Monday, January 17, 2011

Blue Tokyo, 2010, 82 x 82 cms. mixed media construction on plywood, private collection, Ottawa

Penny in Asakusa, July 2002

Tokyo 2002 Part 1

In 2002 I had a solo Railway Lands Show at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. The process started two years earlier when Fran├žois Dion brought Ogura Masashi and Makiko Hara for a studio visit. Ogura Masashi was then the consulting curator for the Canada Embassy Art Gallery. He and his colleague Makiko came up from Montreal to view my work on Fran├žois Dion’s recommendation. The studio visit was very pleasant and Ogura Masashi offered me a show that day, though he was vague about a date, probably two years off.

Because I had to put the show together my self, I asked Emily Falvey if she would be the curator and write an essay for a small catalogue I planned to self publish. Emily agreed and wrote the very beautiful, To Be Heard With The Eye Only essay, which is further down in the blog.

At that time I was in transition from making panoramic train pictures to overhead views. Since neither the Ocean Limited or CN freight train works would fit into the embassy gallery I started a new picture, the Montreal commuter train. Mark McGuigan cut the boards at Carleton University and later built the crates to ship the works to Japan.

Together with the commuter train, I produced a series of locomotive pictures for Tokyo, most of which I later demolished. Though the larger and more resolved works all went into collection, notably to DFAIT, the Ottawa Art Gallery and the Beaverbrook.

In the course of time I received a letter from embassy councilor Bruce Barnett advising me the show had been approved for July 3, 2002 and requested that I submit a grant application to the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. The embassy exhibition program was structured at the time as a straight grant from DFAIT which the artist used to crate and ship the works and travel to the venue. I received 7000$ for the exhibition out of which I had to pay for everything.

At some point I had a studio visit from a young cultural events manager from Tokyo named Stephane-Enric Beaulieu who gave me the run down on the exhibition and advised Penny and I where to stay in Tokyo.


By April 2001 the work was ready to go. I made arrangements to ship it with Sven Wilcke at Internet Freight. The crates were to be sent by rail, then containership across the Pacific. I remember I asked Sven if I should insure the work and he actually laughed. Insuring the work, he told me, would double the cost and what’s worse, if the ship were wrecked and required salvaging it was very likely the salvage company would sue me for costs.

First and second generation Shinkansen at Tokyo station

Tokyo 2002 Part 2

Penny and I left for Japan on June 25, 2002, via Chicago. There was heat wave in Chicago and stepping off our little Air Canada CJ onto the tarmac, was like walking into an oven. I recall seeing a discarded paper sign lying on the broiling gray pavement. It read “Human Remains.” I hope they were refrigerated.

We got out of Chicago in a crowded United Airlines 747 jumbo jet filled with hundreds of people just like us, the jet setting poor. The flight was long and uneventful and we got into Narita the next afternoon. I was expecting Narita to be a giant complex, but our little part of it, whatever terminal it was, seemed quite small, like Halifax. We picked up our luggage, went through perfunctory customs inspection and walked out the door to a waiting hotel bus.

I was struck while driving into Tokyo by how British everything looked, manicured hedges, slightly exotic plants, small cars. What astonished me however, beyond the urban sprawl, were the canals. I didn’t know Tokyo had canals.

We stayed at the Marrod Inn in Akasaka near the Aoyama Dori. The first night in Tokyo was dreadful. We were horribly jet lagged and further disoriented by the fact Japan doesn’t observe daylight savings time. I sat up most of the short night listening to American Armed Forces Radio, then watched the morning show on NHK which featured a cam broadcasting trains arriving at Tokyo station commented on by two talking heads who were bowing a lot I suppose to the viewing audience as they tuned in.

Penny and I later went to breakfast in the Marrod’s dinning room where we made the terrible mistake of ordering the western breakfast, a plate concocted of a pink cocktail sausage, a lonely piece of lettuce a foamy square of scrambled eggs and a cup of undrinkable black coffee. All our subsequent breakfasts at the Marrod were the Japanese type, sublime concoctions of Kombu soup, tofu, dried fish, steamed rice and pots of refreshing smoky green tea.

Still in shock, we went the Canadian embassy where we were introduced around and met the show preparator a young artist named Seiji Takashita. Seiji and I laid out the pictures. He was very efficient and spoke English well. Once we got the set up sketched, Seiji politely told me to get lost and enjoy myself in Tokyo, he’d do the rest. I could check in a few hours before the opening to fine-tune the lighting if necessary.

So, as if in a dream, Penny and I hit the unnamed streets of Tokyo, where for the next two days we walked miles and miles in the heat and drizzle, seeing what could be seen before going up island to Matsushima.

We chose to go to Matsushima as a getaway trip because the World Cup of Soccer was playing in Japan and our first choice, Kyoto, would be too crowded. Even in Tokyo the ugly foreign element was visible, particularly loutish Australians prowling the tourist sights.

