of images, its recurrent snips and extensions, its cuts and flows.
At Japanese Kitchen
Let’s turn to the final animation, which is the first in chronological time, for some closing words. Japanese Kitchen
There is a consistency in Tabaimo and I could argue that much of what comes after might here be seen in the form of a concoction, not yet separated out. The scene is a kitchen. We see ingredients. Strange ones indeed. These are the ingredients that continue in one way or another to be the basic stuffs of Tabaimo’s animation.
The flags and title announce the work as Japanese. The everyday world of an ordinary apartment and a city of pavements is the setting. But inside the everyday space, under the surface of banality, grim things are unfolding. A man is inside a refrigerator working away at a desk – the perfect worker, he has to be decapitated – to turn him into an ingredient for the animation. Cockroaches scuttle across the floor – undesirable ingredient, co-eaters not invited in. There is a nasty taste that intermittently comes to the fore. A politician is twirling inside a microwave, campaigning to no-one, going round and round. A woman chants inside a jar. Outside through the windows, out of the corner of an eye, we might see, even if the housewife doesn’t, the school students dropping from the edges of buildings, falling as naturally as the rain. What is natural? What is social? What is regular? What is the quirk? The school students are on the edge, the edge of the ledge of the window. The humour is on the edge. The edges of the animation are angled to present themselves to the corner of the eye and be caught or missed. This is the place she’ll cook it all up from, the original brew, of men and women, of disassembled body parts, of quirky sidelong glances, askew views, at Japan, at her self, at ourselves. It is a place of amusement and bemusement. Again, or for the first but not the last time, a butterfly flutters by.
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