The person in the tall red hat is an artist called Takako Susai. I became aware of her because she’s doing workshops as part of this year’s Art Rokko.
Immediately, on seeing this photo, I recognise the world in which Takako Susai is operating. It’s a familiar and charming world. Susai, born in 1975, is of the same generation as many of my friends, girlfriends and artistic collaborators. She’ll be 40 in 2015. She doesn’t seem to have had kids of her own, but her world and her work are so deeply steeped in the imagery of childhood that it’s tempting to call her a “kidult”.
Takako Susai is not a child, however. She is a rational adult operating in a recognisable context. As she explains in this video, Susai can leverage her workshops and character goods into the worlds of education, exhibition and event-making, fancy goods stalls and shops. They can solve social problems, like loneliness: “The Tim-Tim can be held close even when you’re alone, to stop you feeling lonely. The world can be a lonely place, full of gloomy news. So I created this to liven up daily life a little bit, so people can relax for a moment and feel cheerful.”
Takako Susai doesn’t really need the art world, which is just as well, because in Japan an identifiable art world barely exists in the sense in which we know it in the West. She takes her place comfortably alongside figures like Shintaro Miyake and Misaki Kawai, figures whose work is playful and childlike and non-threatening.
If I put Takako Susai alongside Western artists, I get a sort of cognitive dissonance. Let me just cite two pieces I was touched by recently in Edinburgh: Luke Fowler’s film about the Marxist EP Thompson, and a Lucy McKenzie cabinet designed to house books about the late Ian Hamilton Finlay.
What distinguishes the Western artists is an idea of criticality — an idea they paradoxically profess with something approaching obedience. Fowler’s film laments the disappearance of a political culture of opposition in England. This Bloomberg TateShots profile of McKenzie begins: “I think it’s very important for painting that it has to question all the givens of classical painting, especially as a woman painter, it’s very important that we make painting what we want it to be, and we don’t just play by the rules.”
It would be quite easy to say that by obediently evoking a “defiant” identity politics in the art world, Lucy McKenzie is actually playing by the rules a Western artist born in 1977 might well have encountered.
In contrast, Takako Susai has no radical agenda, unless becoming a child again is radical, which I suppose it is. She seems to come from a world of Japanese folk figures like the Tengu, the long-nosed wood sprite. Her character goods are an extension of Shinto animism, but might also sit happily alongside the world of Tove Jansson.
The “critical edge” in McKenzie’s work makes it look more adult and independent, but it may well be that she’s simply echoing her context: a 1990s art education in Scotland, Belgium and Germany, in which rule-breaking and identitarian assertion have become new rules.
It constantly amazes me that these two worlds are available to me — the world of supposedly-critical Western art (which of course turns out to be a lot less critical than it claims to be), and the world of this Japanese folk art, eccentric and sentimental and childish and yet canny and commercial and even calculated (“I take care not to make them too cute,” says Susai in her 2009 interview).
I feel excluded from the insides of both worlds, yet I can plug into their value systems without too much difficulty. And they do contain parallels. There are photos of Takako Susai working with old people that make me want to cry, photos that show an active social engagement not far from the one Luke Fowler is lamenting in his study of the English adult education centres of the 1970s.
I might own the same Sou-Sou socks as Takako Susai, and aspire to be, like her, a somewhat clownish Pied Piper figure without identifiable age or gender, but I could never work in schools and old people’s homes as she can, even if we both live in Japan. I am condemned to an utter separateness here, whereas she is allowed to be an insider.
And yet I can identify to some extent: in the world of her happily creative kindergarten, Takako’s role is not that of a mother — she has not reproduced, and is not policing the children as a mother would. Rather, she exists as an uneasy “ageless child” amongst them, someone whose social role has been, to some extent, self-awarded.
I think it’s the big red hat that does it. She’s made that hat, and when she wears it she becomes an almost shamanic figure, freed from all of life’s regular power structures. In the slightly hackneyed identitarian language of the Western art world, one would have to call that an “empowering” hat.
