An Essay about the Play Japanese event at The British Museum
Written by Travis Mark Riley
PDF version available here: Playjapanese – Foreword by Travis Mark Riley
Entering the domed Grand Court of the British Museum, there is an expectation of a quietly busy atmosphere, a consistent state that represents the British Museum’s temperament and popularity.
On this occasion, the evening of Friday the eleventh of November, something is afoot; the dimly lit court is bustling with bodies, full of noise (people still talk in reverent tones, but there are too many voices for it to be quiet), saturated, not by the usual museum crowd, but by a youthful congregation. Somehow, they have been drawn to the Grayson Perry Late event. The atmosphere is one of high spirits, but it also feels restrained, both by the museum and its culture. A museum under low light is still a museum.
The event is configured around a set of fixed stalls, the majority of which circle the Grand Court, occasionally drifting into further reaching galleries. These anchored structures are interspersed by roaming events and interactive performances that keep the open spaces of the immense room lively, and the punters on their toes. The Great Court stalls surround the grand, central structure that forms the British library reading room, above which there is an exhibition space containing Grayson Perry’s show, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman.
Despite facing out, from all sides at the event below, the Perry exhibition is walled in, and not even its entrance can be seen from the Court. The only visual reminder of its presence behind the walls comes in the form of the museum’s many wall-hanging-sized advertisements. The exhibition is less a central all seeing eye, and more of a guide. It is the God that spawned this event, but now it has become an invisible policeman. Its rules guide the choices of the people below, and its hand can be seen in everything, but only if you are looking for it.
The focus of this publication falls on one particular stall within the larger event. Although its position leaves it adrift in the cavernous, open court, the stall has a manufactured space of its own. It is called Play Japanese, and is stalked by impressive, imposing, aloof women, differentiated from the flock by their eclectic Harajuku costume. Bright make-up, silks, prints, lace, pompoms, sequins, and killer heels collide, making them appear three times the height of their audience. They are the overseers of this small space of exhibition, and their job is to guide the haphazard assemblage of abashed interest that comes their way.
The viewers, turned participants, are instructed to make a Plasticine ‘Netsuke’ in order to receive a paper ‘Omikuji’. They are, for the most part unclear on what these terms mean, but contented by the explanation that they will make a small animal, and in return, receive a fortune. They will make with Plasticine to receive in paper. This is a process of exchange; once they have moulded the Plasticine they join a queue. At its front, the Plasticine models are presented to an overseer; a Harajuku Priestess with a table, upon which stands a small ornate set of drawers. The models are assessed and praised, and must then be placed on shelves to the right. In return the makers receive their promised fortune on a thin strip of paper.
Standing on a frame behind this very ordered tangle of bodies is a large screen with brightly lit, striking images of yet more Harajuku costumed girls. They are posed as models, set against pastel backgrounds, adorned in primary-coloured makeup, and dramatically eclectic clothes. These pictures are distinctly the product of a photo-shoot, and are not far removed from the style expected in a fashion magazine. However, the otherwise immaculate images are deliberately impaired by what appears to be scored or scuffed glass, or scratched Perspex. It is as if the lens of the photo-shoot camera has been compromised, or a barrier placed between it and the girls.
When shown on the flat screen monitor these images create a screen within the screen, a representation of a damaged screen on the screen. This second screen is not pristine or technological, but nonetheless, it is a very evident obstacle between image and viewer. They are marketing shots, but their surface is flawed, so rather than selling something, they seem just to show it. The implication is that of a representation of part of the project that has already passed. It provides influence while the Plasticine is still being moulded, and distracts while queuing for a fortune.
It is a portrayal of the Japanese culture that is being cited in all elements of this piece. Of all fashion cultures, Harajuku, in its exaggerated glory, seems most at home on a screen, and behind glass. The screen, by standing altar-like at the rear of the stall, seems to knit its visual elements together. It is a physical focal point, catching the eye of the participant. It generates the aesthetic that is being put on show, and the culture that is being reconstructed, and disseminates it as a soft glow across the participants in its borders.
The term Harajuku makes reference to the area surrounding Harajuku train station in Tokyo, Japan. It is the area in which the Harajuku youth culture grew up. Outside of location, the most clearly demarcated element of the culture is its clothing, but this is defined as much as anything, by sheer eclecticism. No style is out of bounds, and so, whilst one can ascribe labels within the culture (aka: the goth, the coy, the school girl, the vamp, the glam and the kawaii,) the culture is not limited to those terms, and equally the styles all manage to exist under the same singular cultural banner.
