Dreams of Debut

Recently, a friend of mine joined the ranks of Japanese anime culture lovers.  He has been excitedly telling me all about his new findings, most especially his surprise at the large differences in relationships between Japanese and Western culture.

For instance, how important confessions of love are.  Also, that following a confession of mutual feelings, the relationship naturally progresses into one of officially, exclusively, dating.

I sighed and simply observed his shock as he recounted these observations to me.  To me, these weren’t shocking in any way.  Although my formative pre-teen and teen years were spent in North America, I had grown up with these ideals captured in Japanese anime/manga culture.  My expectations of society, high school, relationships and more were significantly shaped by my heavy consumption of Japanese manga; creating a little bubble that cushioned me from North American practices until I confronted them head on at a later stage in life.


Japanese manga/anime culture (I have lumped the two distinct media together as genres, themes and even plots or series are shared between the two) encompasses a broad range of genres, but the one I sunk my teeth into as a female pre-teen/high school student was (unsurprisingly) shoujo.  Shoujo directly translates as “young girl”, which refers to its target audience.

Many shoujo plots are set in un-extraordinary, every-day settings like contemporary Japanese high schools.  Romance is almost always core to the storyline and achieving it tends to rely on a few recurring themes and plot devices.

The “high school debut” is one of these common themes.  Entering a new high school, which makes up the last three years of secondary education in Japan, offers characters an opportunity to start afresh and embark on new adventures.  A huge hype builds around entering high school because characters are able their past flaws or leave behind dark histories to present their ideal selves to their new surroundings: their peers at high school.  Whatever first impressions characters leave can drastically impact their social life, making or breaking their important high school experience that marks a bittersweet transition into adulthood (further education in university or work).

Having said that, the high school debut is quite flexible because it doesn’t necessarily have to take place at the start of high school, it can take place during high school as well.  In many cases, this ties in the makeover (another common theme).  Similar to entering a new school, the makeover offers the character new opportunities as it redefines the relationships the character has with their surroundings, given the change in their appearance or personality (e.g. increased confidence, resulting from the change in appearance).

Both the debut and the makeover work towards the single most important goal of shoujo manga: romance.

To compare it with North American culture, I’d say that the high school debut idea in Japanese manga/anime is quite like college films.  More than North American high school films, college films seem to capture the excitement of new surroundings and finding a place in life.  As for the makeover idea, that’s common enough in North American culture as well!

So, the high school debut can happen at any point during high school.  And oh, how I hoped and kept hoping for my time to shine.  Be it my first day in high school, school dances, camps, special field trips – I saw all these breaks from regular school as opportunities for a change in the relationship between myself and my peers.  To finally make my high school debut, a splash that would signal a new chapter of my life and hopefully, the beginnings of romance.

And yet, nothing.

I never confessed.  Never dated.  Never had any romance or near-romance of any sort that made me incredibly anxious or nervous like it made the female protagonists in the dear mangas that I read on a daily basis.

I finished high school, subconsciously slightly disappointed at how lacking my experience was in contrast to all the expectations I had.  I never had a high school debut, makeover, or romance where I blossomed into the full expression of myself.


A few pages from the sketchbooks I kept throughout high school – further evidence of how deeply anime/manga permeated my life, inspiring me to emulate the drawing style and copy favourite characters in my art.

 

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Letter to an enemy

Dear Lord Elgin,

At first I thought you were just one of many white men that had a street named after you for goodness knows what historically important reason that nobody can recall anymore.  Then, I found out that you weren’t just any old, dead, white man.

As someone who identifies as Chinese, you are horrid person in my history books because you commanded British forces during the Second Opium War.  You ordered the destruction and ravage of the Summer Palace, an extraordinary, fantastical sample of Western-Chinese hybrid architecture.  Thanks to you, the expansive compound amounts to a pile of dirty, grubby rubble today.

Ever since I learned of the things you did, I saw you as an enemy.

It wrecked my heart to walk on the street that bears your name in Ottawa.  It’s at the heart of my country’s capital, because apparently you were a decent Governor-General.

