Archive for the ‘Visual Art’ tag
These are the last ten minutes of the movie ‘Syndromes and a Century’ (Sang Sattawat, 2006) by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The movie is mainly located in two hospitals: one in rural Thailand and and the other in Bangkok. The geographical distance between these locations is further emphasized by the temporal divide that separates the two parallel yet interconnected narratives: the Bangkok medical centre is representing the present and the rural hospital is set 40 years in the past. Throughout the film, Weerasethakul makes various references to Buddhist visual culture, iconography and theology such as reincarnation and an after life. The viewer is becoming an unwitting participant to the belief that life is lived in cycles as scenes set in the past are, towards the second part of the movie, repeated with uncanny similarity in the present. By this stage, the viewer is entranced by Weerasethakul’s meditation on the ambiguous division between past and present, life and death.
The closing scene of ‘Syndromes and a Century’ is set in the Bangkok hospital: the harsh fluorescent lighting and the formal symmetry of the hallways are emphasizing the reality of living in a modern city. Somehow lost in this maze of corridors and hallways appears an elderly lady sitting at a desk. In the next shot, the movie cuts to a young woman exiting a door. The sound of the door banging in the frame and the woman’s heels clicking on the linoleum floor penetrate the otherwise monotone background music. The same door opens again shortly after and a young man sheepishly enters the hallway. This ambiguous and rather hidden reference to a possible sexual encounter between two doctors in the basement of the hospital also underlines the difficulties of working under strict censorship laws in Thailand. When the movie was released in Thailand, censors demanded that a total of four scenes should be edited out: one showed doctors consuming alcohol, another showed doctors kissing.
As the music intensifies, the camera documents a patient seemingly lost in the hallways and a member of staff daydreaming at her desk. As the camera pulls away from the desk, the viewer is invited to join the director on a meditative and hypnotic exploration in visual culture. Set in a smoke filled room in the basement, the camera turns in a circular motion as it depicts the harsh fluorescent lighting mounted on the ceiling. A drilling machine briefly shown in the corner of the room is emphasizing the point of this hypnotic scene as the director wishes to penetrate the viewer’s mind. The camera then slowly focuses on a vent that is ominously sucking in the smoke filling the room. As the smoke is being sucked through the vent, the spectator as well is closing in on the vent via the tracking shot. Here, the director engages in a visual analogy by substituting the smoke with the gaze of the spectator. The vent isn’t as much sucking smoke, rather, it’s sucking our gaze. By holding that shot for a considerable length, it appears that Weerasethakul insists on displacing, confusing even alienating the viewer. The mise-en-scène creates a position of vulnerability and even hauntedness.
Despite appearing to break from cinematic conventions, some comparisons for this key scene in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ can be made in global cinema. The hypnotic music for instance is strongly reminiscent of a movie by David Lynch – a director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is often compared to. More specifically in reference to the tracking shot, Jean-Luc Godard for instance made inventive use of it, most famously in ‘Contempt’ (1963) or ‘Weekend’ (1967). Other filmmakers such as Alfred Hitchcock in ‘Frenzy’ (1972) or Martin Scorsese in ‘Taxi Driver’ (1976) appear to use Godard’s method of tracking the camera quite unexpectedly away from the cinematic narrative. In these cases, rather than following the plot, the viewer is forced to follow the vision of the filmmaker. In ‘Frenzy’, the camera moves away from a door to an apartment in anticipation of the suspense hidden from the viewer unfolding inside the apartment. In ‘Taxi Driver’, Robert de Niro talks on the phone with his girlfriend as the camera slowly moves away from him, focusing on an empty hallway that de Niro is yet to enter. Here the tracking shot helps to foretell a narrative that is yet to unfold.
It is the hypnotic character of the tracking shot in ‘Syndromes and a Century’ however that appears to have very few cinematographic precedents in global cinema (an exception might be Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ from 2006 where a long shot shows a prison guard scrubbing the floor). Rather than guiding the viewer through the plot of the movie, the point of the hypnotic tracking shot is to create a complete visual and narrative break. It becomes the visual equivalent of an exclamation mark. By the time the smoke sucking vent is shown in ‘Syndromes and a Century’, the viewer has already suspended all preconceived ideas what the experience of cinema should be. While the cinematography could be read with reference to a Buddhist signifying system (the smoke might refer to incense symbolic for the fragrance of pure moral conduct), I believe that Apichatpong Weerasethakul wishes to literally pull the viewer into his world, no matter what their belief system might be. In a sense, the hypnotic tracking shot is more about the art of cinema than it is about the film itself. This playfulness, an aspect Weerasethakul inherited from his practice as exhibiting experimental film artists, allows us to re-consider the parameters of global cinema which is, rather than merely depicting a story, first and foremost a visual experience.
In Nadav Kander’s photographic series ‘Yangtze, The Long River’, depicting China’s largest and culturally most important river, bridges are a re-occurring theme. In above photograph the huge but yet unfinished structure of a bridge represents China’s economic emergence. The two sides of the bridge also signifies two ideologies, communist and capitalist, the meeting point of which is yet to be discovered. And while the state is seeking for an agreeable convergence for such paradoxical ideologies, it is the people, throughout Kander’s work, that appear overwhelmed by the (state) structures they are surrounded by. Here, Kander also appears to focus on an encounter between ‘new’ and ‘old’ China: the wires hanging off the giant bridge are mirrored by the fishing lines held by the people below.
