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Wednesday, 12 October 2016 23:34

Japan - Theatre, respect, permanence and contradictions Featured

Written by Alexander Devereux

As a young artist who makes large installations, sculptures and paintings revolving around industrial architecture and the railways, I decided to travel to Japan to explore its attitude and approach to large historical artefacts and to research cultural difference, as evidenced through a similar shared national industrial heritage.

The intriguing building methods of the industrial age inspired me to make large-scale architectural installations, sculptures and paintings. Using the forms of bridges, railways and stations, my work mimics an industrial style and aesthetic. My sculptures, whilst appearing to be functional architectural features made from cast iron, are in fact made from lightweight wood, thus questioning the idea that form follows function, and transforming them into sculptural objects. The theatricality of these architectural pieces pays homage to the once labour-intensive methods of making these structures, whilst still preserving their visually impressive grandeur and ornate, over-engineered qualities.

40ft Riveted BeamEach Victorian bridge, train station, tunnel, and other major pieces of infrastructure, had an intended purpose that would usually result in a utilitarian design, however this did not overshadow the need for it to be aesthetically pleasing. This sustained grandeur that can be seen across the 19th Century era of construction has ultimately secured longevity due to the attention and respect it demands. 

My sculptures have the potential to be components taken directly from a 19th Century structure. I trade these traditional methods of making with the use of modern, lightweight and more practical materials, while still adhering to the familiar qualities of being over-the-top and over-engineered. It is my plan to deceive the observer into believing that they are seeing ‘the real thing’, which is in complete contrast to the intentions of the original engineers, as my works have no utilitarian use at all.

Japanese suburban line smllJapanese culture has always fascinated me. My aim was to assess at first hand the efficiency of Japan Railways (JR) as a means of gaining a real sense of what the Japanese culture is like. The method of research comprised the direct experience of the railways themselves. Along with the sights, sounds and smells to be experienced this way, travel by railways always give a unique perspective on a place, as you can usually see into everyone's back gardens and can often gain a real sense of who they really are both literally and metaphorically.

As an outsider, Japanese culture seemed to work consistently in perfect harmony, and coming from London this is a completely foreign concept as dysfunctionality and dirt seem to be evident everywhere. I believe this is what makes London what it is. London development has always made a mess; this is partly due to the city being at the centre of the industrial revolution, and still today it portrays similar characteristics. Soot has been replaced by plastic, smog is now invisible and rush hour can be likened to chaos. Despite Japan having many similarities to the UK and in many cases more extreme, its cities like Tokyo seem to function without making such a mess of the urban environment. The streets are spotless, and from what I saw there were no bins across the entire country. Shinjuku Station may be the busiest in the world but at rush hour it simply works and when visiting the toilet, you never have to touch a thing, sometimes even the seat rises when you walk towards it!

I hope in the next few paragraphs to highlight some of the similarities and differences between my art work and what I experienced in Japan, as well as ways that I could see my practice changing as a result of my visit.

One of my inspirations is the physical lasting effect of Victorian engineering and its extreme durability; evidence of it can be seen across the world where bridges and relics of a revolutionary labour-intensive age were once commonplace. The Western world has moved away from this way of working; however, it is almost as though Japan has retained this attitude to working collectively towards a common goal and in so doing has kept the unique etiquettes that inevitably go with it. Work and social life exist as one, and the respect for places, skills and wisdom is stronger. In a country where it is hard to see things that predate 1945 due to the bombing by the USA in the latter stages of World War Two or the many subsequent earthquakes, the Japanese have continued to build and revolutionise technology with this collective approach.

N700 Series ShinkansenEverything works as it was intended; the high speed Shinkansen which the Japanese pioneered in the 1960’s isn’t just one train every half an hour, it’s one train every 2 minutes! The trains arrive punctually to the second, and are efficiently cleaned while the passengers stand in designated areas queuing to board at the particular place their tickets designate on the often fifteen-carriage monster locomotives. With my JR pass I didn’t even get my ticket checked as the conductor knows who you are from all the reservations on his machine. At the final stop, the passengers all get off and repeat the process to go back they way they came. This is a situation where the theatre of everyday life in Japan is portrayed through a mundane task such as boarding a train, but it has been developed though years of improvement to make the process better. The common goal is as simple as going somewhere but everyone plays a part in making that happen as efficiently as possible. This is how things work best and, therefore, they do it like that.

My experience of travelling across the country involved staying in the railway hotels, often in the station itself. From here we explored the location and reason for visiting and then we boarded another train to take us to our next destination, with considerable ease. This theatre of travelling had rules and processes like the most rehearsed theatre production and once I had my head around it, it leads to an appreciation of the transience of travelling. The moments are fleeting and particularly special. These epiphanies happen when I realised why everyone is queuing orderly on a platform, or, when walking the length of a Ueno Station Shinkansen platform and noticing it is where Nintendo’s revolutionary fighting game Tekken is set, and the huge platform actually is an endless procession of pillars framing each screen as you scroll left to right. I can only liken Japan to all the planets in Star Wars put together in these small islands in the Pacific. It is like that familiar, but foreign, alien planet you might visit on the other side of the universe; it is really densely populated, everything has a bespoke synthesiser-generated tune behind it, and everybody has a tiny box car called a Kei car. I saw weird and wonderful things everywhere.