However, I know now that perhaps you aren’t the enemy.  Hating you and your legacy will do me no good.  You are a part of history and a ghost, but nothing that should ever strike fear or sorrow into my heart because I will make sure that no one ever does something like you did.

I will not aim to actively tarnish your name, but I will endeavour to tell people about the not so pretty things you did, in sum, rampaging around the Qing empire.  I won’t advocate to change the name of Elgin Street in Ottawa, but I won’t forget that you were commander of British forces in the Second Opium War before being Governor-General of Canada.

For Lord Elgin, while you may not be my enemy, you certainly are not my friend.


This post was in response to the following writing prompt: write a letter in response to the first word that pops out on page 29 of the nearest book.  For me, “Enemy” screamed out from a chapter title in Vanity Fair.

I’ve been thinking a lot about modern Chinese history as a result of a course I am taking.  I’ve talked about some of my struggles with this part of history in an earlier post: Hurt.

Dear Canada on 150

Dear Canada,

This letter will probably get lost on its way to you, as it’ll never find its addressee.  That’s because who really knows what you, the addressee, actually is?

Today, most people across your vast landmass will elatedly wish you, “Happy 150th Birthday!”  These people and others Canadians across the world will throw great parties and barbecues, attend spectacular public events like parades and festivals, all in the honour of your birthday.

Let’s be plain and open here.  You know as well as I do that you’re not exactly 150 years old.  This 150th anniversary that people are celebrating this year is in fact the 150th anniversary of confederation, in which four provinces formed the Dominion of Canada.  An important step in the creation of the Canada that we know today, but not exactly Canada by this same virtue.  Confederation of Canada was just a stage in the development of Canada.  Other provinces and territories joined later.

Heck, if we’re making a big deal out of Confederation, which is just one key date in your growth, what kept us from making a similarly big #Canada150-sized deal out of April 1st, 2017?  That was the 18th anniversary of the establishment of Nunavut.  The Nunavut Act and the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act created Nunavut, your newest territory and latest geo-political region to join you.  In other words, the Canada and its internal subdivisions that we see on the map has only been around since 1999.

If we put aside the exact meaning of the date aside, and take this anniversary as an opportunity to broadly celebrate the awesomeness of Canada, then I beg you to answer to this question: What about you are we celebrating?  What are the traits that make Canada awesome and worth celebrating?

One of your defining features seems to be how you embrace multiculturalism, affirming that your strength is founded in your diversity.  You appear to wear this badge of pride more prominently lately given the fear of “others” that is wrapping a cloak of terror around the globe.  However, you weren’t always like this, were you?  Do you remember the exclusionary policies you set in place to deny Chinese from immigrating in the 1880s?  Do you remember the disenfranchisement and internment of Ukrainian Canadians in World War One, and how many of these Canadian citizens were put to work in concentration camps?  Do you remember how Japanese-Canadians were similarly interned during World War Two?

Before you tell me that that’s a thing of the past and that today is very different, let me remind you that discrimination still continues today.  Funny enough, one of the most extensive cases of discrimination in your backyard is the kind against the people who first inhabited you (the original Canadians, perhaps?): Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous communities face a host of problems, disproportionately so compared to the rest of the Canada: drinking water advisories, suicide crises and high incarceration rates, to name a few.  You’re not giving these due attention either.  In May 2017, the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal (CHRT) found that the Canadian government still had not complied with the CHRT’s 2016 ruling.  The earlier ruling had concluded that the federal government was discriminating against First Nations children in failing to provide adequate healthcare.  In January 2017, the suicide of two girls shook Wapekeka First Nation in remote northern Ontario.  Although the community had applied for health funding which included suicide prevention measures in summer 2016, apparently the application came at an “awkward time” in the federal government funding cycle.

So if you’re still far from embracing the diversity that is supposed makes you awesome, what else can we celebrate?  Maybe the simple, geometric maple leaf that graces the flag?

