The strange ecstasy of the city’s ripped backsides
Daido Moriyama symposium in Gothenburg. October 14, 2019
To some of us the big cities are labyrinths of euphoria; a constant glittering overload of the senses. Signs and gestures come at you from every angle. Commercials demand your attention, and you are often forced to navigate like a dancer through the crowds. People rush by in a constant stream, their faces look happy, angry or totally indifferent, and fragments of sentences said to others fill your ears. In the documentary Memories of a Dog from 2010 we get an impression of how Daido Moriyama creates the images he develops into high art. There is nothing staged about the shooting process, it is simply his way of living life and passing the time, drifting through the city with a simple compact camera while absorbing his surroundings. We see him wandering through Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood, where it sometimes appears to be early morning, perhaps on a rainy day, nobody is around, the streets seem melancholic. Sometimes the sun will be out and he will rush down a sideroad towards a strange shadow on a wall. At night we see him in a busier part of the city, where the streets are filled with twinkling lights. His movements seem easy, the routes he follows appear quite random; but we get the impression that there are certain things, certain spectacles, certain kinds of light that he is looking for. In his mother tongue he says to the camera:
I can't photograph anything without a city
I am definitely addicted to cities
Drifting through the big cities of the world can certainly be a very different experience. Visiting Chicago in the late 90s I had no specific knowledge of its neighbourhoods and with a proud and rather brisk strolling technique I crossed town, passing though rich neighbourhoods, poor neighbourhoods, white neighbourhoods and black neighbourhoods. I was guest in the house of an older, privileged white gentleman who looked mortified when I told him where I had been walking. He said: “Never go there, or there! You’ll get killed.” He knew the city and was, I guess, more knowledgable about it than me, but I’m pretty sure he was wrong in his assumptions. I never once felt unsafe, I just maintained my steady pace, while observing the changes in the social fabric around me through the corner of my eye.
In the recent adverts for the brand new circular metroline in Copenhagen, which opened just a few weeks back, we see examples of the amusing collisions between people who are quite alien to each other. One advert, for example, shows a couple of pale-faced goths running into a group of upbeat friends dressed in colourful shirts and singing show-tunes. The ad reassures us: You won’t be bothered by people that aren’t like you for very long. You might meet them, but the meeting will be short. It pretty much sums up the sad, xenophobic spirit of 2019.
In the 1930s Virginia Woolf’s view of London was quite different to the one Copenhagen’s metro company thinks we all feel these days. In her essay "Street Haunting" she describes the joy of walking aimlessly through the city; and it’s clear that in those days a slightly upperclass – and supposedly delicate – woman as she was met with rigid expectations. She actually needs an excuse to walk around aimlessly, exclaiming: "Really, I must buy a pencil!" Woolf was part of a radical group of writers and intellectuals known as The Bloomsbury Group. I don't think any of her friends really wanted to confine her to the non-threatening sensibilities of an English garden. She was obviously looking for some other kinds of flowers, maybe more in the style of the flowers of evil that we know from Charles Baudelaire’s 19th century poetry collection. You could say that Woolf goes slumming, at least, it's obvious how much she enjoys the uninhibited behaviour of the random people she observes on her winter walk through the streets of London. But it's not only about observing the other, it's about actually becoming the other: "We are no longer quite ourselves," as she writes. "You can put on briefly for a few minutes the bodies and minds of others," she continues. These truly are the longings of a strong personality reaching out to investigate that which is other than herself:
What greater delight and wonder can there be than to leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men?
Jumping forward several decades to postwar America in the 1950s we meet another soul eager to lose himself in his surroundings. The beat generation writer Jack Kerouac’s fascination lies perhaps not so much in the big city as in the open roads between cities. In a rather sad television interview from 1968 Kerouac talks to William F. Buckley on his program Firing Line. The topic of the show is the hippy movement, the new emerging counterculture of the 60s, and Kerouac is there to represent the earlier movement of the 50s, the so-called beat generation. Kerouac appears drunk and cannot remain quiet while the other panel guests speak. In a moment of clarity he says that the beats and the hippies are part of the same Dionysian movement. It’s Dionysus at the wheel speeding restlessly across the American continent looking for some kind of freedom. In yet another moment of clarity Kerouac – who is somehow both zen buddhist and catholic – says the exact opposite: “I believe in order, tenderness and piety!” The movement might be Dionysian, but at it’s core there is something pure.
Maybe you could say that a poet takes pictures with his mind. Kerouac was hugely inspired by the jazz music of his time and the speed and the rhythm of the words had to be fast. It was the practice of free association, an expression of the flow of images that filled the novels and poems; these dream-like celebrations of the hustle and bustle of the intensity of life; for instance the trip from Times Square in New York to San Francisco and back again, like clockwork. In his most famous novel On the Road from 1957 Kerouac puts his friend Neil Cassady at the centre of the story. Cassady, who is called Dean Moriarty in the novel, is an upbeat cool cat with a lust for life, just like Kerouac, tall and dark with the pretty face of a romantic actor or maybe a thrill-seeking boxer. In photos they look like brothers, and they were indeed brothers in spirit, although Jack was a bit more shy and withdrawn than Neil. It must have been like meeting your alter ego, some kind of extreme version of yourself, and that is most likely the energy that drives the novel: The mirror image of Neil at the wheel, someone other than Jack himself as the main focus; someone to experience things through, much like a doll, a representation. Jack experiences Neil through his eyes and ears, like one long photo shoot of Jack’s mind being in love with Neil. To him Neil is pure music. His way of talking excitedly, a kind of rap or scat song, becomes the very expression of the optimistic Zeitgeist of the 50s.
