I returned in January from a month-long Wales Arts International -funded trip to Japan with the motivation to develop an arts project based around the highly visible homeless situation in that country.
Japan is a country of visual discords. One may be admiring a park or garden in Tokyo or a riverside vista in Kyoto. Its landscape has generally been carefully composed; floral elements have been painstakingly pruned into shape; rock forms have been sunk into position that their shadows may create shapes which unite disparate forms at a particular time of day; white gravel or volcanic slabs afford both physical and visual paths through the view. All is order; one can appreciate the harmonies and balance inherent in this typically Japanese experience. Yet in the background, barely screened by the shrubbery at the boundary of the park, can clearly be seen blue tarpaulin covered huts. These provide accommodation for the Japanese homeless. They are licensed by the city authorities on condition that they will be vacated at short notice if required. The first time that tourists see them, they may well be shocked out of their complacency by the discordance between these shanties and the idyllic surroundings in which they are located.
I wanted to subvert the traditional Japanese aesthetic in much the same way. This is in no way a critique of the Japanese visual arts; I admire greatly the confident simplicity of design, the excision of all but local colour and the characteristic spatial ‘stacking’ which imbues screens, fans and costume designs with a delicious ‘apartness’ from western aesthetic rules. What I did want to draw attention to is the social myopia I found in Japan; the homeless, though prominent in their vibrant ceruleum-hued dwellings are almost invisible by a people who tend to see the details rather than the overall picture. [Another example of this selective seeing is the coastal scenery of the Inland sea around Naioshima. The islands combine to form what is hailed as a masterpiece of natural beauty, while the pylons sited on them and the cables they carry, are ignored as completely as if they were not even there.]
I returned to the UK with plenty of sketches and drawings to work up. Fujisan, riversides and forest waterfalls, zen gardens –the stock images of Japanese painting and design, would provide me with the scenes into which I would drop these functional, ugly, temporary settlements. What I did not bring back was any movie footage; respect for these people precluded any such intrusion into their current predicament. These are people who were once in jobs and careers which promised employment for life. That was before Japan slid into recession and companies began to jettison sections of their loyal workforce. redundancy benefit expires after a period of six months grace. Thereafter, welfare is difficult to obtain, unless a family can prove that they have been abandoned by their former breadwinner. As a result, a high proportion of the unemployed are middle-aged, former professionals who have been forced by the state to leave their homes, thereby enabling their families to claim assistance.
On my return, I began work on a graphic novel on the theme of this peculiar phenomenon. Its pages owe much to a youthful interest in American superhero books in general, and the artwork of Neal Adams in particular. He is probably the earliest influence on me which led me into a career in the arts. What always impressed me about his drawing was that so many of his sequences [often without the need for speech-bubble dialogue], remained in the memory exactly like a film scene. This interest in the language of comics has subsequently been expanded by exposure to the ubiquitous Manga phenomenon at first hand in Japan. I wanted a particularly Japanese flavour to my graphic book. Hiroshi Ueta, a talented calligraphy artist with whom I made contact while showing together in the Arton Gallery in Kyoto, agreed to collaborate on the work, providing the written dialogue over my illustration.
While working on this novel, a follow-up to ‘Nemesis’ , the following opportunity was advertised online:
What would you film if you had an unlimited budget?
Submit a one sheet poster and a 400–600 word plot by 11:59pm on Sunday, May 5, 2013.
The production of a film is one of the most complicated and costly structures in art production. We want to know, if independent filmmakers could have the budgets of Hollywood blockbusters, what would movies look like? To find out, Future Tenant will partner with Greg Pierce, Custodian for The Orgone Archive and Assistant Curator of Film and Video at The Andy Warhol Museum, to curate an exhibition that showcases the best movies that will never be made. A mixed media exhibition of everything but the movies themselves.
This is a call for individual or collective projects about improbable movies:
Submit a brief plotline (400 to 600 words) and a scaled digital image of a 27″ x 40″ one sheet poster.
Additionally you may also submit:
Soundtrack: original recording, minimum 3 minutes long. (If selected the soundtracks will be burned into a CD and be presented with the rest of the project.)
Costume: sketches or drawings of the costume design or concept (If selected, the costume design materials the artist(s) should mail or take them to the gallery to be displayed with the rest of the project.)
This call closes at 11:59pm on Sunday, May 5, 2013.