The term ‘character’ regularly appears in reference to Harajuku culture; the styling decisions made by its exponents are nothing if not caricature-ish. The caricature is not empty however, the representation of identity made by the extreme adoption of a clothing style, indeed a style taken to its furthest lateral conclusion, is important.
This is a culture in which working takes precedence over a great deal of an individual’s life; the one day a week allowed away from that work requires a more extreme social interaction. Harajuku fashion is a means by which a sense of character can be gleaned immediately from a person’s clothing. The fashion decisions demonstrate a character representative of, but also adopted by, the wearer.
This form of costume is an immediate reference to Grayson Perry, for it is an extension of visual style (personal or artistic) to an extreme. The attire of the Harajuku overseers contributes to the artwork, and in turn the costumed helpers themselves become inextricable from the event as a whole. This is where the Grayson Perry reference ends however, for these costumes are not representative of their wearers, but rather, are an extension of the choices made in the artwork. Perry does not dress up; he has an alter ego, Claire, who is as much him as he is. Grayson does not need a stylist.
The Play Japanese overseers required styling, especially in order to form a uniform look across the group. Even so, the different Harajuku outfits worn around the stall deliberately demonstrate a differentiation between particular characters, and as such, become a representation of that individual person’s role in the show.
This is an inside out version of Perry. If his art is an extension of himself, and his alter ego is part of himself, then the art is made, in part, by the alter ego. In the case of Play Japanese, the work has been conceived as an extension of an idea, and the wardrobe designed as a response to this. The event is a development of its curators’ ideology, and the Harajuku garments are a further progression from this.
The Harajuku overseers present at the show adopt the persona of their clothes more than the models on screen. On the screen we see girls, model shapes upon which the clothes hang attractively. They perform their role with aplomb, coming to represent both the magazine model, and the Japanese cultural identity on show. However, unlike the overseers, they have not become characters, the screen assures that they can only be two-dimensional visual representations; this is the place that they have been given in the show. Conversely, the overseers’ adoption of the clothing as attitude is one of the key means by which they can fit, performance-like, into the event as a whole. As a consequence of this performance, the overseers lose their own personalities to the art event.
A further struggle with identity is raised in the role of the participants. They have been instructed to make an animal ‘Netsuke’. A Netsuke is a functional element of traditional Japanese attire. It acted as a form of fastening for storage containers hung from men’s robes. Although a Netsuke need not, by definition, be ornate or embellished, there is a history in Japan of decorated and even personalised Netsuke. This is the element that is focused upon in this exhibition. Certainly any practical value of the Netsuke is dispensed with at the point that it is made from Plasticine.
The Netsuke is now a personal statement, and as such the participants are given the impression that their model must be imbued with a sense of identity. They also are informed, however, that they will give up the model once it has been made. Shelves are set up to the right of the fortune counter, and even early in the evening they already are conspicuously filled with the Netsuke of previous participants. The participant makes a unique model in the knowledge that it is to be thrown to anonymity.
What the makers do not know is that the Netsuke also will not be preserved. During the evening the models are crowded onto shelves for display, but will at least remain separable individuals. Afterwards they will again become a mass of Plasticine, similar to their birth. This is not art about a cycle of creation; the models are not kept because they, as objects, are not the most important element of this work. Their purpose ends once they have been produced and shown at the event. What the participant has made is less important than the fact that they have made.
There remains no question that this evening, dedicated to The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, could not be complete without a physical craft output, but the choice of Plasticine, a non-hierarchical material, and the subject of personal identity, assures that the significance in the work is placed less upon the physical output, and more on the process of its creation. Plasticine is a material of childhood making, not of the craft celebrated by Perry’s exhibition. When making, the participants withdraw into the process of creation much like a group of children, who having been given something to make with, suddenly become tranquil. When the self-awareness of the creator is relinquished, and withdrawal into the process of making has occurred, there is a solitary, spiritual focus given over to the formation of the new shape.
These, now spiritual, shapes are given as an offering, part of the transaction that allows the participant to receive an ‘Omikuji’. An Omikuji is a traditional, paper fortune given out at Shinto temples and shrines in exchange for a small donation. This donation would conventionally take the form of money, and as such, the Plasticine model becomes a monetary substitute. The fortune can then be kept, or tied to a frame in order to seal the good luck. Obligingly, a frame is provided here too, facing off with the deposited models, on the other side of the fortune table.