One site stands out in particular in our wanderings around Tokyo, the very strange Aoyama graveyard. Later they told us we missed the beauty of the place because the cherry blossoms had fallen, but Aoyama graveyard with its ravens, feral cats, yew trees and peculiar monuments with Chinese carvings still sits heavily on my mind, a place out of time in the madness of Tokyo. No temple, even the most ancient and blood soaked temple, as they often are in Japan, can match Aoyama graveyard for sheer accumulated gloom.

Penny and Eric in first class yakita, Matsushima Century Hotel

Tokyo 2002 Part 3

Penny and I took the Bullet Train, the Shinkansen, to Sendai on our way to Matsushima. We traveled on a third generation Shinkansen, very new and luxurious. The sensation of traveling in a Shinkansen is not like flying, or like being in a train. You feel vibration and a certain pull of gravity. Despite this, as you look out to the distant horizon your mind is tricked into believing the train is moving slowly, then suddenly, it blows into a tunnel, the ears pop and you feel the carriage body expand as the flying tube puffs up with suction force. Then just as suddenly the tunnel is cleared and the train skin deflates. Service on the train was very polite with a bit of English spoken and the train staff in white gloves, bowing on entering and leaving the car.

From Sendai we took a local train to Honshiogama where we caught the boat across the bay to Matsushima. This extraordinary boat was decorated like a giant peacock with folded wings at the stern and a huge peacock head at the bow with feathery steel fabricated projections on top. The trip across the bay is brief, just an hour or so. The locals passed the time by throwing chips and rice crackers to the seagulls who follow the boats.

We arrived in Matsushima at the Kaigon pier and made our way to the Matsusima Century Hotel a first class hotel with very moderately priced western rooms on the town side of building. The rooms facing the bay were more expensive and Tatami. That first night we walked the boardwalk, relaxed and took in the warm Pacific air.

Roundabout dinnertime we started looking for a place to eat, but were confounded by the minimal frontal presentation of Japanese restaurants. We walked by several places which might have been restaurants, but without any outward glitz or pull, except discreet sets of plastic representation food in small windows. “Is it open”, I wondered’ or “do they speak English there?” We might have gone without dinner, but a lovely woman restaurateur emerged from one of these places with English menus and beckoned us in.

We spent three enjoyable days in Matsushima; saw everything in the place that could be seen except Marine Mammal World, which by its size and antiquity looked like a workhouse for seals. The big tourist attraction in Matsushima is Zuigangi Temple. Founded in 828 AD, Zuigangi features a beautiful main hall constructed in wood in the shoin-zukuri style, where we were told in one side room after the local shogun died, 40 of his retainers threw themselves on swords. Lots of creep factor there.

Tokyo 2002 Part 4




 We returned to Tokyo in a first generation shinkansen, a quaint vehicle compared to the third generation train, with curtains and doilies and a more Chinese feel. The train was light that day, so the car captain in his white suit and gloves bowed to us particularly.

Back in town Penny and I took in more sights, the Tsukiji fish market, boat trip up Sumida, the Hazo-mon Gate, Asakusa Park, Shitomashi Museum and a trip to the Ginza where we shopped at Matsuzakaya, with its astonishing basement level Carrefour, with French bread, rolls and pastries, fancy cooked sausages and viands, and dainties of every sort, but the highlight of the Ginza for us was the Ginza Lion.

We were told the Germans brought commercial beer brewing to Japan. If that’s true, the Ginza Lion is certainly a shrine to German gesamtbrausaufen. Though ostensibly the Lion is a British “pub”, the joint is laid out like a vast, gloomy, underground, Bavarian beer hall with Teutonic details. Everybody spoke English and the beer came in big jugs. The coldest, crispest, sweetest beer I’ve ever drank; just perfect to dispel the sickening heat and humidity of Tokyo in the rainy season.

After a quick check of the gallery, the opening came off on July 3. It was very pleasant. A good crowd turned out. I had a translator for my remarks and chats with the patrons. The show was written up in a few magazines and a good time was had by all.

Penny and I flew out of Tokyo on the 4th of July. We had heard reports earlier that Al-Qaeda had threatened to blow an American airplane out of the sky on the 4th, so when we boarded our United Airlines flight we were conscious of that eventuality and wished the American air crew Happy Independence Day with a feeling of solidarity.

About half way through the flight I noticed the jet had left the big circle route, northerly to Alaska, as first displayed on the flight tracker screen and was heading straight across the pacific. We only found out later in Chicago that some Al-Qaeda moron wannabe shot up the El Al ticket desk at LAX causing an air traffic panic.

It seemed like another year passed before my works arrived back in Ottawa. In 2004 I made an overhead view picture of Tokyo called Blue Tokyo. The work was show at the Ottawa Art Gallery and subsequently at Lethbridge and Charlottetown in configurations of Railway Lands. A picture of it exists in the Ottawa Art Gallery catalogue, but I was never satisfied with it. So when the work came back from the Confederation Art Centre, I demolished it. In 2008 I started a new version of Blue Tokyo. It was completed in 2010.