Excuse my bluntness here, but that is an awfully Ontario or Quebec-centric idea of “Canada”.  The southwestern corner of Canada where I’m from isn’t brimming with maple trees like those central regions are (central in terms of political and historical importance, not geography). I only realized this year while I was Ottawa, when I visited a “cabane à sucre” (French for “sugar shack”), how the maple leaf could even possibly become the national symbol.

Visiting a sugar shack is a regional, seasonal event.  Come springtime in Ontario and Quebec, once the maple sap starts running, sugar shacks that harvest maple syrup open their doors to the public for weekend brunches of pancakes, omelettes, sausages and more, all drenched in maple syrup.  It’s also apparently typical that families will co-own maple farms themselves and make trips to their private sugar shack with close friends.

As I journeyed to a cabane à sucre myself in March, one which required driving quite a while into rural Quebec, my host pointed out that all the trees we were passing were maple trees.  All of those average-sized trees lining the road we travelled along, the ones that continued on and on and on by the highway and who knows how far inwards – all maple trees.

With all those trees, I get why the maple was chosen for the flag.  However, that doesn’t make it a proper symbol of Canada in its entirety.

Back to the reason for Canada Day celebrations.  Celebrating it as your 150th birthday is a misnomer; and celebrating wider denominators of what it means to be Canadian, like multiculturalism or maple leaves, overlooks how those characteristics are unequally, unevenly expressed within you.

That leaves me confused about what I should raise my glass to.  You’ll find me hesitantly wishing people I come across, “Happy Canada Day!” and perhaps taking advantage of free cake, but all of it rather awkwardly – just like how a person might act at the party of their friend’s friend, with whom they are not familiar with.

Wishing you all the best on your day, whatever it means.

Fine Art Friday Finale: Sandback

Hold up! Is this your first Fine Art Friday?  If so, I recommend you first read the Preface to understand what this is all about.  Otherwise, jump in!

If you respond to the mention of “art” with placid disinterest or even an exasperated snort, here I hope to make one last attempt to change that reaction.

Throughout this Fine Art Friday series, I have shared with you the thoughts that ran through my mind as I viewed these works at the National Gallery of Canada (NGC).  They’re a bit cluttered, certainly drift off on tangents, and most definitely not the words of an experienced art critic.

However, that’s exactly what I hope you draw from Fine Art Friday.  Art prompts reactions.  There is no right or wrong type of reaction, much like how there sometimes isn’t a right or wrong answer to a discussion question your teacher poses to you.  There are only your feelings and your thoughts, things sparked by the work of someone else.

In embodying the importance of individual reaction to art, Fred Sandback’s work was an exciting find at the NGC.

Here it is.

Untitled (one of four diagonals)

Image source: National Gallery of Canada

Untitled is a 182.9cm cord that is drawn diagonally across a room.  If you think it’s frustrating and potentially ridiculous that a cord like this deserves space at the NGC and is considered art, I sympathize.  I am especially fond of installation art because of my interest in architecture (the manipulation or occupation of spaces), but before reading the description plaque accompanying the work, I couldn’t help but briefly wonder how much this cable was worth. 

What makes Untitled exciting is the direction Sandback gave to NGC curators about its exhibition.  He assisted its installation in 1970, but left curators freedom on installation afterwards.

Regarding this decision, Sandback said, “Interpret you must.  That is what keeps something alive.”

Very Yoda-like.  And like Yoda’s statements, it’s a very wise piece of advice. 

No matter who you are or what experiences you have, there is no criteria you must fulfill before being able to comment on art.  Art demands to be interpreted by those who view it.  If it ceases to lead to any response; it loses its purpose, its spirit, its core.

And should humans cease to continue the cycle or chain of reactions set in motion by art, I’m afraid that we may lose a vital vehicle for expression.

So, following Sandback’s words, go and interpret art. 

It’ll make me extraordinarily happy if any of these Fine Art Fridays have supported this exploration and interaction with art.  It’ll probably rocket me out of this room if you let me know it did or share with me some of your thoughts – I hope you’ll give me a shout and let me know!

Another reason to dislike shopping

I have figured another reason for why I dislike shopping.

