Last Updated:Aug 21, 2008

Day 1 of DIVVY/dual: Tibet, photography and a rude interviewer

Yesterday, I was the first of six people to take part in the “DIVVY/dual” exhibition taking place this week in Space Kobo and Tomo in Ginza.

Exhibition view
Exhibition view
Photo: AR
Artist Takumi Endo has created a computer program called “Type-Trace” which records on video exactly what you type and how you type it. In addition, the longer you take to write something, the larger it will appear on screen: a visual representation of the time taken to type. Over the next five days, five TABlog writers will each be writing about a topic of their choice, and members of the public will be free to participate at any time.

The visual effect of this deliberately quirky word-processing program varies depending on whether you are writing in English or Japanese. On a computer they are both written in different ways: English is typed letter by letter, so every letter comes up on screen in a slightly different size. Writing Japanese on a computer is a mixture of typing hiragana only, typing hiragana and using the space bar to select kanji, and finally using the return key to approve the chosen kanji or convert hiragana into katakana. This means that you tend to see whole words appearing in different sizes (particularly kanji, which take longer to enter), rather than individual kana. If you’ve typed Japanese before, you can probably imagine what I am talking about. If not, then this may be completely incomprehensible.

Exhibition view
Exhibition view
Photo: AR

From twelve to six pm, I wrote a stream-of-consciousness of sorts: an unusual mixture of travel writing, autobiography, self-interview and critical review.

To see the video of how the text appeared on screen, please see the DIVVY/dual homepage, here.

Details of the show itself and the ideas behind it can be found here, and details of the subsequent talk being held at the ICC are here.

Warning: what follows is one long piece of text: the result of four and a half to five hours of typing (and retyping) within a six hour period, unedited and presented exactly as it was saved during the show, with all its typos, spelling mistakes, unfinished trains of thought and fallible arguments.


So, this is the first time that I’ve taken on a project like this, mixing up my interests in writing about art, the travels I’ve done my photography, and open source art work.
I think it would be quite easy to get writer’s block right now and feel compelled to write something significant or meaningful, especially when there are people watching. So this will probably end up as some form of stream-of-consciousness. I7m finding it a bit weird already to see the letters of the words I take longest to write coming up as unusually large… I feel as though I’m being timed.

So here goes.

I just got back from Tibet about ten or eleven days ago (I’m still in that early stage of return where I can count the days I’ve been back). I’d been wanting to go there for literally ten years. It all started when I saw Martin Scorcese’s film “Kundun” back in 1996. It tells the story of the Dalai Lama’s childhood and his initiation into Buddhist life, followed by the Chinese invasion in 1950 and his subsequent need to escape into India. The cinematography was simply beautiful, and having watched interviews with Scorcese I appreciated his effort to draw attention to a part of the world which was neglected by the Western powers in its hour of need. Philip Glass’ soundtrack also had this penetrating, mesmeric effect, imprinting Scorcese’s images into my mind even more. But I was only 15 back then… it would be a long time before I would make my way to Tibet. Even then I didn’t fully realise how much Japan would become a part of my life and at that time I couldn’t imagine travelling around Asia, no matter how much I wanted to – it was simply beyond my frame of reference at that age.

Then, a few years later I was in a bookshop and picked up a book about Tibet. An old newspaper article slid out from underneath the front cover and I opened it up. It was a report on the Chinese presence in Tibet and most importantly for me, it was the first time I heard about the Qinghai-Tibet railway. This was a grand Chinese project to link Tibet to the rest of the country’s rail network and make it easier for Han Chinese to immigrate into the region, changing its culture by a process of human osmosis. At that time, the article estimated that this railway would be completed in 2007 or 2008, and I swore to myself on that spot at that very moment that I would get to Tibet before they completed this railway.

It turns out that they beat me to it. By a month and a half. The Chinese economy has rocketed in the past decade and so presumably their ability to complete public works projects has improved to some extent. But, after all, it turned out that I went at exactly the right time. Some effects are already being felt in Lhasa and elsewhere and it was intersting for me to hear from Tibetans how things have changed, both in positive and negative ways from the increase in Chinese tourists that the railway has brought, but it hasn’t had time to change the culture.

