September 21, 2010

Homeless in a Pink Kimono

In my present two-person exhibition at the Orangeburg County Fine Arts Center there is a painting at the top of the entrance stairway which is different from my other work in the show. Made with acrylic paint, collage and printed paper, it rests on the wall rather incongruously alongside a rather staid oil portrait of the Prince of Orange - a permanent fixture in the stairwell of the Art Center. (Too inconveniently located to move, the Prince of Orange presides over all exhibitions, meetings, and displays of talents, regardless of content or subject).

My acrylic collage, “Homeless in a Pink Kimono” is so named for the red print affixed to the bottom of the composition and which reads “without a home.” I created the work shortly after watching the 1959 film “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” by Mikio Naruse. In this respect the art work could be considered a study in Ekphrasis for it pays homage to Naruse’s beautifully understated melancholy work.

“When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is a film about bar hostesses working in the Ginza district of postwar Japan. It is impressive that Mr. Naruse made this film, as well as a number of others in this genre, that were so sympathetic to the plight of women on their own and trying to make their way in a man’s world. In this film from the 1950's Naruse chronicles the bar maids’ rush against time and money as they compete amongst each other in a race to become married by the time they reach thirty years of age or save enough money to buy their own bar. The story follows the plight of a thirty year old hostess, Keiko, who struggles to maintain integrity among the numerous betrayals, seductions, and pressures of the Ginza world. Her friends steal away her most attractive women for their own bars. Keiko rejects an immodest proposal from a wealthy business man to buy a bar for her in return for her becoming his mistress. Junko, a young bar maid whom Keiko is serving as a mentor, jumps in to take up the business man’s proposal for herself and is later seen happily polishing the counter top in her own bar. At one point in the film it looks as though Keiko has found an honest man to become her husband, only to find that he is already married.

A persistent theme in the film, “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” is the psychological, ethical, and material costs of staying ahead of the competition. The bar maids are constantly pressured into buying expensive perfumes and elaborate kimonos - different ones for every night in order to keep the attention of their male patrons. They are caught in an endless cycle of having to buy, borrow or steal in order to stay in the business just long enough to buy their independence from it. The film is as unsettling as it is entertaining. Was the film an indictment of commercialism run amok? Or was it just Naruse’s cautionary tale about the futility of using up youth and money in a race to win a game with a predetermined outcome?

It is easy to see parallels to Naruse’s women and people in our own society who are strung along in this recession economy with promises of a better life: the adjunct art professor whose university tells her that if she spends on just one more one-woman show she can be considered for full time work, the droves of people who take out loans to go back to school for second degrees for jobs that may not even exist, the self-employed entrepreneur trying to keep up by attending expensive trade shows and purchasing marketing packages. Some expenditures may lead to something, but most are probably just expensive kimonos and perfume.

Despite the sadness of Naruse’s film, “When a Woman Ascends the Stairs,” there does appear to be a message of hope. Perhaps hope is too strong a word. It is more like a low key sanguine acceptance. Keiko knows that she is now too old to marry and that she does not have the money to buy her own bar. And yet she still ascends the stairs to go to work, meet her friends and colleagues - enjoying the few that are true to her and basking in what remains beautiful in life. The film ends in just such a quiet way, when Keiko reaches the bar at the top of the stairs. She nods to the left, then to the right, smiles and gives a greeting to her patrons. Keiko, the one who loses the race carries on.

Autumn hails a time of competition for artists, with many applications for very few positions. There are competitive publications, trade shows, grants, and juried exhibitions to enter. A few of us will win, most of us will not. If anything can be learned from Mr. Naruse, it is that not winning is not an end to living and that some discretion is necessary in the amount of time and resources one spends on dreams.

For my part, I always enjoy the South Carolina Booking Conference, which I will attend at the end of this week. I haven’t actually booked work there in about three years and the attending artists seem to be a bit fewer each year. (The artist-in-residency work I have secured was from people who have taken the time to study my credentials and program through the Arts Commission Web site) But it is still a nice way to meet fellow teaching artists and talk about their work. But perhaps I am now too old to buy a new kimono for it!

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