Monday, November 24, 2014

On Ruins

The notion of “ruin porn” has become something of a thing on the Internet. Countless vaguely (or overtly) clickbait websites have posted what they deem to be “shocking” or “unbelievable” photographs of the material evidence of human folly, whether it be the grand Victorian rubble of Detroit, totalitarian horrors like the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, or the stitched-together sci-fi landscapes (quite often presented as real places) of Nicolas Moulin.

I can trace my own love of such horrors almost as far back as I can remember. Early encounters with the nightmare imagery of Poe and T.S. Eliot. A fascination with the gnarled, uprooted trees that gathered in Iowa meadows after spring floods. A terror of the boarded-up houses and closed factories that seemed to make up vast tracts of Kansas City and Chicago on childhood trips.

On a larger scale, an obsession with ruins is certainly not new. The first tourists, Brits on their grand tours of the Mediterranean that gave the act its name, obsessively visited the remnants of classical civilizations, bought paintings and engravings of them. The more committed built follies on their Georgian estates. Others, around the same time, looked inward, to places like Tintern and Glastonbury, and from there were caught up in the earliest currents of romanticism, and later wrote Gothic novels themed around the decrepit architecture of castles and abbeys.

And it was around this time that Giovanni Piranesi etched the Roman ruins fallen into disuse, cows lumbering through porticos, and later assembled them into his terrifying carceri, horrifying spaces which seem to presage the features of 20th Century totalitarian and militarist architecture (the Atlantic Wall, Milano Centrale Railway Station, the Warsaw Palace of Culture) but also possess the ruination of the Rome he knew and dwelled in.

Meanwhile, back in Britain, Edmund Burke wrote that the well-formed beautiful stood in marked contrast to the sublime, the fascinating things that threaten to eat us up, and that in many ways were anathema to Burke's own piously Christian, hidey-hole worldview.

But we're attracted to these ruins because of their sense of aberration. We're not so attracted to the things where the decay seems natural or inevitable, the shit at the bottom of the dumpster.

What we like about ruin porn is that it's tidy. It gives us a neat, aesthetically pleasing, artistically approachable package, with all that implies. We can frame it, we can flick through it on our phones while we're waiting in line at the supermarket, and we can impose political theories on it if we're feeling fancy. We can, in short, treat it like everything other than a ruin.

This isn't to say that ruin-art is necessarily bad. I'm immensely fond of Piranesi, as I am of Jan Kempenaers' photographs of Yugoslavian memorials, as I am of Bill Morrison's film Decasia, a composition of the unexpected shapes and textures formed by rotting celluloid.

But beyond the expressions of preexisting ruin, there are artistic efforts, however, that are self-consciously aware of their decay as an essential part of their endeavor, that seem either passively aware of their own destruction, or that seem to encourage the beauty that arises from destruction.

Take, for example, William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, which are simply a few hours of old tape, the magnetic material slowly coming off, being consumed and destroyed by the audio equipment. Their destruction records itself, notes and sections disappearing one by one, until all we are left with is a near-silent blip, like an echo in a blackened room.

Or the land art of Robert Smithson, who remained committed to the notion of entropy in his work. His Spiral Jetty now lies largely submerged under the Great Salt Lake, and it remains questionable whether doing anything to preserve it would run entirely counter to its concept, of art that is part of the landscape and exposed to natural vicissitudes.

It runs deeply counter to the very notion of the act of creation. After all, creation and destruction are usually held as opposites. And, admittedly, there can be something sinister to it. When Albert Speer designed his buildings to decay beautifully so they could stand alongside the ruins of Rome, we're not only creeped out by the megalomania of a statement like that, but by the fatalism and thanatos embedded in it as well.

Yet it continues to engross. The sublime is alive and well, and, if anything, it has demonstrated its persistence in an era of irony, something that more classical concepts of the “beautiful” haven't weathered so well. Whether or not we try to, we can't stop staring into the void.

