the powers of horror

“got me a movie / I want you to know / slicing up eyeballs / I want you to know / girlie so groovy / I want you to know / wanna grow up to be / be a debaser” -Francis Black

I have been reading a lot of gender theory recently. I’m ambivalent about the genre as a whole, and had previously considered myself to be sitting in the stands of the opposing team when it comes to it’s application to pre-modern Japanese art history, should there ever be a dance-off between the two (there definitely will be). It’s dangerous and often irresponsible to apply these kinds of concepts backwards in time to a culture that did not recognize them. When looking for female perspectives in the artworks of a pre-modern society, it is very tempting to attribute more power and progressive ways of thinking to these women than they had; to try to liberate them retrospectively. Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been artistic contributions by female artists in the past, just that it’s unreasonable to assume they considered themselves as speaking out against their patriarchal societies, or that we should construct elaborate interpretative theories that allow them to do so.

However. I have actually gotten a great deal out of this class so far – at the very least reading feminist theory and attempting to analyze images accordingly opens up a whole new way of seeing the material, which is illuminating in its own way whether or not you agree with the interpretation. Even so, I had to suppress an eyeroll after being handed an essay of feminist psychoanalytic theory the size of a telephone directory this week. I mean, come on. How helpful is it really to point at things and shout ‘phallic’? Sometimes a cylindrical object is just a cylindrical object. And no, that’s not penis-envy talking. It’s just a mother-f**cking pen. For crying out loud, that last sentence has nothing to do with Freud. I can’t say anything any more.

Anyway, so I started reading this tome by Julia Kristeva, who devotes a lot of her time discussing ‘the abject.’ This refers to the human reaction (horror, vomit) to a threatened breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of the distinction between subject and object or between self and other. The primary example for what causes such a reaction is the corpse (which traumatically reminds us of our own materiality). The abject is not a property of either the object or the subject, it is situated, rather, at a place in our personal histories before we entered into the symbolic order of language and concept formation, from a time in our infancy before we had separated ourselves in our consciousness from other things. It is a primeval state of between-ness, and when we are brought into confrontation with the abject we are threatened with the breakdown of the boundaries that we draw between self and other, which is um like, pretty much everything our functioning lives are based on.

So far, so psychoanalytic. In my class we are looking at images of female corpses in relation to the abject. Specifically, those series of decomposing bodies that make up the 九相詩絵巻 genre, or handscrolls of the nine stages of decomposition – part of a group of works originally intended for Buddhist meditative practices on the transience of corporeal existence. Corpses are pretty good at evoking the abject – images of their decay demonstrate the breakdown of the skin, the most tangible barrier we have between ourselves and the outside, that is, between self and other. According to early Indian sources, monks would actually visit charnel houses and observe the decay of the human body over time in order to truly confront the impermanent nature of corporeal existence (since living bodies emit fluids and wastes in a way thought analogous to the putrefaction of the corpse), and through disgust, vehemently reject it. Using exclusively female bodies in these representations is not accidental – across most periods and cultures, the feminine is identified with corporeality; nature and earth as opposed to intellect and reason. In Buddhism, women were generally thought to be incapable of achieving enlightenment since they were subject to the five (or seven, depending on who you ask) hindrances, necessarily confined to earthly realms by our inherently polluted bodies. Historically, Buddhism is centered around male institutions in which monks are supposed to live celibate lives, and meditating on the decay of the female body enables the practitioner to come to realize Buddhist truths about transience, and importantly, dissuade him from engaging in physical relationships with women. Women then, are not entirely bad – the sheer force of our repugnance can bring about the necessary conditions for (male) enlightenment. That’s kind of a back-handed compliment.