I have heard many people say that Japanese culture restricts their creativity. The etiquette of daily life dictates aspects of their culture and therefore their creativity. The question is not ‘How do we create something unique and original?’ instead it is ‘How can we improve on an existing idea? How can we do it better or even be the best?’ and I would argue that this is different. Yes - improving what is already there is very obviously what they do, unlike here they are not bothered by being seen to copy - and why strive for something original when nothing truly is or can be? - improve instead on what was there before. Reassuringly, I could say that no artist makes truly original work – in my opinion it is always a culmination of other people’s ideas and experiences. Japan seems to thrive on this.

When I visited the Toyota factory, in Toyota city (that is built, developed and named so because of the its founder, Toyoda, not the other way around), I saw several examples of how the car had incorporated ideas and been improved beyond recognition. The factory motto and philosophy is ‘good thinking, good products’. This idea, to improve the reliability and efficiency of the company, was born in the 1930’s, when Toyota was designing the automated cotton loom that revolutionised the industry, meaning less wastage, no children were required to fix them and one person could work an entire factory floor. This philosophy of improvement I saw in every aspect of Toyota factory I visited - from where you put your drill down to how far away the canteen is, had all been thought of. Ultimately this has resulted in the company becoming the biggest car manufacturer in the world and pre-2008 one Toyota had rolled off the production line across the world every four seconds. They have taken Ford’s pioneering production line concept used with the model T and made it better beyond what anyone thought possible.

This is reflected everywhere in the art I have seen which is amazingly precise and perfectly executed. However, the artists I came across don't know what dirt looks like! I'm not sure if I can make a piece of work without getting dirty, in fact the dirtier I am usually the more successful my artwork! Situated in the hills of Kyoto is Kyoto City University of Arts. It has courses in traditional sculpture (wood, stone and casting are the preferred methods), but here, MDF would be an almost unheard of as a raw material. You can do a three-year BA in Urushi lacquering, a 35 step traditional method of layering wood that results in the distinct black finish often seen in Japanese crafts and architecture. Following that you can go on to do an MA and even a PhD. These traditions are kept alive and kicking and students are always striving to better themselves. This is the first art school I have visited that kept chickens - apparently used for life painting as they are a traditional subject in Japanese painting - like waves I assume.

Despite these long-lasting traditions, Japan is a massive fad culture. They consume technology at a rate equivalent to buying a new TV every week. (???!!!) Even the way they present the weather has its own fad culture. The broadcast weather report in the UK has always been given more importance than it deserves – it wants to be a show in its own right when all we want to know is what the weather will be like. In Japan each channel’s weather has its own gaudy mascot that will hold a cardboard cut-out symbol of a cloud or a sun. It is really tacky and the huge mascots are completely serial interpretations of animals that would only be seen on children’s TV in the UK. However, in Japan this is a ‘FAD’ and will go completely out of fashion when the next big thing comes along. These will not become a tradition and continue for ever. Society as a whole will move on - here today and gone tomorrow.

There is no need to buy a TV or any ‘new’ technology. Just walk along the street when the next new one is released and pick up the discarded out-of-date model, or so I've been told. In this culture that is modelled heavily on traditions, consumerism rules un-questioned in many aspects. Is this the ultimate irony of Japan? Contradictions are everywhere and are almost perfectly composed so that they are not obvious to an untrained eye.

Arch Support smllMy own sculptures and installations appear to be permanent relics from a previous era, where the commonplace construction methods of that time are evident in their appearance. However, I contradict this visual association first-time viewers have when observing my work by informing them later that it is in fact made from a contemporary wood-based product, namely MDF. My work is not what you think it is. Similarly, at the Suntory whisky distillery in central Japan I found out (after a few drinks) that the whisky wasn't exactly 100% Japanese. I discovered that Japanese respect for whisky was very well-informed, that while the whisky made at the Yamazaki distillery used the water from underneath the mountain it was situated on, the other two ingredients, barley and peat, both come from the UK- and Scotland in particular. Even several of the copper stills are made by Scottish craftsmen! Suntory understand that you can’t make good whisky without the right ingredients and Scotland is the best place to source them. So is it really Japanese whisky or Scottish whisky made somewhere else? Regardless of these contradictions it doesn’t really matter as it still tasted amazing.

My experience of Japan Railways (JR) as a vehicle for research (a vehicle in every sense of the word) to appreciate the industrial heritage of the country, and the everyday world as seen from the carriage while travelling, leads me to conclude that while I relish the fact that I will never fully understand Japan - indeed, I'm not sure if even the Japanese will. I am inspired that there is theatre and process in everything and the fact that nothing is too much work or trouble to do properly and complete. There is respect for objects despite of – and because of - their transient nature and I am inspired by the fact that Japanese culture reveres the impermanent and embraces the constantly changing. As I continue to enjoy the combination of the huge contradictions of tradition and innovation I have observed, with this I will do, what I think artists do in all forms of media, and try to bring together the opposites of appearance and reality, of expectation and actuality, as was once said to me, to reconcile the irreconcilable, towards an original statement.

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