But I’m not really qualified to make an informed rant about what the Chinese are doing in Tibet. I just felt that it was a place that was clearly not a part of China, no matter what Beijing may say. It would be far better if you just go yourself and see for yourself how wonderful this country is and what effects the Chinese presence is having there.

The angle that I think would be more interesting to take is how I found taking photographs there, giving a structure to a general travelogue of sorts. I can type descriptions of the situations in which I took photographs, including descriptions of the photographs themselves, or I can just type about what I saw from memory, including what did not feature in the photograph. And I can tell you about the photographs that never happened. Each will have its own subtle conceptual distinction, given that in all cases I am neither looking at the image in front of me nor am I giving you an image to look at. It’s all words.

The first photo I took in Tibet was in Lhasa, of a little boy in a courtyard, seen through a doorway. He was looking up into the sun and from somewhere above him, out of my line of sight, someone was throwing water down onto the ground. Looking back, I’m not quite sure what I was trying to capture in that photograph. Was it the boy’s expression? He was too far away for it to be clear. Was it the falling water? It was hard to capture something moving that fast on a compact digital camera which always has that irritating delay between the moment you press the shutter and the moment it actually takes the photograph. That particular digital camera also has a screen with a particular finish to it that makes it hard to tell whether the photo you’ve just taken is in focus or not. So I took the photo twice, trying to get a better shot of anything within the frame: the boy’s face, the falling water and the overall focus. The second shot was probably more successful. I can’t remember which of the two I deleted. In any case, what I mean by successful in this picture is precisely how unfocused it was, not in terms of literal optical focus, but just that the point of the shot wasn’t clear and left a hint of mystery. I’m sure if I sent that photo to a travel photography comptetition it would be rejected on first sight.

Tibet is an easy place to take photos in many ways. Certainly in terms of landscape, just about wherever you point the camera you will be looking at a phenomenal scene. But then other photographers would tell you that the light is too strong and blah blah blah. Just take photos.
The next photo that comes to mind is… hmm, not so interesting as a photograph, maybe. It was a pohto that I took simply as a way of remembering how things looked in my hostel. That was the Kirey Hotel on Beijing Zhong lu, by the way, if you ever go. They give you a free laundry service.
Well, what can I say about this photo? It’s just a memory on paper, or rather on screen, since I haven’t printed it yet and probably will never print it. I just said paper since that’s how I grew up with photos. It shows the mountain view from the stairs outside of my room, the corrugated tin roofs of some of the buildings in the courtyard. What else? Oh I don’t know. It’s funny how the image in that photograph and in my mind is almost identical, although I can remeber the same view at other times of day, with different types of weather and temperature… those two last things are harder to feel from a photograph.

I spent ten days in Lhasa. The altitude is 3,600 metres up there, something I realised as we were landing at the airport. After we left Beijing the plane was flying so high that we couldn’t even see the ground. I thought somehow we were going off in the wrong direction and were flying over the sea. As we reached the Tibetan plateau, the land suddenly came up to meet us; the plane hadn’t changed altitude, I don’t think, because the clouds below us were still at the same height in relation to us. But there was the land all of a sudden: vast mountain ranges with snow capped peaks here and there, even though it was mid-August. Glaciers, creeping down through the valleys, looking like wax from our bird’s eye point of view. No wonder we had to fly so high: if we hadn’t we might have crashed into the land. One thing that did occur to me when I was looking down over this landscape was that the soldiers of the People’s “Liberation” Army had their work cut out for them in getting to Tibet to occupy it in the first place. I felt I had to acknowledge that.

I took photos of those views, but I haven’t had them developed yet. I know they will make good photographs, but they will probably exist as very seperate entities, since the memories of that landing are so vivid in my mind. I don’t need the photographs to remind me of the details of that experience, because it was as much emotional as it was visual. Sure, I can’t remember where every tree was, where every little lake was, but I don’t need to the intensity of the overall visual/emotional effect, in that instance, was more important to me than the precise visual detail that the photograph recorded.