According to Kristeva, representations of the abject in art, literature, and religion are attempts to purify it. Like the catharsis we achieve by simulated terror in response to horror movies, we can take a kind of pleasure in confronting the abject, as it is closely related to what Kristeva terms ‘the uncanny’. The uncanny is the feeling of familiarity we can experience when we confront something that is nonetheless alien or previously unknown to us. It’s obviously hard to talk about the abject, since it is meant to be something prior to conceptual and symbolic formulation, but the relationship between the abject and the uncanny is made clearer in the wonderful quote from Dostoevsky’s The Possessed:

“A real fire is quite another matter: there the horror and a certain sense of personal danger, combined with the well-known exhilarating effect of a fire at night, produce in the spectator…a certain shock to the brain and, as it were, a challenge to his own destructive instincts, which, alas, lie buried in the soul of even the meekest and most domesticated official of the lowest grade. This grim sensation is almost always delightful. I really don’t know if it is possible to watch a fire without some enjoyment.”

Since the abject precedes conceptual divisions between self and other, its horror is something that we recognize as essentially part of ourselves, we partake of it in this undifferentiated state of being. We are, despite everything, continually and repetitively drawn to the abject – and some of us (much) more than others. The subject of the meditational benefits of the cadaver can be traced back to the literature of early Indian Buddhism, but it is only in Japan that paintings of female corpses are usually found. Japanese art bridges an extraordinary contradiction here – Buddhism can be broadly characterized as an abhorrence of evanescence, and yet we must agree with Donald Keene in his assessment that impermanence is a “necessary condition of beauty” in Japanese culture. It is repeated to the point of cliche that Japanese art revels in the transient – falling cherry blossoms and turning autumn leaves are ever present examples of the Japanese taste for works that evoke the impermanence of beauty. It is impossible to think of these scrolls as having only didactic value without consideration to their aesthetic appeal – the female corpse is executed through laborious technique in meticulous detail. With layers of expensive pigment we are shown each hair of the dog’s pelt that gnaws her, the striations on the bodies of the maggots that consume her.

victim of a smear campaign

If you would be kind enough, please recall a poem I mentioned some time ago, written by the poetess Ono no Komachi (pretend you can). In the Kamakura period (1185–1333), Komachi was identified in poetry and other literature with the rotting female corpse in these works, and occasionally explicitly mentioned on the scrolls themselves as having the dubious honour of the starring role. This was some time after her death and although little was actually known about her, from the thirteenth century on she had become a legendary figure. Her reputation was as beautiful and intelligent, but cold – she caused the men who pursued her to become consumed by desire and die. The later accounts describe her in her twilight years in a way that exaggerates the natural aging process to an almost comical degree – she didn’t just get old, she got decrepit, she didn’t just lose her youthful beauty, she was haggard, she became desolate and impoverished, and so on and so forth. Particularly in light of this interesting development it is easy to read these scrolls as being highly misogynistic; everything decays in Buddhism so it seems excessive to focus exclusively on the degeneration of the female body. There are no images of this type featuring male corpses. And singling out Komachi, known as the most beautiful woman in history and as the only female member of the legendary six poets of Japan, in order to revel voyeuristicly in her (constructed) fall from grace seems particularly vicious and unnecessary.

To me, as images they are of questionable value for meditation, since they are not of the abject. They do not really bring us into jolting contact with our own corporeality for it has been removed, codified and symbolized into a pictorial format, and further sanitized when viewed in its original context as part of a sermon. Since it is a pre-conceptual force, the abject cannot be represented and therefore defies any form of symbolic articulation, whether linguistic or visual. Some (female) scholars have attempted to read these images in a more positive light, in the tradition of the collapse of self and other that characterized the mode of Buddhist thought called hongaku. In hongaku, there is no such thing as a lesser being, since everything is recognized as one. There are no absolutes and no separation of the qualities of good and evil, ugly and beautiful. Differences are collapsed, and Komachi partakes of the Buddha nature just as the Buddha partakes in hers.

I’m somewhat more suspicious, but in any case it’s not because of a feminist perspective that I want to study images like this. I definitely do – I’ll take a gratuitous decaying corpse over a chocolate-box landscape any day of the week – and Kristeva claims to know why I (more than most) am perpetually drawn to depictions of the grotesque. But reading psychoanalytic theories about deviant emotional and sexual development is probably not a good idea when you’re unhinged. You’re bound to find something that fits; it’s like giving a hypochondriac a medical encyclopaedia and telling them to pick their top 5. Perhaps interpreting my own past according to these theories is just as irresponsible as applying them to pre-modern Japan. Sometimes you just have to close the book.

