Not directly comics-related, but hopefully relevant to anyone interested in manga readership outside Japan: later this week, I’m going to give a talk titled “Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining'” at the 3rd International Conference for PhD Students and Recent PhD Graduates in Belgrade on “Migrations in Visual Culture”. Below you’ll find the abstract as I had submitted it; in the meantime, I cut the examples of Takashi Murakami and manga/anime mentioned therein and made some other changes.
Hat tip to Nicholas Theisen on whose weblog What is Manga? I first encountered the beautiful word “Japansplain”!
Japanese Art in the Contact Zone: between Orientalism and ‘Japansplaining’
Whenever migrations of works of art and other artifacts become the subjects of scholarly analysis, those that originate in one culture and end up within a different culture are the ones that generate the most interest. Scholars who study such cross-cultural migrations operate within a methodological paradigm that has been shaped by theories such as Fernando Ortiz’s transculturation and, building upon it, Mary Louise Pratt’s contact zone.
These theories suggest that artifact-based communication between different cultures – including the reception of works of art – often takes place „in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power“ (Pratt). Such contexts have been strikingly examined by postcolonial studies, which identify these relations between colonising and colonised cultures, First and Third World countries, etc. Most famously, Edward Said located such a relation between Occident and Orient. The Far East, however, is where we find an example (though probably not the only one) that does not quite fit in this paradigm.
After WWII, Japan has come to be perceived as economically and politically on eye-level with its former enemy nations. The Japanese cultural industry is nowadays largely self-sufficient: as a rule, its products reach Western markets through a ‘pull’ rather than a ‘push’ mechanism, i.e. (some) Western consumers demand Japanese products, but Japanese producers and distributors are not desperate to break into an American or European market. Therefore, one cannot say that the Western reception of Japanese artworks takes place within a context of an asymmetrical power relation. Yet, this context is far from homogeneous. From the imagery of Takashi Murakami to the films of Akira Kurosawa, the photographs of Nobuyoshi Araki to manga and anime, Japanese artworks seem to divide European and American audiences into those who admire them, and those who cannot make sense of them.
In a way, these two audience groups reiterate the context of asymmetrical power relations, but in contrary ways: on the one hand, the ‘worshippers’ of Japanese art perceive it – and, by extension, the whole Japanese culture – as vastly superior to their own, up to the point where Japanese pedigree in itself becomes a decisive quality. The mode of reception in this group places Japan as the dominant culture, and its own Western culture as the subordinate. On the other hand, the ‘sceptics’ of Japanese art perceive it as inferior because they find it less accessible, thus reversing the power relation. The phenomenon of ‘Japansplaining’, i.e. attempting to explain Japanese culture (often in order to help make sense of Japanese works of art), works in both of these ways, and is at any rate an indicator of the perceived foreignness of Japanese art. This paper seeks to discuss this and the other aforementioned concepts related to the idea of the contact zone, and on that basis to critically examine the theoretical and methodological foundations underlying the study of cross-cultural migrations in visual culture.
Last time at the Biennale, Robert Crumb’s Genesis was prominently exhibited, which was already a pleasant surprise from a comics perspective. But who would have thought there was going to be a comic specifically made for the Biennale (Francesc Ruiz’s, see below) this time?
As always, there are probably works of sequential art that I’ve missed, so the works featured here (click images to enlarge) are just an incomplete selection. All works are from 2015 unless indicated otherwise. The Venice Art Biennale still runs until November 22.
Last week I visited the Biennale di Venezia, which still runs until November 24th. There seem to be far more comics-related artworks there than at the documenta last year, possibly due to this year’s topic of the Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace”. Here are some that caught my eye (click on images to enlarge):
New article published – “I’m always touched by your presence, dear: Blondie album covers and the concept of presence”Posted: September 2, 2013
I’m pleased to announce the publication of my latest journal article. You can read the abstract at the ERAS journal website and directly download the PDF here: http://www.eras.utad.pt/docs/JUN%202013%20estudos%20interdisciplinares1.pdf
In case you were wondering: no, this article isn’t about comics. But my previous blog posts about Michael Fried from February last year and photography theory from January last year are connected to it (and of course my conference paper on “presence in comics“, which will be published too, eventually).
Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is well-known for his landscape photography, but what I didn’t know before seeing his current exhibition in London (National Maritime Museum, until April 28, 2013) is that he also did sequential art. On display is a five-part series of photographs from 1940 (pictured e.g. here), each showing waves breaking on the same patch of a beach, from the same point of view. The interesting thing is, it’s not only a series, it’s intended by Adams to be a sequence. Whether this work can be considered a comic, following Scott McCloud’s definition, depends on how it is displayed, i.e. whether the five images are juxtaposed (as they are on the wall in the London exhibition – not pictured here) or not (e.g. in a folder). Another problem is that their order doesn’t seem to be clear, judging from the different images found on the web. On the other hand, the individual titles sometimes contain numbers, e.g. in this collection at the University of Arizona Libraries.