Those first ten days in Lhasa were very relaxed. They kind of had to be, because you need time to get used to the altitude. It took three or four days for me to feel normal… well, I never felt totally normal. The thinner air makes your heart and muscles work harder, so simple things like going up stairs can be significantly more of an effort. Walking might be fine, if I didn’t rush, but walk and talk too much at the same time and I’d find myself out of breath. It was as if I had aged 40 years in a day!

One of the first ventures my friend and I made to higher altitude was our day trip to Ganden monastery, a couple of hours out of Lhasa, perched on top of a mountain at about 4,300 metres. I knew I wanted to go and visit the place, simply from the photo in the Lonely Planet! We wound our way up these twisting little mountain roads, and I was clinging on to the seat (not that it would have made any difference) because the bus was swaying perilously close to the edge of the road at times. The photographic memory/memorized photograph (if you will) that remains in my mind the most from that trip was taken in the monastery’s kitchen. Tea kitchen would actually be a better description since that’s all they made in there. Huge cauldrons and pipes were running around this central stove, billowing steam everywhere. Pots and pans were hanging around it and it had this truly Harry Potter-esque feeling to it. We were invited over into the corner by two Tibetans, who offered us Yak Butter Tea, which is what they all drink in large amounts every day. It’s like drinking liquid butter with a tiny bit of tea thrown in there. I knew that I probably wouldn’t like it that much, but I was happy to try it and in such an atmospheric place that actually produced Yak Butter Tea, I thought that if this was the one and only time to try it, then it was the right place.

That steam was hypnotic, and I took many photos of it rising up from the cauldrons on the stove, from various angles. I took a photo of one of the men stirring the tea, from a lower down angle so he had almost disappeared within the steam. It was so dark in there that to capture this moving phenomena was pretty hard for the camera, but it did manage in the end. The man then invited me up onto the stove to watch him stirring the tea, which he was doing with a spade! The caudron he was working on could apparently provide a thermos-full of tea for 500 monks!

Duhhh… I accidentally deleted the file I was working on before, which had quite a lot of writing in it. How annoying.

What was I saying? I was talking about monks before…. that kitchen…. then I started to talk about being out somewhere in the country. Oh yes! Nam-tso! Well, I guess the words won’t be exactly the same, but I can remember what I was talking about more or less and keep the content roughly the same.

So Nam-tso lake is the world’s highest saltwater lake, at around 4,300 metres, and it was the second of our ventures out to higher ground after Ganden. I’ve never seen such space before. The whole lake, which would take 18 days to walk around if you were doing a pilgrimage around it, was surrounded by vast plains inhabited only by nomads in their tents and around those plains are continuous mountain ranges with snow-capped peaks here and there. On the first day we stayed there, the weather was perfect. The sky somehow seemed clearer than the clearest skies I had seen until then; the clouds were pure white, floating innocuously above the lake; the water was crystal clear and the air was totally pure. But on the second day, a storm was gathering around the lake, which was ominous but incredibly invigorating. That morning, I climbed up a small mountain on a peninsula jutting out into the middle of the lake, so as to see these prayer flags that had been strung up over a cliff. Normally, because there isn’t that much wind blowing, the flags are static, although their colour and the way in which they have been strung together in these huge tangled across man-made and natural structures is very beautiful. But their point is that the wind blows through them and carries the prayers off with them. So with this storm coming, the wind was pretty strong and was making the flags flutter like crazy. And that was particularly beautiful to watch. After that I ventured out further along the mountain until I was at a point where I felt almost entirely surrounded by water: not just the water in the lake, but also the water hanging all around in those thick, heavy clouds. That lake is so big that it feels like you’re looking at the sea. You don’t tend to associate such dramatic, powerful weather with a mere lake, but then Nam-tso is no “mere” lake.

Out near the horizon in front of me was a cloud that was already raining. It looked as if it was disintegrating into the “sea”. I have photos of all these things, but they seem incidental: they can’t really capture the vastness of that environment. I actually stood on one spot and took about eight pictures going round 360 degrees so as to try and create a full panorama later. I haven’t had time to try and put it together yet, but I wonder if there’s any point, since my memories of that morning are unforgettable.