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This isn’t really going to be about chickens. Let me just say that right now.

shake a tail feather

What it is going to be about is an artist that I am researching for a seminar class this semester, Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800). One of the so-called “eccentric” painters of the Edo period, Jakuchū lived and worked in Kyoto at a time of great innovation and individuality with respect to the development of painting styles. Unaffiliated to any formal school, he experimented with a wide range of techniques and themes, and is particularly well known for his dynamic paintings of chickens. It should tell you something of his skill that he has generated such critical acclaim over a subject matter so apparently mundane. I say apparently, for Jakuchū’s chickens are gorgeous and fantastical polychrome explosions of hyper-realistic detail, or poetic monochrome ink evocations infused with a vitality that elevates these humble birds to the avian status equivalent of a phoenix.

One purpose of the seminar is to identify new avenues of research on this artist, who has experienced a resurgence in popularity since the 1970s and whose exhibitions continue to draw huge crowds in Japan. The methodology that my professor is adopting is to analyze how the construction of a monograph on one particular artist can be used to understand the cultural environment of painting in 18th century Kyoto more generally, whilst bringing to light the problems and pitfalls of the monograph model itself.

How do we go about formulating a monograph? It seems obvious to start with existing biographical data and build up a picture of the socio-historical conditions the artist might have lived in. That is, we place the artworks in “context” to explain why they look like and mean the things they do. We’re fortunate that information from contemporary sources regarding Jakuchū is diverse and according to conventional standards, reliable. He became highly respected in his later years and is accordingly represented in art historical writings of the period that range from historical to the personal.


Born into a merchant family of wholesale greengrocers, at 23 Jakuchū was made the head of the family when his father passed away. His character proved unsuited to running the family business, but this was not the case of the eldest son frittering away the family fortunes on girls or gambling (c’mon, we’ve all been there). Reportedly reclusive by nature, he devoted himself to painting, living as an ermetic lifestyle as possible given his familial responsibilities. Jakuchū’s output really begins from his 40s after he had transferred the business to his younger brother and was able to devote himself to painting full-time. It also seems clear that Jakuchū’s Buddhist beliefs played a major part in shaping his life, since he became a lay monk and led a largely monastic lifestyle. The name Jakuchū, which means ‘like a void’ (I KNOW, delicious isn’t it?) was likely given to him by his friend and supporter, the monk Daiten Kenjō. Interestingly, he seems to have been preoccupied with his own death to an unusual degree – his funeral stele was bought and paid for, erected and inscribed when he was just 51, three decades before his eventual death, and from around this time he was also making payments in order that his annual funeral observances be made, even though he wasn’t yet, you know… dead.

Leaving aside issues of factual accuracy, there is a larger theoretical question about how we approach this information to study his art in the first place. By establishing links between historical circumstances and artworks, the problem often arises whereby a comparative analysis (between social conditions and image) is made causal (social conditions caused the image). Our long love affair with the authoritative written word means that we tend to privilege textual information over the visual, but what grounds do we have to think that these two kinds of representation are fundamentally different kinds of things? When you think about it, any kind of text is subject to the same questions as an artwork is. It was still made by someone for a purpose, whether consciously articulated or not. All historical artefacts are parts of a wider cultural milieu and it is surely better to think of them collectively as a mutually reinforcing network, rather than a one-directional causal sequence. But if everything relies on everything else, then how do we provide art historical explanations for how works of art came to be – do the textual sources provide a context in which to view the paintings, or the paintings provide a context in which to read the sources? And there you have it, the perennial problem of the chicken and the egg (sorry).

