Books · Performance & Arts

Against the interpreters

Japan PortraitsJapan Portraits by Carl Randall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has a foreword by zoologist Desmond Morris, whose book
The Naked Ape
made me very angry. He talks about ‘bizarre’ Zen gardens (oh those crazy Japanese!!) and ‘mentally blinkered citizens isolated in a personal cocoon amidst the swarm of humanity’. Characteristically unromantic, unedifying stuff as I’m sure he would proudly agree. His analysis flattens Randall’s experience and response into a literal carnography, a flesh-viewing. It leaves no space to wonder about the black box of the monkey’s brain.

Then it has an introduction by Donald Ritchie, who talks gloatingly about his own feelings towards ‘Japan’ and how Westerners in general feel about Japan. He is concerned to see and point out those feelings in Randall’s drawings, and to point out those that feature attractive women who give him a nostalgia sense of ‘euphoria’. How nice for you, Don.

Just in case you were unsure, this is JAPAN THROUGH THE EYES OF A WESTERNER. I assume Randall is happy with the emphasis, but the self-centring and self-obsessing it implies does not reflect my experience of his work. I do not see hoardes of maladjusted primates (Desmond) or pleasant shadows of my own (or Randall’s) lust (Ritchie). Randall’s attempts to see the Japanese involve the intense scrutiny that walking through the streets cannot provide. His view atomises the crowd, but gives each person a rich inner life by insistently painting every detail of their face, pulling us helplessly into empathy

The strongest exception to this is perhaps the painting in Roppongi Nightclub, where dead-eyed revellers seem to raise their robotic arms in a nihilist salute. Lonely diners and social tea-drinkers elsewhere positively glow with the exciting mystery of fellow humans. In the ‘Tokkaido Highway’ section of the book exotic tourist Japan erupts irresistibly into gorgeous colour, fighting with the startled travellers’ interrupted sense of self as they seek the continuity of identity in the refuge of their phones. In Randall’s drawings, it is as if the subject is caught consciously in the act of being; through the miniaturist’s technique of realising every item of minutia, he creates moments that feel vividly lived by viewer AND viewed, moments of connection in which the artist is humbled by his endeavour to see and know, and the subject is elevated by her monumental, self-knowing personhood.

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