So, given that more than once I have mentioned that photography didn’t fulfil what I was after in Tibet — somethign I felt particularly in front of landscapes, where I would sometimes take photo after photo and just frustrate myself with trying to capture all this landscape — I should ask myself why that is.
A friend of mine used to doggedly ask me these kind of questions about photography, and whenever I’ve questioned it since, in my mind it’s always been her voice speaking. The following questions will probably be a bit more blunt than she’d ask them, to be fair…

*Why do you take photos?

Part of it is to capture a sense of the transience of life. I love the transience of life, and I accept the sense of loss that it can bring more than most of the people who I know and have talked to about this. But nevertheless there must be some kind of human instinct to “preserve” or to “document” the things around us, and in my case I do it through photography. I think that would explain the frustration that came in front of those landscapes: they couldn’t be “captured” because their transience is impossible for a camera or a human being to measure. They are inherently transient in that one day they will be gone, or rather their shape will change, and in a thousand years or ten thousand may be unrecognisable when compared to the present day, and such a time-scale extends probably beyond the whole human race, let alone an individual. So the camera is ideal for capturing “instants”, as Henri Cartier-Bresson explored with his “decisive moment” idea. But I think photography needs to move beyond that way of thinking: the camera is capable of showing a longer sense of time, which you can feel in Ansel Adams’ work depicting Yosemite Valley (or Man Furuya’s photos of the same region, if you want to see a contemporary Japanese approach to the same topic). Lately, I’ve been working on photos which show a sense of short-term transience within an environment where time feels slow and heavy. You can do this with photoshop or manual means, turning the photograph into something which doesn’t just rely on the moment when you pressed the shutter. In particular with light, I have been able to create effects that simply couldn’t exist in real life.

What do photos do for you that language doesn’t?

They’re completely different. If I could say everything I wanted to say in words, then I wouldn’t feel so compelled to take photographs. Both of these languages have their limitations. There’s no need to choose one over the other, you can use both. And indeed, this is the first time that I have used both at the same time.

*But why is that relevant? Who cares? What makes you qualified to do this?

I never said I was “qualified” for this, and I try not to think of myself as more worthy of anyone else out there who is doing the same thing. But this is the Information Age, and now it has become easier than ever before for more people than ever before to access information and contribute their own information. That presents its own challenges as to what is worthwhile information, especially when there is so much out there. It’s definitely the challenge my generation faces to figure out how to differentiate between worthwhile, enriching information and non-informative, distracting “information” (be it spam, propaganda, biased and uninformed opinions or whatever). But the solution to that issue is not necessarily to get people to stop contributing, but perhaps more to make them think harder about what they’re contributing. And you can’t accuse me of not thinking. In any case, I’m not forcing anyone to look at my work.

*But how can you define yourself as an artist when you have so much else on your plate? Or would you say your a part-time artist?

I don’t say that I’m any one thing when it comes to my career or my interests. The two are intermingled and the feed off and inform each other. Why do they have to be exclusive? If I were only a photographer who never wrote a single word, that could only be a more limited situation, surely? And if I were an art critic who has never made a work in his life (as many, probably most of them are), that too would limit my view of things. I at least have the benefit of knowing two sides of the coin. No doubt if I had another perpective, like say that of a mathmetician, that may offer new insights into the way I make work or write about work. But I can’t have all of these points of view; I’m just happy to have more than one. As for the “part-time artist” issue, perhaps I am one. But I am also a “part-time writer” but that doesn’t carry the same negative air to it…. for me, at least, the next few years are about seeing which path opens up to me the most, so I don’t feel the need to box myself into a single category just yet. And I hope that I’ll be able to find a healthy balance in the future that still allows me to reach over different boundaries, regardless of whether people view them as contradictory.

*Isn’t there a risk that you end up doing nothing but take photographs and not actually look at anything with your own eyes?

Sure, and it’s important to be aware of that problem and keep yourself in check. The worst example of it that I’ve ever seen was at the Museum of Modern Art inn New York last year. I don’t remember what it was like before as I was only 15 (although I have some photos my father took of me there, which helps!) but now when you go in, you have to check in your bags at the locker room. For whatever reason, it seems that they’ve become unwilling to take responsibility for there being anything valuable in the bags, so they ask you if you have any cameras or iPods or mobile phones in there, and if you do, you have to take them with you into the gallery. If you know this, then you can simply lie and walk into the gallery unburdened, but most people end up in the galleries with a camera in their hand, whether they want to or not. On top of that, they’ve made it okay for people to take photos of the artwork, so long as they don’t use flash. of course, some idiots forget and still use flash, which makes me wish they would just not allow it at all — it’s not in anyone’s interest for the artworks to be damaged over a long period of time, but I guess that even art is falling victim to the paranoia engendered in such a society of litigation.