If historical texts are creations in the same way that artworks are, what impact does this have for our current project, the construction of a monograph? For some, the various identities that have been ascribed to Jakuchū over recent decades are outgrowths of the social consciousness at the time of their formulation. For instance, the Jakuchū “boom” of the early 1970s was brought about largely by the work of the scholar Tsuji Nobuo, who identified Jakuchū as a member of a ‘lineage’ of eccentric artists in the Edo period. For Tsuji, Jakuchū was a man who gave up the trappings of a materialistic lifestyle and a comfortable life in pursuit of a more lofty purpose. We can interpret this celebration as a reaction to the ‘salaryman’ boom culture in Japan in the 1950s and 60s, just one manifestation of the worldwide economic miracle of the time that embraced a culture of conspicuous consumption. To those who sought an alternative to the consumerist race to Americanize, Tsuji offered an example from within Japan’s own cultural history. In the 1980s, Tsuji’s pupil Satō Yasuhiro offered a new identity for Jakuchū as an individualist who pursued his own goals. This ideal prototype of the individual abandoning his family commitments and forging a personal identity was a reaction against a generation defined by apathetic indifference to the social norms it had inherited.

sizing up the competition

What does this mean for 2010? I am entirely unable to give an account of my own fragmentary state of mind, let alone articulate a coherent thread that could be identified as our contemporary contextual Zeitgeist. We cannot deny that history is written in the present, that is, the historian’s present. The practice of history enables us to articulate and address our own cultural crises; we can’t help but draw the boundaries of historical context according the priorities of our own contemporaneity. A flagrant and individualistic example being my tendency to focus on information that suggests Jakuchū was a reclusive, morbid lunatic, because I am a reclusive, morbid lunatic. We must at least try to be aware of our viewpoints, and the strength of the unconscious influence these may have on our interpretations.

So, what does this mean for us? Well for me really, I’m speaking figuratively. Philosophical quagmires are almost entirely pointless and unless we’re content to sit in self-satisfied silence (I’m proficient in one but not the other) we have to take responsibility and set out our priorities for where we think the boundaries of context should lie and say something, otherwise the question of “context” threatens to devastate the possibility of art historical inquiry altogether. But I’m no chicken.

Bring it.

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drill sergeant

bam bas bat bamis bantis bant

Not much to show for 2 years of Latin I know. A few other remnants lie scattered about my brain, sticking out at awkward angles like ancient fragments of masonry upon which I stumble on from time to time. Ancilla est in atrio. It’s all good stuff. Relevant like whoa.

Fifteen years later, and I am learning another dead language, although hopefully with more diligence than before. Well, I’m not really being fair on my childhood self. I genuinely enjoyed Latin in the first year; I got 97.5% on the final exam – that missing 2.5% was due to a spelling mistake in English, my Latin was flawless (the fact that I still remember this demonstrates how unforgivably unjust I felt this was at the time and moreover my prodigious capacity to bear grudges). My second year teacher, however, was a pure distillation of oh-so-many detestable characteristics, and became a vessel for my nascent hatred of busybody teachers. This feeling grew exponentially over time, overshadowing almost all other elements of my school life by the time I was sixteen. In the petty, misdirected vengeance in which I consider myself somewhat of a specialist, I decided to hate Latin. That’ll teach him.


Classical Japanese, I hope, will not just be a little case of (ancient) history repeating. My teacher, surely as ancient as the language itself, carries an aura of chalk and leather elbow patches on tweed jackets even though both are entirely absent; his constant anecdotes, theories, and musings on various elements of the language as he meanders through the course material is indicative of a life lived through his subject. Barely five minutes will pass before he leans back in his chair to tell us his theory of this particular verb construction in this instance, why Murasaki Shikibu might have used this clause in this passage of The Tale of Genji almost a thousand years ago. These are word puzzles he has returned to regularly over the last half century, and I receive the benefit of all those years of research and experience in an instant. A lifelong advocate of learning, he takes great pleasure in mentioning his former students who are now experts in their own right and continue to teach him new things.