The structure of the bridge also evokes the proscenium arch located above a theatre stage. Following this visual allegory, the people standing below become performers to Kander’s camera further underlining the dominant trope of grandeur explored in the photographs. The Long River, as the Yangtze is called, requires structures that can cope with the unpredictability of nature. The bridge thus appears to represent the desire of the state to control nature, but also, to control its people. The most extreme form of such control can be seen in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest electricity producing dam in the world. The Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky already photographed the surroundings of the Yangtze in his photographic series ‘Three Gorges Dam Project’ in 2002. While Burtynksy concentrated on the destruction of communities and the subsequent displacement of people caused by the building of the dam, Kander, on the other hand, chooses to depict a landscape that is yet to be completed.
Despite Kander’s fascination with the built environment which, in turn, vigorously expresses China’s economic might and aspirations, the photographs represent a fragile world. In above photograph, a bridge segment appears to balance precariously on a single pillar at a few hundred meters altitude. The scaffolding similarly suggests that these structures, as enormous they might be, are built on fragile ground. The folkloristic powers ascribed to the Long River threaten the very structures built by the state. It is perhaps a pessimistic interpretation of Kander’s Yangtze, that the bridging of ideologies will require more than concrete and steel.
Nadav Kander: Yangtze, The Long River is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
Tokyo is a city made for the homeless. In the winter, it rarely gets below freezing and the summers are hot and humid. The infrastructure of the city supplies abundant opportunities for shelter, whether its under a bridge, along the rivers or in the parks. Even the smallest public parks are equipped with toilets that are free of charge. Fresh water is available almost anywhere. Convenient stores sell packed noodles for as little as 100 yen (more or less a dollar). The hot water required to cook the noodles is again free of charge. Most small restaurants dispose of their leftover foods in bin bags left on the street over night. The circle line can be used to rest during the day time. The trains are also the place that supply a potential income to the city’s homeless men – and they are mainly men. Magazines left behind on the trains are collected and sold on to a central collection booth which sells the magazine back to the public. This creates a cycle of consumption from which the homeless can benefit. The term homeless therefore has different connotations in Japan, since, depending on the level of organization, some men have a daily income, have built permanent shacks and are part of a living community. There is no begging, no busking and, on the face of it, no crime.
Ryuji Miyamoto’s series of photographs called ‘Cardboard Houses’ depicts the living spaces created by the city’s organized homeless. The project began in the late 1980s but came to full fruition in the mid-1990s, just as Japan suffered from an economic crisis and the homeless population of Tokyo grew rapidly. Miyamoto is mainly known as an architectural photographer which might explain why he concentrated on the structures created by the organized homeless, rather then the homeless themselves. His cardboard houses are a typology of structures reminiscent of the ‘Water Towers’ by Bernd and Hilla Becher. Even his choice of black and white film, plate camera and silver gelatin printing techniques are an homage to the New Objectivity propagated by the Bechers. The view is supposed to be detached, objective, straight, uncompromising and cold. The photographs are meant to be documents that might inform the viewer on the cardboard chosen for the shacks or where the shacks have been built. Miyamoto observed that the cardboard houses are predominantly located in the cracks that the megalopolis Tokyo supplies in abundance. While Becher’s water towers are fully exposed to light, space and the lens of the camera, Miyamoto’s cardboard houses are usually next to, under or in between structures.
While Miyamoto photographed the living structures of the organized homeless, Manabu Yamanaka photographed the other end of extremes of Tokyo’s homeless population. In his artist statement Yamanaka points out that the subjects for his photographic series ‘Arakan’ wandered aimlessly through the city, lost the ability to communicate and had no bedding or clothing except for what they were wearing. Particularly Yamanaka’s observation that his subjects were ‘shuffling along because of malnutrition’ evokes the harrowing image of concentration camps victims. Giorgio Agamben’s analysis of the figure of the Muselmann describes men in the Nazi concentration camps who have lost their senses through malnutrition, emotional and physical abuse and have become a limit-figure between life and death. In reference to the etymology of the word Muselmann, the ‘Muslim’ is a figure who has totally submitted himself to the way of god. The title of the photographic series ‘Arakan’ also equates the homeless men to an encounter with god. Derived from the Sanskrit word Arihan (ari=enemy, han=kill), the Arakan is the highest goal attainable to those practicing Theravada Buddhism. In other words, the Arakan has ‘killed’ his ‘enemies’ greed, anger and delusions. Photographer Yamanaka writes that his subjects have severed all ties to the flesh and practice assiduous austerity. It is perhaps a more romantic interpretation of the homeless men that he photographed, as if it is a choice of lifestyle rather than a consequence of mental illness.
The white background in Yamanaka’s photographs also evokes Richard Avedon’s classic photographic series ‘In the American West’. Avedon too trained his lens on those considered to be marginal. But his is an extremely stylized vision of the human condition. Yamanaka’s photographs on the other hand are full with technical flaws such as scratched negatives, underexposure or out-of-focusness. In a sense, these photographic attributes underline the very condition of the people that he photographed. In other photo projects as well, Yamanaka has displayed a propensity towards extreme subject matters. His work could be regarded as exploitative and voyeuristic. The automatic reaction when encountering one of Yamanaka’s homeless men might be to look away, so base has their existence become. Instead, Yamanaka forces us to look at them, reminding of us of their existence in one of the most highly developed and industrialized countries in the world. Whatever the view of Yamanaka’s homeless men, they do exist and operate, even in the homeless community, on the very margins of human existence.
Gyahtei: Yamanaka Manabu Photographs is available as a book. Other recommendations can be found in our online bookshop.
If you are interested in Japanese photography, please download my essay:
Marco Bohr (2011). ‘Are-Bure-Boke: Distortions in Late 1960s Japanese Cinema and Photography’. Dandelion Journal. Vol. 2, No. 2.