Anyway, the point is that so many people spend their time at MoMA walking around doing nothing but take photo after photo of masterpiece after masterpiece without actually looking at it — not even for a second. That is a real shame, I think. It can’t be in the renovated MoMA’s mission statement to promote the overlooking of art, can it? Seriously, what’s the point? They are in all likelyhood not even taking good pictures, especially if they end up using flash on a glass-framed picture. They might as well go and buy a postcard in the museum shop. Perhaps some would say that a knock-on positive effect would be achieved if those photos are then shown to other people who know little about art and are inspired to find out more. But that seems to me a very unlikely and relatively irrelevant benefit when art works are actually at times being damaged by this process. Perhaps you could say that this is part of making museums more appraochable: by letting people have a little more freedom in them. Well, yes, I’m all for more approachable museums, but not if it means dumbing down. MoMA is the unparalleled collection of Western modern art, so it’s a shame that it has created conditions in which people end up overlooking the art.

Come to think of it, the fact that there are pictures of me standing in the galleries at MoMA ten years ago must mean that photography was allowed back then. But the difference is that back then we didn’t have digital cameras. Back then, people thought twice before taking a photo because they knew they would have to pay for it. Now, it seems, allowing digital cameras in galleries has allowed some people to trick themselves into believing that they can have their very own little Van Gogh for free.

*And what do you make of this exhibition?

Well, the idea is to make it participatory, and that is part of making art more accessible to people… demystifying it a bit. It’s new territory to me, and it is unusual for me to be able to combine my interests in photography, writing, reviewing, Japan, Tibet, art and all that in one time and space this early on.

(Paul has just walked in, so I’d better give this show a good review….) The last few hours have flown past much more quickly than I ever expected. I started at twelve and it’s already five thirty, when all the Tokyo Art Beat crowd starts creeping in.

I don’t know exactly what life this text will take on after this exhibition. I think it’s going on a website as a piece of static text, but also as a video showing the traces of the way I’ve been typing (although there’s no way of recording the careless moment when I deleted a file). But then, conceptually that’s interesting. The rewritten text in that file is a version of a set of typing actions that escaped this program. Only I know the subtle differences between the first and second version.

So, in the last half hour, how do I finish this off? Well, I started with Tibet, so I can finish with something from Tibet. Perhaps the best thing… well, actually, considering all the amazing things that happened there, there was no one “best” thing…. but one of the best things was the fact that I barely used a computer for an entire month!! And here I am spending six hours more or less solidly using a computer to relate that experience. About two weeks before I went, my former PowerBook died on me, though thankfully not without some warning, so I had actually backed-up all my files and lost very little data. But, when your two part-time jobs and all your freelance work depend entirely on you having your own computer and a continual connection to the internet, the sudden loss of a laptop is a bit of a disaster. So having been made to buy a new one, consequently voiding my bank account of all the money I’d saved, in addition to extra expense of going to Tibet in the first place, I was feeling a bit poor and a bit disenfranchised of the technological world.

(In reply to Paul’s question) I’ve become a bit more self conscious since everyone’s turned up all at once. It comes just at the moment when I was kind of running out of ideas.
[Paul’s question is timed at about a minute before I wrote the two lines above, so if you want to know what he asked me, you’ll have to consult his text]

But for a variety of reasons, I didn’t feel any culture shock on coming back to Japan. It’s nice to know that I spent the last month relishing being in the natural world, almost entirely free of the need to use computers, but not resent my computer-reliant life on my return. But then I say that havign bought a new laptop which is unlikely to break down any time soon. When the last one broke, it was strange how helpless I felt.




Ashley Rawlings

Ashley Rawlings

Ashley Rawlings was the editor of TABlog from 2006 to 2008. More information about his work can be found at <a href=""></a>