I however, have some way to go before I can hold my own amongst my cohort, let alone be released into the field. In the introductory class, he confessed our study will consist of ‘drill, drill, drill’ – study the conjugation chart, repeat the conjugation chart, become ONE with the conjugation chart (a system of verb endings, prefixes and suffixes arranged in a system of his own devising). It all seems a bit like a grammatical version of the Karate Kid – one day these broken repetitions will flow naturally and then in a brilliant flash the codex will be unlocked (surely to be utilized in fighting unjust monopolistic organisations). For those of us who must study ancient languages for our professions or other nefarious purposes, these linguistic hardships are there to be endured. My field is by no means the most demanding, although I will be required to learn classical Japanese as well as literary Chinese during the course of my study, Byzantine scholars have it far worse. I won’t feel too sorry for them though (not because of the magnificent scope of their field that is revealed to them upon mastery of these languages, you understand, but because it’s not in my nature).

I want a dream lover / so I don't have to dream alone

So what is it exactly that I am learning, I hear you squeal with childish impatience. I will give an example of a poem we recently worked through on the subject of lovers meeting in dreams. For people in the Heian period (794 to 1185), the world of dreaming was not necessarily considered to be less genuine than the ‘real’ world, and the attempt to keep them distinct was not always thought to be a worthwhile endeavour. In the rigidly codified court culture of the time men and women rarely came into direct contact with one another and though love affairs could and did take place in their waking lives, this wasn’t the only possibility. I will keep this discussion brief because a.) it is a subject I am interested in and hopefully will write something on in the future, and b.) because I am conscious that I am competing with the Edith Piaf loop that has probably begun playing in your head as you wait for the ‘kick’.

love of love by the broken hearted

Utatane ni / koishiki hito wo /miteshi yori / yume cho mono wa / tanomisometeki

In a brief slumber / I caught sight of my beloved / and now I cling to / each passing dream

This poem is written by the medieval femme fatale Ono no Komachi, a legendary poet who left lovers in her wake left, right and centre, and certainly knew what she was talking about. Poems of this 5-7-5-7-7 syllable format, known as waka, are often vignettes on the theme of frustrated love. In fact they are so preoccupied with mooning around like an emo pre-teen moaning about how no one can possibly understand your inner turmoil that my Professor calls the construction of waka “An exercise in the finer grades of suffering”. As with classical literature from all regions, we can find reassurance that people of the past suffered the same emotional problems as we do. At least I think it’s reassuring. You could also see our collective lack of emotional development as very depressing. You should write a waka about it.

In my own meandering way I return to my Professor. Even though I am usually just guessing the answers to his questions, I look forward to his classes. No matter the subject, to hear someone speak of something they love is fantastic, and when you add his intelligence, wit, and self-depreciating humour, it is an engaging experience. The trouble is, I get caught up in his anecdotes, his manner of speaking, and when suddenly confronted with, ‘Our resident art historian will now inform us of the causative verb constructions and their forms in this passage’, I look down at my notes in dismay, my scrawl having all the legibility of shorthand written by a monkey in a dead language.

Which basically, is what it is.

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河童の川流れ。– “a drowned kappa” (or, “even experts make mistakes.”)

Within the pantheon of Japanese monsters, one of my particular favourites has to be the kappa.

not if I eat you first

Most likely invented in order to scare children away from watery areas, kappa are said to be stout child-sized creatures that lurk around lakes and rivers, commonly depicted as green, and often with a beak. And oh yes, they eat people. An interesting physiological feature of the kappa (and one which could someday be the key to your survival) is the water-filled saucer-like depression on top of its head. If the depression is somehow emptied, the kappa is powerless. Now, being Japanese, the quickest way to defeat the kappa is to bow to it, a gesture it cannot help but return, and there you go – wipeout. It might not be the most glamorous of finishing moves, but in a cost-benefit analysis, it has to score pretty high. The more ambitious among you might then attempt to refill the saucer with different water, in theory rendering the kappa your servant – although the evidence for this appears to be circumstantial.

My interest in shunga has led me to some strange places, and an occasionally cited example to illustrate the more extreme end of the spectrum of Edo period pornography is a woodblock illustration of the underwater rape of a female abalone diver by two kappa, watched in horror by her companion. The print is one illustration in a selection of twelve produced as a book by the legendary artist-publisher duo of Kitagawa Utamaro and Tsutaya Jūzaburō in 1788.