Fascinating, at any rate, are the differences between Adams’s sequence and the average panel sequence in a comic. Whereas a comic sequence usually implies a chronological order of events (with the exception of flashbacks, or even rarer non-temporal panel relations), I find it hard to hard to recognise a chronological order in the Surf Sequence. The shadow of the cliff suggests that the pictures were taken at roughly the same time, but the wet area of the beach is not constantly growing or shrinking, so if the images are ordered chronologically, Adams must have witnessed several waves between the first and the last picture he took.
Maybe Adams ordered them by another criterion, e.g. by formal-aesthetic considerations (such as the relation of lighter images with more spray to darker ones?), thus deliberately disrupting any chronological order. Then again, he called his work a sequence, not a polyptych. A sequence implies a viewing order: the first image should be viewed first, then the second, etc.
The logic behind this sequence escapes me. Maybe Adams explained it in one of his writings or interviews, but I’m not sure if I want to know. For me, this mystery is part of the appeal of this work. I wish the comics produced today were more daring and, only every once in a while, incorporated such ambiguous and enigmatic sequences.
The poster (PDF) advertising the exhibition “Lost Paradise: Blumenbilder in der Fotografie der Gegenwart” (“Flower pictures of contemporary photography”, Mönchehaus Museum Goslar, 11.8.-23.9.2012) shows an arrangement of flowers in front of a black background. Now if that isn’t by Sarah Jones, I thought. Jones’s series The Rose Garden (or Gardens) is exactly that: brightly lit rose bushes standing out against an impenetrable darkness. When I learned that the photograph used for the poster was by one Luzia Simons instead, I was even more intrigued to go to Goslar to see the show, amazed that two different but contemporary photographers could come up with such similar pictures.
Of course, flower still lives with black backgrounds have a long tradition – in oil painting. Simply recreating such paintings in the medium of photography isn’t what Jones does either: her roses are not arranged in vases or on tables, but blossom on living shrubs, which she encounters in public parks, apparently. In the Goslar exhibition, where six works from Simons’s Stockage series are displayed, it becomes clear that her approach is different from both the old masters and Jones. Simons doesn’t just shoot photographs but makes scanograms: she places cut flowers (tulips, not roses, by the way) on the glass of a customized scanner, which then produces a digital image of them.
One of the results is the luminosity of the flowers in contrast to the completely black background, just as in Jones’s works. Other effects mark a clear difference: you can see where pollen has fallen on the glass plate, petals and leaves bend against it, and the arrangement of the flowers is unlike that in a bouquet or shrub; they seem to grow into the picture from all directions, leaving the beholder puzzled about whether the laws of gravity are still in effect here.
Both Luzia Simons and Sarah Jones draw attention to their respective production process. They make the beholder wonder how they could achieve this contrast in lighting, and at the same time they manage to create beautiful pictures. The “Lost Paradise” show (which Jones isn’t part of, unfortunately) is an impressive proof that flower still life is a genre of surprising timeliness.
Comics will be part of documenta when hell freezes over. However, there are some works at this year’s documenta (Kassel, June 9 – September 16) that come quite close to the McCloudian definition of comics. The following list is just a personal selection and by no means meant to be exhaustive.
The very first work I’ve seen at documenta could actually be called a comic, sort of. In the Ottoneum, Amar Kanwar has several books (and other things) on display. One of them, Photo Album 1: The Lying Down Protest, documents a protest action in India through a series of photographs, sometimes with captions added. There is one photo on each page, on both sides of the leaf, resulting in a layout similar to that of Martin tom Dieck’s hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt (cf. my essay).
For an exhibition of contemporary art, there is a lot of old art to be seen, e.g. a sizeable collection of abstract drawings from the 1940s and 50s by Gustav Metzger in the Documenta-Halle. Some of these drawings are arranged like comic panels, i.e. in different sizes, with clear borders, on the same sheet of paper. Are these drawings meant as independent sketches which Metzger placed closely together on the sheet only to save paper? Or is there a relation between adjacent drawings, maybe even an intended sequence?
Another example of a not-quite-contemporary exhibit is Charlotte Salomon’s widely publicized Leben? Oder Theater?
Khadim Ali‘s four-part painting The Haunted Lotus in the Neue Galerie is reminiscent in style of traditional East Asian religious paintings, but at the same time the framing makes it look like a panel sequence in a comic: the continuous background evokes a “tracking shot” from left to right or vice versa, so that each of the four parts can be seen as one point in a chronological sequence. The figures in the foreground remain largely the same in all four parts of the painting, thus giving the impression that some figures move between the “panels” while others stand still. Another comic-like feature is the writing next to the figures’ heads.
Then there’s Nedko Solakov at the Brothers Grimm Museum. Among many other works, some drawings are shown in several display cases. Their arrangement in two horizontal lines suggests a sequential relation between them, but although each drawing has a handwritten caption text on it, it’s hard to make out any order in which they could form a narrative. Still, the surrounding works by Solakov strongly suggest a narrative reading, since they are all about his dreams and fantasies of medieval knights in shiny armours.
All in all, while not completely absent, sequential art is sadly underrepresented at documenta (13). Unfortunately, the exhibition of comical art, Caricatura VI, which is on in Kassel at the same time, doesn’t show many comics either, although it contains cartoons by comic artists such as Guido Sieber, Harm Bengen or Nicolas Mahler.