Thursday, April 8, 2021

Telling Stories: Tana Oshima’s Theater of Cruelty

Theater of Cruelty, by Tana Oshima.

“At first I thought my work was about desecration, but instead it became a more complex landscape of human relationships. I hope to put something of these feelings into the portraits that I made of the characters, which were all landscapes in themselves.” – Ralph Steadman

Both English artist William Hogarth in the 1750’s with his Harlot’s Progress and Gin Alley series of lithographs and Thomas Nast, the American cartoonist, in the 1850’s with his biting caricatures of politician Boss Tweed in The Atlantic Monthly were notable and notorious early exponents of using graphic art as a weapon of social commentary. Paradoxically, both of their stellar careers raise an initial question about the popular mode of utilizing incisive graphics to address pertinent issues in a mass marker mode. Why, though, we might ask, is Hogarth considered a great artist while Nast, though highly acclaimed for his depictions that eventually even defeated a corrupt political figure, is still considered a “cartoonist”? 

The very word itself has rich art historical roots, and as exemplified by several contemporary artists, the borderlines between fine art and illustration have undergone drastic reconsideration in the postmodern era. A cartoon (from the Italian cartone and Dutch karton) is a word describing strong, heavy paper or pasteboard drawings used as a design or modello for a formal painting, stained glass or tapestry work. Typically they were used in the production of frescoes in the medieval period, in order to accurately link the component parts of a composition. Such cartoons were subsequently handed over by the artist to a skilled craftsman who produced the final work.

Eventually the technique of illustration evolved into a medium in its own right, especially in print media such as the earliest Punch Magazine examples; and later into single-panel gag cartoons; and finally into multi-paneled comic strips, and what today we have come to call the frequently highly intense art of graphic novels. Over the years, multiple fine artists have embraced a rough-and-ready, even wonky, stylistic technique in a signature modus operandi that became increasingly provocative and thought-provoking. The expressionistic images of the German activist artist George Grosz, especially in his 1926 Pillars of Society series, were among the first to audaciously designate a territory that erased any prior imaginary lines between high art and popular culture, fine art and mass media.

Tana Oshima

Tana Oshima, America-based author of Theater of Cruelty, is one enticing inheritor of this noble tradition of boundary-breaking imagery. Now I do realize from experience that no visual artist likes being compared to another artist or artists (although I seriously doubt that she would object to being compared to Ralph Steadman). However, our job description as culture critics is to provide context, not comparisons, in order to help clarify what their strategy or agenda appears to be. And Oshima is already on record, in her own words, clearly telling us what her works is not: it is not cartoons, or comics, or even graphic novels. But she is still telling us alluring stories:

Theater of Cruelty isn’t a book. It isn’t a comic book. It might just be a painting in a cave someone has been producing for a quarter of a million years, a need to speak and remain. A tangible form taken by certain moments in time with no directionality and no intention to be understood. But only to be seen and felt under a rudimentary firelight. Everything here is beyond the singular. It’s universal and boring and guttural. If I were rich I’d drop 30 copies from a B-29 with a little parachute on each that would say handle roughly and without hesitation. Art is a privilege. Chuang Tzu lived in a harsh cruel world and yet had the courage to dream he was a butterfly. Here, I have to privilege to pretend the butterfly is a cockroach and the privilege to turn that cockroach into something hopefully beautiful, or at least slightly enjoyable.

Having established what it isn’t, we might move onto what it is, or might be. The telling of diverting stories around an electric campfire, perhaps. There is admittedly (and intentionally) no narrative, or characters, or action to speak of in any conventional sequential form, but it nonetheless feels like a montage, a series of interlinked film frames that add up to an overarching story, whether we want them to or not. There are generally four frames or panels per page, making eight frames per spread, but they can be read forwards or backwards with equal pleasure. In the case of these stories, they are actually read by being watched, since some contain captions, titles or phrases, written in a scrawled and deceptively raw handwritten style, as if dictated urgently and transcribed frantically.

I mention Steadman not because they resemble his work at all but because they feel like them, or rather they share a certain emotive vibe with the illustrator of Hunter S. Thompson’s “stories” among many others. Indeed, they also unfold historically within a shared wavelength of some of the earliest experimental self-published fanzines and so-called comics, among them those of several iconic counterculture artists, such as Frank Stack, author of a series awkwardly titled The Adventures of Jesus in 1962, probably the very first self-published zine, or R. Crumb, the eccentric creator of Zap Comix in 1969, or the great Ralp Steadman’s psychotic drawings for Thompson’s Fear and Loathing and Las Vegas in 1971.