A question that has long fascinated social commentators has been: why do women become sex workers? Traditional explanations have typically been highly individualistic in nature. Lombroso and Ferrero (1895), for example, focussed on prostitutes as “primitive” atavistic throw-backs, while other theorists subsequently viewed involvement in prostitution as indicative of some form of underlying pathology. Hence a range of psychoanalytic theories were developed to explain women’s entry into prostitution, portraying them as mentally abnormal women who were fearful or incapable of ‘normal’ sexual intimacy. Thus sex workers have variously been described as over-sexed (e.g., Bishop, 1931; Gibbens, 1957; Glueck and Glueck, 1934; Thomas, 1923), frigid (Ellis, 1936), homosexual (Greenwald, 1958; Gibbens, 1957), or motivated by the desire to seek revenge on men (e.g., Rolph, 1955. Also Gibbens, 1957, who in his study of juvenile prostitution named this desire the ‘Circe complex’ - i.e., the wish to turn men into swine). Such accounts were typical of male writers in this area who generally sought to locate the basis of a woman’s involvement in sex work in either her sexuality or her relationships with men.… “As part of an Australian study conducted by Roberta Perkins (1991), the author asked groups of non-prostituting health workers and students why they thought prostitutes would enter sex work. The non-prostitute sample imagined drug-taking and economic imperatives to be the most common reasons, and assumed control by pimps and a background in juvenile delinquency to be amongst the other principal factors. The 128 sex workers whom Perkins interviewed provided alternative explanations. Neither drug addiction nor pimp manipulation featured highly in their accounts, with economic factors being the most influential and compelling.” … “Suggestions of an economic basis to involvement in prostitution were either viewed as secondary to sexual cravings, or completely ignored. For example, in the United Kingdom the 1957 Wolfenden Committee Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution asserted: …we believe that whatever may have been the case in the past, in these days, in this country at any rate, economic factors cannot account for it to any large or decisive extent… Our impression is that the great majority of prostitutes are women whose psychological make-up is such that they choose this life because they find it a style of living which is to them easier, freer and more profitable than would be provided by any other occupation. (quoted in Cheney, 1988, 241). New Zealand commentator Belinda Cheney drew attention to the flawed assumptions underlying the Committee’s reasoning, noting amongst these that: It assumes that prostitutes must be deranged to seek an easy, free and profitable life when the doors are open to a harder, controlled and profitless life as a factory worker, shop assistant or perhaps wife and mother. (Cheney, 1988, 241).”
“I have to make 500 million dollars first,” she says. “That figure has been in my brain for a long time. I want to be the female who earned the same amount of money that the Jay Zs and the Puffys were able to earn. I feel like when I reach my 500-million-dollar goal” – she pauses to cackle at the Monopoly-money sum, teeth bared – “then no other woman in rap will ever feel like they can’t do what these men have done.””
"In the 1890s, when Freud was in the dawn of his career, he was struck by how many of his female patients were revealing childhood [sexual] victimization to him. Freud concluded that child sexual abuse was one of the major causes of emotional disturbances in adult women and wrote a brilliant and humane paper called “The Aetiology of Hysteria.” However, rather than receiving acclaim from his colleagues for his ground-breaking insights, Freud met with scorn. He was ridiculed for believing that men of excellent reputation (most of his patients came from upstanding homes) could be perpetrators of incest.
Within a few years, Freud buckled under this heavy pressure and recanted his conclusions. In their place he proposed the “Oedipus complex,” which became the foundation of modern psychology… Freud used this construct to conclude that the episodes of abuse his clients had revealed to him had never taken place; they were simply fantasies of events the women had wished for… This construct started a hundred-year history in the mental health field of blaming victims for the abuse perpetrated on them and outright discrediting of women’s and children’s reports of mistreatment by men.”
― Lundy Bancroft
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"The terror of being judged sharpens the memory: it sends an inevitable glare over that long-unvisited past which has been habitually recalled only in general phrases. Even without memory, the life is bound into one by a zone of dependence in growth and decay; but intense memory forces a man to own his blameworthy past. With memory set smarting like a reopened wound, a man’s past is not simply a dead history, an outworn preparation of the present: it is not a repented error shaken loose from the life: it is a still quivering part of himself, bringing shudders and bitter flavors and the tinglings of a merited shame." ― George Eliot
Children's strikes in 1911 - Dave Marson