Projects will be selected by Greg Pierce in collaboration with Future Tenant staff and be displayed at the gallery on 819 Penn Ave. Pittsburgh, PA., from June 7 to July 14, 2013 during the Three Rivers Arts Festival.
Selected participants will be notified by phone or email by Friday, May 17, 2013. Selection results will be also published on futuretenant.org
Future Tenant will cover the cost of printing the posters and plot lines for the exhibition. Selected participants should submit printing quality files by Tuesday, May 21, 2013.
As soon as I saw this unusual opportunity instigated by the Future Tenant Gallery, I felt I could expand my graphic novel storyline in accordance with a theoretically limitless movie-making budget and produce something suitable for a group exhibition.
In my revised synopsis, I added the character of ‘Eclipse” [above]. He is something of a hero for our times. Originally envisaged as an omnipotent superhero with a flamboyant costume, his profile is radically revised. Stripped of all superpowers, his costume downgraded to a more practical Ninja outfit, he is endowed with minimal perceptive or insight. Easily distracted and hampered by low concentration levels, his only talent is an ability to identify one bird species from another… a birdwatcher sans binoculars!
He is the creation of the central character; a youth [called Hiroshi], who has drawn him, but he morphs into an actual companion confidante to the boy, in the manner of the ghost of Bogart in Woody Allen’s ‘Play it again, Sam’.
I had undertaken film storyboard work while employed at the BBC. These were panels drawn in cartoon strip form and used to give the filming crew instructions on camera angles, composition and lighting. This experience had proved invaluable to me when organising the film shoot for ‘Tatsuko’, a 44 minute, black and white silent feature which I completed in 2012.
I submitted the following synopsis to the organisers at Future Tenant.
Opening shot: aerial panning above and around Shinjuku and Ginza business district of Tokyo drifts out to the homeless shanty settlement on the edge of Ueno Park….
Thunder and lightning
Tracking shot from stormy city overview in to a living room where a young teenager Hiroshi is on computer.
He is sending a file entitled ‘Eclipse’ to trash. Looks out of window, then to his mother who is sewing a kimono. His gaze falls onto the Fabric, which shows a repeat kite design. This morphs into a memory of flying a hawk kite with his father.
“Father could make kites and gliders from off-cuts of mother’s kimono silk; construct castles and models from scrap materials. He made himself a pair of long, lacquered chopsticks. A practical joker with a taste for party pieces; pouring milk into coffee to create calligraphy; shape a length of noodle into a kanji message in mid air with his chopsticks before sucking it up with a grin! He encouraged me in drawing and calligraphy, which I combined to create my very own manga superhero.”
“Our house was filed with joy, but one day the laughter stopped”
Shot of: Hiroshi at top of stairs, father arrives home from work; head bowed as mother greets him. Muffled voices.
Head in hands; tears.
Months of unhappiness; father pores over newspapers and constantly telephoning and e-mailing.
Cut to TV news: spokesman for Japanese welfare authorities. [Outlines policy whereby after an initial six month period of unemployment, welfare is obtainable only by families who have been deserted by their primary breadwinner…]
Father preparations to leave the family; seen only in background of shots which concentrate on the son developing his cartoon hero. ‘Rising Sun’ has a full array of super powers and weaponry. Hiroshi asks his father to critique his hero. Father suggests a change of costume from a rising sun to dark eclipse. “ Make him a man, not a god. Give him human frailties.”
Father departs into the city, laden with luggage. The significance of this scene is lost on Hiroshi, who returns to his comic.
As he redesigns the costume, ‘Eclipse’, who has by now escaped the confines of the page, is desperate to cling to his powers of flight, his visual capabilities, his weaponry, his armour and especially, his kimono. Reduced to powerlessness and a ninja hentai outfit, he is instead assigned a talent for identifying birds.
Mother becomes careworn; dressmaking longer into the evening. She journeys, delivering and collecting packages of cloth to and from town. She walks everywhere, dragging Hiroshi behind, Eclipse following on..
“What are those?’ Hiroshi points to rows of half-hidden blue tarpaulin-covered huts behind shrubbery at the edge of a park. Mother deflects the conversation, while a distracted Eclipse muses, “Olive-Backed Pipits, I think.”
Hiroshi is left on a bench as mother delivers a package. As the camera locks onto him licking a lollipop, behind him and thrown out of focus, his mother exchanges packages with an unseen figure at the door of a hut.