I’ve been on a trend towards minimalism, living simply or living with less (however you might like to call it), this past year and a half.  I am planning some more posts to detail this growth, so you’ll be able to read about some parts of this journey later.

One significant outcome of this minimalist trend is that I don’t enjoy shopping so much anymore.  Wandering around a mall used to be a past time I enjoyed greatly, but to sum up my feelings about shopping now: it’s a bit of a nightmare.  I find myself acutely aware that I don’t need all these things around me, and that even if I did purchase these things, most of them will not make me happy.

The recent warm weather in Ottawa reminded me that over half of my shorts (three pairs out of four in total) were very worn out.  In addition, my mother has given the t-shirts I frequently wear the stink-eye, as they too are showing signs of wear.  It was about time to venture to the mall, find some new clothes so as to look presentable at dinner and avoid the disapproval of my mother (heavy lies the frown).

My trip to the Rideau Centre last Friday revealed to me that there’s another important reason why I dislike shopping.

Though I managed to squeeze into shorts in a size that I thought was appropriate for me, I only saw disappointment in the mirror.  Parts of me bulged out in unappealing ways due to the tightness.  I struggled to pull them off.

Those shorts definitely did not work for me.

Actually, that above statement is what I ought to believe, but the inability to fit into that pair slapped me in the face.  That pair of shorts, mocking me from where I disposed of it in the far corner of the fitting room while I pulled on shorts that were one size larger, was evidence of my failure.  Failure to meet some sort of size standard that I know to be artificial and entirely arbitrary, but failure all the same.

I felt again the same feeling of sadness wash over me as I pulled on shirts that highlighted parts of me that I deem unattractive.  Again, I felt a sense of failure that my body wasn’t good enough to wear these clothes and look good in them.

To feel judged by the clothes I cannot wear is ridiculous.  Outward appearance is an expression of oneself but it certainly is only one part of an individual, perhaps only the tip of the iceberg.  I should have some self-confidence from the accomplishments I have, but I let a pair of $14.99 cotton shorts upset that.

If I almost inevitably encounter this sense of sadness in the fitting room, I’m glad that me shopping less often means less exposure to this sensation.  Feeling inadequate because I do not look as mainstream media say I should look in mass-manufactured clothes is a reason for why I dislike shopping that I only recognized this past Friday.

I am not quite sure whether to say I “revealed”, “uncovered” it or even “realized” this reason to dislike shopping because this feeling of failure has probably always been there.  However, the difference is that I used to simply accept the tacit message that unflattering clothes and society told me through unflattering clothes: you are not good enough.

I don’t think I have the strength yet to affirm my self-worth, no matter the clothes I am wearing.  As such, for now I can only say that I dislike shopping, the practice that undermines my confidence so intensively over a short period of time.

Fine Art Friday: West

Hold up! Is this your first Fine Art Friday?  If so, I recommend you first read the Preface to understand what this is all about.  Otherwise, jump in!

I have a deep-seated concern with art featuring historical subjects.

What messages does the person absorb from a depiction in a museum, or a student reading a textbook glean from a reproduced image?  How does this impact their interpretation of history?

This is an important concern because museums, galleries, and schools are institutions whose messages the general public takes as fact. Many visitors may assume that the paintings on display illustrating a particular battle are true depictions of the event.  That is not the case though.  Today’s work is an example of that.

The Death of General Wolfe by Benjamin West

Image source: NGC

This painting depicts British General Wolfe’s death at the Battle of Quebec (as part of a conflict between French and British colonies, known as the “Seven Years’ War” or “French and Indian War”) in 1759.  Benjamin West was not present at General Wolfe’s death on the battlefield (according to the description that the NGC provides at the gallery).  Obviously, this immediately undermines the potential accuracy of the painting.

I do not have the in-depth knowledge about the circumstances surrounding General Wolfe’s death, but my limited research online has consistently brought up at least one example of how the painting diverges from historical fact: General Wolfe was not surrounded by that many men or those exact men (they are identifiable men) at the time of his death (sources 1, 2).  Bryan Zygmont, an Assistant Professor at Clarke University, says that “historians know that only one — Lieutenant Henry Browne, who holds the British flag above Wolfe — was present at General Wolfe’s death.”