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Tokyo Syndrome

The term became popular about 10 years ago. The Paris Syndrome. Hapless Japanese tourists arrived in la ville lumière, expecting a Renoir painting crossed with a Ferragamo photoshoot, and found a city of grimy streets, late trains, and, since I don't know the local term, what we'll call les chavs. Failing to reconcile the Paris in their heads with the Paris they found themselves in, and quite frequently had (and continue to have) psychotic breaks.

I come into Japan in an autumn rain, and find that, shockingly, it looks like Japan. In the infinite maze of screens around Shibuya. In the crowds of girls in petticoats and cat ears in Harajuku. And in the dusk walk I took through the old quarter of Kyoto, a tree heavy with October persimmons half-submerged in an icy, fast-flowing brook, chill air smelling of cedar and roasting tea.

Travel guides, educational videos for middle schoolers, and other purveyors of false metaphor like to posit Japan as a land embodying the patently false dichotomy of “modernity” and “tradition.” Media entities such as these to contrast pictures of Ginza skyscrapers and wabi-sabi temples, three-piece suits and kimono. Obviously, “modernity” is everywhere on the planet. Ditto “tradition.” And ditto their supposed contrast. But the prattlers do need their soundbite to please the editors, I suppose.

What did get me, though-- the overwhelming aesthetic sensibility of the country that seemed to recur again and again-- was the absorption of gestalt image-systems from other societies. The whole country seems to have imbibed all the trappings of European civilization over the past 150 years, without any of the context that these aesthetic systems occur in. The appropriation doesn't seem smooth, but contorted, and the contortion makes it all the more interesting.

Consider the entrancing paintings of Foujita Tsuguharu, who eventually styled himself “Léonard,” and whose grotesques occupy the same nightmarish, distorted take on Middle European fairytale aesthetics as the darker moments that Miyazaki cartoons took on decades later. His women, with their terrifyingly doll-like faces, seem to possess something almost inhuman, and his animals, in their detail and expressiveness, seem to have a subtle anthropomorphism, as if they could transform into us in a matter of seconds.

Or, on a more general level, every lightless coffee shop, with their kitschy electric chandeliers, their tobacco haze, the waitstaff all dressed in bowties and looking for all the world like silent film extras.

Or the national obsession with the impressionists, and the constant reproductions of Monet and Renoir paintings, the playing of Chopin's nocturnes and Satie's gymnopédies on sound systems, the constant allusions to Alice in Wonderland, the aspiration for a softer world, an imagined belle époque. As Westerners, we tend to view this through the lens of the nation's creepier pornographic traditions, but it seems something less sexual and more diffuse, an odd mass nostalgia.

And, as with any kind of appropriation, the act is by no means necessarily cosmopolitan. The right-wingers waving rising sun flags outside the Yasukuni Shrine and shouting slogans about the Liancourt Rocks in their impeccably tailored Italian suits. Or the young guy with the flawlessly Yankee accent who, out of nowhere, started ranting at me about how overblown Western reportage of the massacres of World War II is. And in the room of World War II battle paintings, all of them in the same romantic-nationalist tradition as Delacroix-- including those, in a sudden switch of mood, painted by the same Foujita Tsuguharu, now an official propagandist painting rather Goya-esque carnage-- the English-language captions unblinkingly, unhesitatingly, verifying the heroism and nobility of the Japanese invasion of Malaya.

With only a handful of Japanese words, as soon as I find myself alone, I find myself in an aesthetic experience completely devoid of context. With little English spoken or even written on signs, I largely fend for myself, pressing buttons for unknown dishes at vending-machine restaurants, speculating about who this statue represents, trying to piece together fragmented experience.

Which leaves me seated at that coffee shop with the chandeliers and bow ties and old photos of Al Smith's New York, America refracted through Japan refracted through an American.

And, perhaps because of, perhaps despite the fact that I can't quite understand it, I quite enjoy it. I set down my coffee, say my arigato gozaimasu, and move on to the next curiosity.