British Museum OA+,0.133.1

The book is entitled 歌枕 or, “Poem Pillow”, a phrase which usually refers to a significant location made famous through literature, where one might compose a poem in response to those verses from ages past – is here more usually translated as “Poem of the Pillow”, to indicate the sexual connotations of this particular incarnation. Although the copy in the British Museum collection has been remounted as a set of twelve individual prints, originally this work stood as a single whole.

Why am I interested in this print? For the same reason that it was enjoyed by contemporary viewers and for the same reason that you are more likely to expand this image than any of the others that you find amongst these pages – because it’s weird and a bit disgusting. [As you may have already guessed, studying art history is a way to disguise my own interests with the thinnest veneer of respectability.] But I have other reasons too. Partly due to the predilection of earlier collectors to separate and mount illustrations individually, bizarre prints such as these are nowadays subject to be considered in isolation, often with only a passing reference made to the larger work as a means to cite the title. This is a shame for it draws unbalanced attention to the extreme ends of the scale, neglecting the fact that this is but one example among many in a book that contains other representations of sex, almost all between lovers and spouses, although there is also a scene of rape. In other words, it is interesting precisely because it offers up a view of many kinds of sexual interaction; a sexual miscellany for consideration and comparison by the contemporary viewer and also for us. For example, the book also includes the somewhat grotesque depiction of a foreign couple; the artist’s lack of intimate knowledge of the subject offering us a perspectival nightmare of exotic clothing and excessive facial hair, the male partner some kind of forerunner to Tom Jones with his hat kept firmly on. Perhaps the act between foreigners was as alien and hard to imagine as that between monster and human, and as such a source of equal interest and wonderment.

I'm a sucker for a kitty face

A far cry from this pre-modern curiosity, in recent years there has been a sterilization of the kappa image. Most modern Japanese are familiar with the general character of ‘kappa-chan’ (the -chan suffix usually, as here, serves an infantilizing function). That is, far from the sinister figure of old, kappas have become cute, lovable plushies, with rounded bodies and sleepy eyes, ready to be hung as charms on mobile phones or ball-point pens. It’s not that I think there is anything wrong with this in and of itself, but it was still a relief to see the young print artist Fukuda Hiroko’s kappa, all toe curling darkness and dripping menace that he is. My first purchased work of art, was like all my best ideas, a complete accident. I hadn’t intended to buy anything at the CWAJ print show, I was there as a volunteer in my capacity as the recipient of their 2009 IUC scholarship. But I saw it and fell in love with it – the rest, as they say, is credit card history. Of course, my real motivation was not personal satisfaction but pure altruistic benevolence. For one overflowing with social consciousness such as myself, the best use of my scholarship money was to recycle it through the print show and thereby sponsor next year’s student. I’m like a charity.

That’s my story anyway.

love it or hate it, he still hates you

I like this print a lot. Technically, the processes of etching and aquatint achieve an incredible level of detail, and reading Fukuda’s own words only made me enjoy the print more. Like myself, she has a taste for the monstrous, and I look forward to what she produces in the future. Only 23 years old at the time of its execution, she describes how for her, the kappa is a changed thing, caught in some way between being a man and a monster; a dark and forgotten creature lost forever in his own reflections and musings. As we have seen, the status of the kappa itself is ambiguous, and has changed with the ages. But this was a different story altogether about how a kappa might come to be, and the terrible loneliness of the image surely stems from how plausible it seems as an explanation. All the language she uses in her personal account is of liminal conditions and indeterminate states of being, reflecting the ambiguous nature of her creation; the kappa’s world oozes and drips, slimes and leaches. Does he remember being a man? Is knowledge of his own monstrosity worse than forgetting? These are the questions that we can ask as we study him, his posture, his expression, the sense of being he projects – but ultimately, how we feel about the darkness within ourselves will determine our answers.