We remember the 50s for its jazz and poetry, but it was also the age of street photography. In 1959 the late Robert Frank, who passed away at the age of 85 in September this year, caught some of the central players of the beat generation with his camera in the playful short-film Pull My Daisy. Around the same time his famous photo book The Americans was published. For this project Frank travelled through 48 of the North American states documenting all sorts of life unfolding. You could easily say that On the Road and The Americans are parallel projects with a great deal in common. But where a novel often reports from the interior vision of particular subject and it’s specific group of friends and relations, a project like Frank’s portrays Americans from all walks of life. Typically ways of living that were perhaps less visible in the mainstream media of the time, like for instance the traditions of the black population in the South. You might think that Frank was intruding, stalking funerals, going places he shouldn’t; just like his fellow photographer William Klein who went up to Harlem, a place he perhaps didn’t belong and where the good people of Harlem were likely to reject him as an intruder. We remember that Virginia Woolf needed an excuse – the pencil – to go on a stroll in London, and street photographers similarly use the camera as an excuse to cross invisible lines and make contact with people who might live radically different lives than themselves.
Kerouac was certainly thrilled by Frank’s work. It was like he’d found yet another brother in spirit, and his excitement is easy to gauge from the short introduction he wrote for The Americans. Here Kerouac notes that Frank…
… with the agility, mystery, genius, sadness and strange secrecy of a shadow photographed scenes that have never been seen before on film. For this he will definitely be hailed as a great new artist in his field. After seeing these pictures you'd end up finally not knowing any more whether a jukebox is sadder than a coffin.
The two men also went on road trips together. In an essay by Elsa Court called “Off the Beaten Track: Jack Kerouac on Robert Frank” published in the magazine Moveable Type we get a very good impression of the differences in the way the writer Kerouac and the photographer Frank worked. Court cites, from Kerouac’s notes about Frank, that he would move about the side of the road taking pictures, “prowling like a cat, or an angry bear, in the grass and roads, shooting whatever he wants to see” as he, the writer, remained seated inside their parked car, bewildered, looking at him. Kerouac is clearly impressed, but he also makes Frank look rather like an aggressive big-game hunter, acting quite differently to his own laid-back way of observing life. He continues:
Outside the diner, seeing nothing as usual, I walked on, but Robert suddenly stopped and took a picture of a solitary pole with a cluster of silver bulbs way up on top, and behind it a lorn American Landscape so unspeakably indescribable, to make a Marcel Proust shudder. How beautiful to be able to detail a scene like that, on a gray day, and show even the mud, abandoned tin cans and old building blocks laid at the foot of it, and in the distance the road, the old going road with its trucks, cars, poles, roadside houses, trees, signs, crossings. Little details writers usually forget about.
Once again we leap forward a few decades to the 70s, but we stay firmly in American landscapes. Can you call punk a Dionysian movement? I would say both yes and no. When the flower power movement was at its strongest in San Francisco the sentiment in the New York streets was not as dreamy. The Velvet Underground, a strange band that dressed a lot like beatniks, primarily in black, started out in the 60s, but their most prominent member, Lou Reed, became an icon for the punk movement. His solo albums from the 70s are now classics, particularly his debut Transformer from 1972, where he worked with David Bowie, who is credited as a producer. When thinking about The Velvet Underground you may well imagine a yellow – or maybe pink – banana floating in the air before you; the stylish motif on the front of their debut album from 1967, produced by pop-artist Andy Warhol, who was also the genius behind the banana cover. Before the band got that far they were more of a performance group, a sadomasochistic multimedia spectacle called The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. While the hippie stage-aesthetic meant behaving as naturally as possible and letting it all hang out, the New York scene was in favour of the artificial – plastic and glitter, and avant-garde effects. Warhol’s movies were projected in the background and a punishing strobe light-show forced everybody in the room to wear dark sunglasses. The specific theatricality of the underground rock show was invented right there.
In 2013, New York was celebrating punk rock’s 40th birthday, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Central Park – who usually hold a spring fashion gala where the red carpet seems to be the most important part – was this year celebrating the weird invention called punk rock, which first roamed the streets in the late 70s. The show was simply called Punk: Chaos to Couture, and pink posters were spread all around the city. The exhibition was focused on punk fashion, but two installations stood out: A reconstruction of the famous London fashion boutique, owned by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, and – this is where it gets weird – the actual bathroom from the rock club CBGB’s in the Bowery; the club where acts like Television, Patti Smith and the Ramones created the scene that was quickly named punk. CBGB’s is no more, after closing in 2006, but if you land at Newark Liberty International Airport on the New Jersey side of the city you might be pleased – or appalled – to find a replica of the exterior of the club now fronting a tacky burger bar. In many ways it’s a fitting tribute. The extremely paradoxical movement that we call punk could never agree with itself – unable to claim 100% authenticity or 100% pop-art-like artificiality.