But of course Oshima’s work also doesn’t look like Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor (1976), Frank Miller’s Daredevil (arguably the very first so-called graphic novel) and Sin City (1985-95), or Art Spiegelman’s Maus (1991) either, although she clearly finds herself on a harrowing landscape visited earlier on by those artists, with whom she’s obviously familiar. Paradoxically, one she does most comfortably compare with is a fine artist who shows in galleries but whose work skirts the borderline between genres she could probably identify with: David Shrigley, who since 2005 has been contributing suitably outlandishly simple graphic representations (as I call them, rather than comics or cartoons) to The Guardian. But again, her works actually look like nothing you’ve ever seen before, except perhaps in some Jungian-drenched voyage into the collective unconscious, whose images hover on the edges of your eyes upon waking, the same way some words are felt to be on the tip of your tongue but remain unuttered, in daylight at least.

Tana Oshima

Tana Oshima

In a wonderfully titled appreciation, Ryan C.’s Four Color Apocalypse site extols Oshima’s overall graphic virtues for giving us “front row seats” to a disarming spectacle in which we ourselves are the principal performers. In this case, the apocalypse is a miniaturized one, not some distant religious doom but rather the ongoing daily transistorized collapse of meaning in slow motion, occurring in “real” places such as Florida. He refers to Oshima as

a cartoonist who needs no introduction to readers of this site, as I’ve been doing my damnedest to champion her work to anyone willing to listen for the last couple of years now. Her short ‘comic essay’ is densely multi-faceted, as is her custom, offering a rumination on the concept of what’s loosely defined as paradise in a more general sense.

Dostoevsky is a major influence on her storytelling, and she’s emerging as comics’ nearest equivalent to him, which I assure you is no exaggeration even if it sounds like one. Theater of Cruelty, a sprawling yet agonizingly insular look at the vagaries of life that haunt its author and frankly haunt us all, is “solo anthology” comics at their finest, weaving a dense tapestry of darkness from threads of fable, poetry, ancestral memory, and autobiography. As surely beyond classification as it is beyond good and evil, Oshima’s magnum opus leaves you reeling in silence.” In this rare case, being left reeling in silence is actually an accurate assessment and not in the slightest bit hyperbolic.

For those readers who might share my fondness for the caustic but perspicacious eye and Gallic heart of Antonin Artaud, and who will therefore recognize Oshima’s fond borrowing of one of his grandest creations as her title for this new collection of her transmissions from the edge of awareness, I would stipulate that there is indeed an Artaud connection, although it is a subterranean one, as is only fitting for so exotic a case as his otherworldly plays and poetry. But Oshima’s is strictly a this-worldly evocation, which is what makes her little gems so gripping. For Artaud’s ethos, first expressed so forcefully in his Theatre and its Double and Theatre of Cruelty from 1932 and ’38 respectively, is not about cruelty in some literal sadistic sense, but only as in the confrontation with an audience where all aesthetic distance has been eliminated, in an act of “in-your-face theatre.”

And Oshima’s subtle but equally forceful montage of frames, whether moving back and forth simultaneously or merged into an opera of daily life, manages to contain some of the essence of Artaud’s central thesis. Even though he was as batty as a loon, he still saw reality with a considerable clarity, one perhaps not vouchsafed to normal sane people. For instance, he realized the core fact that essentially we are plumbing equipment with consciousness attached. We are like kitchen sinks who can occasionally compose Mozart music or write Shakespearean sonnets, almost by accident, as Oshima explores in a carefully embedded little gem in the middle of her image-flow and what she calls her “plays”: “Artaud Meets Imamura” (a 1960’s Japanese filmmaker best known for the shocking imagery of such films as The Insect Woman, who achieved global acclaim as a gifted purveyor of a unique cinematic voice): “Nothing embodies disembodiment better than the body, a de-territorialized territory where the internal and external, the familiar and the unknown happen simultaneously, a potential zone of the sublime and the terrifying. Eroticism is the theatrical stage on which the body appears and disappears, and it’s in this discontinuity that desire lies. In this play, the stage is the body.” She thus eviscerates the sublime and leaves it pulsating on the page. For the record, intrepid readers intrigued by Oshima’s captivating self-distributed domain of alluring angst, and characters who are also landscapes in themselves, can easily acquire them directly from the artist.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. He is also the author of Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings2018, and Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, which came out in 2020. 




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