Meanwhile, Eclipse, sat beside Hiroshi, instructs him on the salient differences between egrets and herons.
On one such visit, Hiroshi sees a familiar looking silhouette among the shacks in a park beyond a busy road. The figure looks back, is masked by passing traffic. When it clears, the figure is gone. “Did you see that?” Eclipse, looking in the opposite direction ‘Yes, a shrike, I think” and walks out of shot. “At least draw me a pair of binoculars…..” he mutters.
Hiroshi asks mother what the huts are. Angrily, she tells him never to visit the park again.
Visit by agents of the welfare agency. Mother is warned from future contact with the shanty settlement. Any more gifts of food and fresh laundry will trigger a termination of all state benefits.
Weeks pass. Hiroshi and Eclipse play together and argue. The manga narrative is developed on both the sketchbook page and the laptop and drawing tablet. Plea-bargaining results in Eclipse being presented with a pair of high-powered binoculars. They test them at various Tokyo locations. Panning around one park, he momentarily sees his father. Then loses visual contact.
He races home, confronts mother who breaks down and reveals that father is living destitute in the park.
Hiroshi determines to rescue father and bring him home. Runs back across the city with an exuberant Eclipse; all this in storm conditions.
They arrive at the location, which in the meantime has been bulldozed flat. The community has been forcibly moved on.
[foreground of this shot is occupied by a familiar pair of half buried chopsticks, with lightning behind.]
Hiroshi realises that his baffled hero, left scratching his head, cannot alter the realities of life for him. In frustration, he begins to erase his latest sketchbook image of Eclipse, who begins to disappear, sliced by horizontal strokes. Pleading for his existence, he is silenced by an eraser stroke across his face….
Erasure continues back to the white of the sketchbook paper which morphs to a white computer screen, on which is a file labelled ‘Eclipse’. This begins to move and is consigned to the trash icon.
With this outline, I submitted a film poster mock-up.
I also submitted a sheet of drawings showing the costume designs for ‘Eclipse’ and his original incarnation as ‘Rising Sun’.
. I expected to provide a series of the storyboard panels, a fully realised, painted film poster, a series of costume and film set drawings and paintings and a suitable soundtrack CD [perhaps a second collaboration with musician Wyn Lewis Jones,] for the actual exhibition in Pittsburgh.
It was therefore a great disappointment to receive the following news from the organisers.
Thank you for submitting an entry to the Improbable Movies open call. Unfortunately, we did not receive enough entries to carry on with the show as planned and will not be using any of the submissions. We truly appreciate your artistic involvement with Future Tenant and highly encourage you to participate in other upcoming calls for artists. We also have artistic opportunities in the form of window and bathroom displays that can be applied for any time with an exhibit proposal.
For more information on programming and opportunities at the space, please visit our website at www.futuretenant.org.
Diana Cwerenz Executive Director Future Tenant
So why did artists not rise to the challenge?
This opportunity had appealed to me because it fell at the intersection of several of my artistic interests:
1 Graphic novels and storyboarding techniques
2 Film making
3 Costume and set design
4 Scenic artwork and poster design
I would have expected many other artists to respond to such an open brief. I can think of several artists associated with one particular gallery with which I exhibit, and a film-maker and painter partnership in London, who would have been interested. Had they simply missed the call; hidden under the e-mountain of “artist opportunities”? Was the potential for an expansive range of work just too wide for those who have restricted their areas of operation in accordance with accepted, self-limiting modus operandi of the contemporary artist? Was it the absence of a competition structure with prize money, which deterred applicants? I do hope not; I would be depressed beyond measure if the only spur to creative experiment was of a financial nature.
Calls for submissions without themes are rare these days; opportunities whose themes genuinely promote experimental new work are as rare as horses toes; the artist’s ingenuity is rarely stretched beyond the need to adroitly bend its thematic meaning to work which they were always going to submit anyway, irrespective of show title. I believe ‘Improbable Movies’ could have produced a group exhibition comprising a wide range of thought-provoking work: contemporary design, scenic artwork, graphics, paintings, model-making, costume design, soundscape; as well as movie excerpts and screen tests. Because of this, with the permission of Future Tenant in Pennsylvania, I am hoping to resurrect the ‘Improbable Movies’ outline.
Watch this space….