The idea of donation or exchange for Omikuji, dictates the structure of the participatory events surrounding the stall. Somehow, the fortune manages to take theoretical precedence over the making, for if a person wishes to receive their fortune they must make, and so it could be concluded that the only reason to make, must be to receive a fortune. Outside of theory however, the relationship between the two key participatory elements of the piece is more complex.
At an extensive participatory event, there is an inevitable sense of free-for-all, something that even occurs within the order of this stall. It is perfectly possible to make and place a Netsuke without receiving an Omikuji. The structure isn’t so rigidly enforced as to attempt, or wish, to prevent this. Furthermore, the process of model making is the most eye-catching from the sidelines, and takes up a much greater duration than receiving and reading a fortune.
In an event that forcibly takes craft as a central theme, and structural necessity, all of the stalls are read first as craft by the transitory viewer. The Omikuji is an incentive to make, but it also places the process of participation within the work into a spiritual context. The meditative process of model making is rewarded by a traditional spiritual fortune. Ironically, the model making summons transcendent comparisons without needing to reference spirituality, whereas the fortune is a traditional, religion-based construct, that the Western audience would not experience as spiritual had they not been told that they should. It is also not coincidental that, just as Netsuke are a traditional item of the past, so Omikuji have become less prevalently used. They are still present at most temples and pilgrimage sites, but increasingly are not invested with the same level of belief, being more of a superstitious indulgence.
The Play Japanese stall functions as a distinct piece of art, but also contains three separable elements. The elements are completely and deliberately intertwined, but the partitions between them are not hidden. Thus far, the elements of the stall have been investigated as fragments of the work; however, their significance is in their combination. Participants experience the stall as a singular piece of art, and so the unspoken theories and processes connecting the appropriated elements of Japanese culture become just as significant as its more evident constituent parts.
Each separate element of the work clearly speaks of an element of Japanese culture, either present or past, and these provide both a linking factor and a point of contrast in the work. It would be easy to suggest that by deliberately picking up on certain, limited elements of a culture, it becomes generalised or stereotyped, but in this case it becomes broadened.
The viewer understands a little more of the culture, and in doing so, comes also to perceive the breadth of a culture of which they may have little experience. Expansive gaps in information between the three cultural components of the piece are immediately evident, meaning that a space between the given information is exposed and highlighted. Nonetheless, the Nestuke, the Omikuji, and the Harajuku costume, also force an immediate cultural reconciliation onto the work.
The viewer does not need to look hard to find a point of connection, and so the work can be immediately experienced as singular, rather than fragmented. Play Japanese fulfils its title; it is a play on Japanese cultural reference points, and heavily centres on the experience of child’s play within this cultural framework. This is not however, the only significant point of connection within the structures at work in the piece.
The interrelation also lies with the correlation of general cultural or religious practice, and a person’s sense of uniqueness or individuality found within them. The only quality of the Netsuke that is translated into this work is its personalised nature. The Harajuku fashion culture has been appropriated in order to dress the overseers in specific individual styles, and upon making a Netsuke, the very individual overseer gives the participant their own, individual fortune. At all points the general cultural idea is being used in order to highlight the individual in the process.
There is however, another side to this ceremony of making, giving, and receiving. The Netsuke become representative of the process of creation, and an imposition of individuality, but they are then collated into a crowd, a mass-display from which one individual can scarcely be picked out. The Harajuku overseers, are not, as has previously been discussed, dressed in a style that relates directly to them as people, but one that forms a representation of their role within this exhibition, and at the back (on a screen and behind glass) are images showing alternate examples of this attire. Furthermore, everyone is familiar with the idea of a general fortune that is repetitive, broad, and not at all personal. It has been suggested that the idea of Omikuji inspired the invention of the Fortune Cookie. So here we have an apparent collision of ideas. The phenomenon of individuality is represented, but never fulfilled.
Grayson Perry’s exhibition provides a response to this friction. The clue is in the name, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. Perry does not look for named makers, in order to demonstrate the inevitable skill in their work, but picks from the multitude of unassigned works of craft held by the British Museum. In doing this, he makes the point that the craftsman is always remembered, in some form, through their work. “Monuments are meant to commemorate kings and religions, heroes, dogmas, but in the end the man they commemorate is the builder” (the Jacob Bronowski quote inscribed on Perry’s Rosetta Vase).
In looking at a great work of craft the viewer may take note of its point of origin, and the reasons for which it was made, but they also will inevitably see a reflection of its maker, and the skills by which it was produced. In addition, Perry has made a tomb. He wishes to commemorate these craftspeople and to deliberately draw attention to their achievements.