New York can be proud of many things, but the invention of Iggy Pop has nothing to do with it. Iggy & The Stooges started out in Ann Arbor – sister city to Detroit – in 1967. Like The Velvet Underground the theatricality of their stage shows became increasingly important. The focus of attention, the singer James Newell Osterberg, aka Iggy Pop, began exhibiting a rather dangerous stage act, for instance rolling in broken glass and cutting himself. This shift towards sadomasochistic pain was perhaps an attempt to wake up from the fluffy hippy dream. My rather long punk excursion was actually inspired by just one song – “The Passenger” – featured on Iggy Pop’s solo album Lust for Life from 1977, also produced by David Bowie. The song beautifully describes the dark and dangerous attraction of drifting through a city landscape at night:
Get into the car
We'll be the passenger
We'll ride through the city tonight
We'll see the city's ripped backsides
We'll see the bright and hollow sky
We'll see the stars that shine so bright
The sky was made for us tonight
Returning to Warhol and Reed I often think of this sentence from the song “Open House” on the album that Reed and John Cale made in 1990 called Songs for Drella, dedicated to the life of their friend Andy Warhol. Warhol’s art sprang from the strange intersections between art, advertising and celebrity culture. Sometimes it can be hard getting your head around pop art. How can you possibly be so thrilled about the emerging consumer culture. But if you hug and embrace something so fervently it can somehow turn into a form of irony and critique. Warhol’s subversive “hugging” of celebrity culture unfolded in his art space The Factory. Andy loved both art people and street people: “Oh, you’re so wonderful!” The embrace of the drag queens’ glamour was Warhol’s subversive comment on the ridiculously wealthy Hollywood star factory. In “Open House” – a slow and mysterious song with a bass drone in the background – Lou Reed gently sings: “There are no stars in the New York sky. They're all on the ground.”
Since I've never been to Tokyo it is the imagery of New York that fills my mind when I think about big cities. Right now, in October, the New York streets are neither too warm or too cold. You can for instance take a walk around Greenpoint or Brooklyn Heights and look at the awesome halloween decorations and maybe later in the month participate in the Halloween parade around the East Village. The French scholar Michel de Certeau contributed to the New York mythology with some clever thoughts in his book The Practice of Everyday Life published in French in 1980 and translated into English in 1984. Certeau reads the city like it was a text:
On this stage of concrete, steel and glass, cut out between two oceans (the Atlantic and the American) by a frigid body of water, the tallest letters in the world compose a gigantic rhetoric of excess in both expenditure and production.
In 2019, urban city planning is really taking off. In cities like Oslo and Bergen every single line of these fancy new buildings will correspond perfectly to the shape of the mountains beyond. Is it a combination of megalomania and city planner’s use of computer animation techniques that give me the impression that nothing here is coincidental; that I’m in fact walking inside some huge art installation? Certeau was aware of this trend in the 80s. The London that Virginia Woolf enjoyed was really not thought out “from above” like cities are nowadays. Back then London was pretty much a jumble of houses piled together. Certeau notes that the skyscraper view of the streets inspired the architects to think of the city from a God-like perspective; something Certeau calls The Concept City. Certeau brilliantly combines studies of architecture, semiotics and performance and refers to the city as though it is giant text and a stage – which it more-or-less is, of course. But how can you escape the all-seeing eye, how can you escape responding to the clever plans that tell you to make your way through the city just as some smart architect predicted that you would? We, the ordinary practitioners of the city, are not visible from above. We become a potentially subversive element, moving around in the subtext of the city landscape. Certeau refers to us like this:
They walk – an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers. Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and the thins of the urban “text” they write without being able to read it. These practitioners make use of spaces that cannot be seen; their knowledge of them is as blind as that of lovers in each other’s arms.
We move about in the parts of the city where we are invisible from above. We cannot be controlled. We are what’s lacking in the text, our restless movements cannot be traced. At least that was what Certeau concluded in the 80s. The best way to avoid detection in 2019 might include getting rid of your mobile phone. To Certeau we are essentially homeless:
To walk is to lack a place. It is the indefinite process of being absent and in search of a proper. The moving about that the city multiplies and concentrates makes the city itself an immense social experience of lacking a place.
And this is perhaps a good place to return to the work of Daido Moriyama. It is impossible not to think of the stray dog that Moriyama caught with his camera one early morning right outside his hotel. The weird expression on the animal’s face sticks with you for a long time. Little did the dog know that it would become such a sensation in the art world.
Teksten er skrevet på bestilling fra Hasselblad Foundation i anledning af at Daido Moriyama modtog årets Hasselblad-pris 2019. Den er siden korrekturlæst af Matt Bagguley.