Knowing that West was not present at Wolfe’s death, I can approach the work with a critical eye in demanding what aspects are true to fact and what aren’t.  I can see that West purposefully conveys particular messages through this work.  One is that Wolfe was adored by his men.  Look at how they crowd around him and how concerned they look.  Another is that the British had popular support as the diverse crowd around Wolfe shows.  Men in uniforms of various regiments surround him, and there is even an Indigenous Person.

But for the countless number of people who didn’t spare much time reading through the description that informs audience that West was not in attendance, or perhaps only saw the work on NGC’s site or in a history textbook, where this crucial circumstance is not mentioned – what messages are they consuming about the event based on this painting?

Next time you walk by a depiction of some past event, be it in a musuem, a textbook or elsewhere; please don’t take the illustration for granted.  The Death of General Wolfe is only one example of how far paintings can stray from what actually happened, there are many more out there.  This echoes the message that René Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, which I mentioned last Fine Art Friday, illustrates: that the image does not capture reality.

For more reading on this subject, check out this article, “Do Artists Depict Historical Subjects Accurately?” which I used as a source in this Fine Art Friday.

And stay tuned for more art musings by subscribing to the blog.

Fine Art Friday: Oldenburg

Hold up! Is this your first Fine Art Friday?  If so, I recommend you first read the Preface to understand what this is all about.  Otherwise, jump in!

This week’s Fine Art Friday features Claes Oldenburg, to continue some ideas from last week and explore the question: “What is art anyways?”

Last week, I remarked that many (including myself) first come to understand art as mastery over technical skills to create something visually appealing.  In addition, society instructs us that art is something to be valued and appreciated as we enshrine works in museums and galleries, and bid on them in auction houses.  Despite this, we struggle to find something to appreciate in art, much like how I breezed by a highly anticipated exhibition of Dutch Masters while in high school.

For me, Rembrandt was one of the artists who prompted my perception of art in such a way to change.  As I said last week, Rembrandt’s work stood out to me because while it was nice to look at, Rembrandt also snuck in some things that made me think.

Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble had a similar effect for me, though unlike Rembrandt’s paintings, it’s not that pretty.

Source: Tate

The photo does not do this justice: the whole set up looks far more unflattering and gaudy in person. When I first saw this, I was totally mystified and shocked.  The funky prints looked like they belonged to a tacky motel.  What was it doing here, just feet away from a Warhol?

The reason why Bedroom Ensemble is here in this post is not for its aesthetic appearance, but at the same time, it is here for its looks.  After all, none of the furniture in the work is functional – Odenburg designed the work to only be looked at.  You can’t sleep in the awkward rhombus-shaped bed, nor can you open any of the drawers in the similarly-shaped dresser, and the mirror does a poor job at presenting any reflection.

These ideas threw me into a bit of a tizzy.  We typically value art for its pleasing aesthetics, but Bedroom Ensemble rebels against that with its atrocious patterns (please do note this may not be completely accurate as tastes may differ amongst people or have changed since Oldenburg completed this work in the 1960s).  Despite this, Bedroom Ensemble has fulfilled an important part of the definition of “art”: it is something made to be looked at.  Yet, Oldenburg takes this purpose so far that the objects lose their purpose as you can only look at them.

I am quite mindblown by the juxtaposition of those ideas.  It was incredibly hard to untangle my thoughts around the piece and express them in some straightforward manner while writing this.

At the end, I think that Oldenburg’s Bedroom Ensemble connects to a wider understanding of art that I’m only beginning to grasp and which I am striving to showcase through Fine Art Friday: that art is something that is made to be looked at but prompts you to think.

Art is not simply a sore eyes.  It is a powerful vehicle for conveying complex concepts and provoking critical thought.

 What kind of art do you find appealing? Do you find it hard to appreciate aesthetically unappealing works? Let me know!

And to stay tuned for more musings on works from the National Gallery of Canada, follow the blog or follow it on Facebook.