The intrigue however, is attached to their anonymity. The exhibition would not work if the audience knew who they were. Although the craftsmen’s accomplishments have not been lost with the loss of their name, this tomb serves as recognition that their achievements, their works of craft, will still be perceived differently. In essence, by drawing attention to these undesignated objects, Perry highlights their value as equal to those works of known origin, but still maintains their separation.
Even in Grayson Perry’s exhibition the viewer is drawn to search for the distinction between Perry’s art, the craft of a minor art celebrity, and the objects placed alongside it from the museum. At the Play Japanese stall the models are cast to anonymity, but they do retain individual characteristics, and though these are overwhelmed, it is only due to the sheer volume of objects presented by the end of the evening. This is a miniature British Museum collection on a set of wooden shelves; a series of models in a similar styles that all have a form of individual merit. Indeed, they can come to represent the 3,300 Netsuke owned, but rarely displayed, by the British Museum.
This idea can be extended to include the significant cultural references within the work. A society is made up of individuals, but is constructed in such a way as to diminish individuality. An emphasis must be placed on similarities in order to demonstrate a unity within a group. When assessed together, the Netsuke are seen for what unites them, and when they are separated, they are uninteresting fragments.
The overseers dress in a unique style and then stand in a crowd in which no style will entirely stand out. There is a functional need for the exaggerated Harajuku dress, as the overseers need to be separate from the mass in order to unify the stall, and therefore be useful in their role as supervisors. The feeling of making something individual, and losing it to anonymity is that of an individual that does not or cannot stand out. The clothes of the overseers at this exhibition may seem utterly indistinct in the Harajuku area of Tokyo. The cultural reference becomes general at this point. The reference to Japan is clear, and significant, but the work equally demonstrates a more universal characteristic of human society.
Conclusion – Unification/Transaction
We have defined a theoretical point of connection, that of the convergence of specific in the general. This, we have seen, manifests in a surprising simultaneity between the enduring presence of a structure of collectivism and a fleeting moment of individualism. The spiritual process is concurrently a moment of solitary reflection and a group experience. The superficial fashion statement is an alleged individuality that simultaneously encourages social behaviour, and aids cultural or societal categorisation. The broadly generalised fortune finds its application and its truth in the most specific details of the lives of a believer. Beguiling linguistic charm and spiritual backing encourage a slight superstition, even in the most rational person. In the absence of a strongly held spiritual, or superstitious belief, what remains is the personal affect of reading something confidentially significant into something general. This is the experience of the Play Japanese participant.
Play Japanese contains a further agent of connection that has not yet been mentioned. The most prevalent point of unification for the participants on the night was neither the theoretical connection, nor the enforced starting point; it was the singular experience of the work. It is very easy to separate the three distinct cultural reference points in the piece, and their exploration has uncovered the point at which they collide theoretically, however they also combine physically.
The Netsuke is the craft activity that provides the purpose of the stall. The Omikuji generates a point of transaction or exchange; the process of making is given a function. The Harajuku dress provides a demarcation of the helpers, the overseers of the making and of the transaction. This is a remarkably familiar societal structure.
Outside of the museum, the costume becomes a uniform, the Netsuke become work that generates a product, and the exchange is not for luck, but for salary. In organised religion there is an overseer, a costumed leader who conducts solitary or group, prayer, chant, or song, all of which is done in exchange for divine fortune. Religion also has its own Grayson Perry, an invisible policeman, a covert provider of rules.
The use of this structural model provides an extra facet to the aforementioned societal representation within the theoretical aspect of the work, but it also plays a very necessary role during the event. It makes the work unquestionably a single whole that functions on the rationality of societal expectation. It ties three cultural citations, hundreds of participants, several collaborative creators, and the media of Plasticine, the screen, clothing, and paper, into a single transaction.
Tonight we are in the British Museum, but we play society. Through the culmination of our individual worlds into the collective; in our societal transactions, our work, and our religions; our making, our giving, and our receiving; we all are enacted in Play Japanese.
Travis Mark Riley
 The invisible policeman is an elucidation of the morality of God devised by A.C. Grayling. He argues that God polices morality by being an unseen but omnipresent force, threatening post-mortem punishment for those who break the rules. Grayson Perry acts as a similar invisible policeman upon this event, albeit without Grayling’s negative connotations. He is a constant presence that has guided the making of the work, and now will also guide the audience’s reaction. Grayling, A.C. (2002) Meditations for the Humanist. Oxford: Oxford University Press