Social Class 9

Posted on Thursday, March 14, 2013, under , , ,

Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering - because you can't take it in all at once.

Audrey Hepburn

Today started with a touch of innocence when I lifted the window blinds. There was a boy in the street with his mum, both waving at the passing rubbish collectors (Japanese equivalent of bin-men) who in turn waved heartily back. Such an endearing sight, as if straight from the tacky alleys of Disneyland. Except this was a show of a child’s genuine wonder. And no wonder these men in pastel-green uniforms turned at once dignified and impassioned.

Such scene would be harder to imagine in the gritty environs of, say, any impoverished country in Asia. North Korea would be an obvious exception, where I imagine schoolkids are told to wave red flags and sing songs of praise as the proud rubbish collectors cruise the streets, picking whatever meagre waste there is to pick.

The weather was absolutely gorgeous today – crisp, sunny, the air feather-light. At about 2 pm I decided to make my move. I got on a bike and cycled to downtown Kyoto. I had previously made a tentative plan to pay a visit to this particular art gallery, based on their poster which showed a urban scene from an unidentified country, presumably in the southeast Asia.

The gallery was somewhat difficult to locate as it was tucked in on the third floor of a nondescript block of flats – simply a flat converted into a gallery space. I opened the door without knocking. There was nobody inside apart from a woman at a desk behind a sort of folding screen (she was constantly on the phone during my 10-minute visit). When I entered she protruded her head from behind the screen and we smiled in acknowledgement.

The installation itself consisted of a 3-minute video loop projection (shot by a car-cam) and about a dozen of photograph prints depicting peopled cityscapes. Those taken on the streets of Vietnam (presumably Hanoi, the Old Quarter) were the most striking. The author, John Einarsen, is partial to blue-collar folks going about their daily routine – be it twiddling thumbs at a bird shop, washing pots and plastic potties, or revolving pieces of meat on a skewer.

Each (neatly framed) print actually carries a price tag of ¥20.000, that’s about €200. That these ‘photographic items’ are on sale is hardly surprising in our age of global commercialism. I imagined what sort of people would want to buy prints of the impoverished metropolitan ordinariness. The same middleclass philistine, I thought, who finds the aesthetic value in the exoticism of the under-privileged. The same sick middleclass kind who would hang these photos on their bedroom wall to glance at while having their middleclass shag in their middleclass comfy beds. That’s who, I thought.

And yet, to the casual observer like myself, these scenes also deliver a touch of colour, or at least the kind of surreal absurdity almost exclusive to the poorest stratum of any society. On one photo there is an untieable knot of umpteen electric and telephone wires that can be tolerated only by the ‘underclass’ and that makes you think how on earth they were put up there in the first place. On another there is a man’s head sticking out of a house tarpaulin cover and under him a street vendor with hands in his pockets and a body posture of someone who couldn’t care less. On another there is a cat trapped in a birdcage. On another there is laundry drying on a clothes line sponging up the smoke from a grilled meat takeaway underneath.

This kind of pathos evokes Italian and Yugoslav social satire films from the 60’s and 70’s. Directors like Fellini, Pasolini, Aleksandar Petrović, early Kusturica. But one particular film sprang to mind while I was at the gallery, that by Ettore Scola: ‘Brutti, sporchi e cattivi’ a.k.a. ‘Ugly, Dirty and Bad’ (1976). This was one of my favourites back in my formative years – I remember how we used to act out the whole scenes by heart. This synopsis from IMDB sums it up pretty well:

Four generations of a family live crowded together in a cardboard shantytown shack in the squalor of inner-city Rome. They plan to murder each other with poisoned dinners, arson, etc. The household engages in various forms of sexual idiosyncrasies, land swindles, incest, drugs and adultery.

Here we go: the (in)famous part in which the family has for once united in order to poison their miserly head of household, magnificently portrayed by Nino Manfredi. Warning: definitely NOT for the squeamish.

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