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Death (s)Mile

I first met the artist Suzuki Hirotaka at a hanami in Tokyo’s Yoyogi park. For those unfamiliar with the custom, a hanami, or ‘cherry blossom viewing’ party, is often a picnic-type affair held in a green space that has everything to do with drinking and hanging out with your friends and almost nothing to do with looking at cherry trees. Instant bonding ensued as we talked about ourselves and our own relationships with art. As the day turned into evening and my liver went into overdrive to keep up, Hiro asked me if I would be interested in writing a piece about one of his works. His first solo show was coming up in a few months, and a publication was on the cards. High on beer and my own conversational brilliance, of course I agreed.

Soon after, some friends and I met at his studio to see the work in question, but also to spend the day drinking, talking, and eating okonomiyaki. Sitting before his major work entitled ‘Death Mile’ Hiro explained to us his motivations for creating it, the meanings behind it, and the painstaking processes involved which required almost 5 years of production time. This is partly to do with his specialized production methods, such as refining his own pigments from rare plants that only grow at certain times of the year. The thing itself is huge, a square canvas several metres across, laboriously covered in layers and layers of different coloured acrylic paints to create skin and tissue like effects, with numerous images of dissected organs applied by transfer. In the centre, there is a large smiley face with a skull for one eye and a compass for the other, the smile itself being composed of 108 tiny colourful figures. Most of which probably sounds quite morbid, but to meet Hiro, full of energy and driven to make others laugh, you know it could never be so. Personally, I love it, and each time I met Hiro over the subsequent months I came to to think about it more deeply, mostly through coming to know its creator as a person.

I wrote my piece (as did my partner in crime) and met the owner of the gallery, as well as a representative of the publisher and the translator to discuss the book project, which will appear in print this November. For now you can read our essays in English, Japanese or Chinese, depending on how ambitious you’re feeling, and link to Hiro’s own website here.

The opening date for the exhibition entitled 『僕は妖精を見た』 (“I Saw a Fairy”) was set for two days before my departure to the US. I helped out with the installation at p-house gallery in Roppongi in the final few days, eager to see the installation process from the artist’s point of view. Working as a museum assistant I have installed plenty of exhibitions, but from a technician’s perspective and under the direction of curators and designers. To watch Hiro select and arrange his pieces in order to create the story that he wanted to tell was a different matter altogether. Getting ‘Death Mile’ fixed onto the wall in the first place took eight people and most of the first day, unwieldy beast that it is. A series of 20 works that reflect the theme of ‘Death Mile’ took up most of the remaining space, the rest of which was filled with Hiro’s preoccupation over the last 6 years, progressively developing representations of 妖精 or ‘fairies’.

Like much of Hiro’s work, these figures are painted in shades of red, blue, green and yellow, a deliberate decision to use the colours that appear in bruised skin. I was especially delighted when Hiro liked my idea that he should paint one of his fairy figures directly onto the wall, high up above one of the beams in the gallery; a secretive little character only to be spotted by the observant (or the roaming eyes of the bored). I’d seen something similar at a craft exhibition a few years before at the V&A – the artist had created incredibly lifelike sculptures of weeds and small plants and secreted them about the historical masonry of the museum. There was just something slightly forbidden and playful about it that made it stick in my mind. We agreed that he should conduct a clandestine mission to accomplish the task away from the eyes of the gallery staff. I mean, they can paint it over afterwards. Jeez.

On opening night, Hiro and I presented our gallery talk together. Now, I hate public speaking – it’s a particular kind of torture, and if someone offered me extreme physical punishment in its place I would gladly take it. But by attempting to calm Hiro’s fears I achieved my own kind of catharsis. Open-mike opportunities to tell people about your passions are few and far between, and I’m determined to try to make the most of them from now on, however much I whine and squeal about it. Hiro was brilliant, I was too nervous, the audience was quite weird – next time I’ll do better. Next time, Gadjet, next time. As an act of revenge against something or other I hit the bar something furious, delighting in my own crapulence if not my academic prowess. This trend continued (with renewed enthusiasm) when I missed the last train, resulting in another accidental all-nighter. We parted in the morning with heartfelt goodbyes and promises for future endeavours.

I hope Hiro and I can work together again in the future. For something as important and memorable as my first publication, I’m glad that it took place amongst the company of friends from beginning to end.

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