Musings on the BP Portrait Award 2013: Carl Randall

Among the exhibits this year, what touches me most is the set of commissioned work by Carl Randall, featuring modern life in Japan.

Having spent years in Japan, his paintings of Japanese city workers are marked by keenness of observation and his authentic interpretation of Asian lifestyle. Frequently using flattened images and creating crowds out of homogeneous faces, his paintings such as ‘Shinjuku’ recalls what it feels to live in Asia, or Japan: a pent-up feeling of isolation and homogeneity arising from the lack of personal space, as one dissolves into the crowd, into the world’s busiest metro station, like ‘petals on a wet, black bough’.

I am especially drawn to the figure of the contemplative young girl sitting by herself in the cafe, positioned in the top right corner of the monochrome painting ‘Shibuya’.

ShibuyaLRG

Wearing a striped t-shirt and holding a cup of tea, there is a dreamy gaze about her, as she looks out of the full-length window at the colourful skyscrapers and billboards. Around her, other city workers and a young couple are immersed in their own conversations, and yet this particular girl in the corner seems to be a pivot in the picture, a figure that represents the complexity of the hidden self, the suppressed loneliness and unspoken dreams within. The geisha-looking actress featured on the skyscraper billboard deepens the sense of nostalgia and the surreal. ‘Shibuya’ engages in a very interesting dialogue with ‘Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar‘, a stark portraiture of Japanese diners. The diners all look rather worn out and bored, and the bowl of freshly prepared ramen seems to become a poignant symbol, a comforting ritual, as food consumption becomes a welcome escape from sheer boredom and life’s worries.

As seen from his documentary made in Japan, his paintings are based on numerous close-up observation sessions and sketches of subjects in real life settings, rather than from photographs or replica:

As a wonderful contrast to his realist, caricatured paintings of city workers, the exhibit ‘Fireflies’ is perfect in form and technique. In the darkness of the night, far away from the built-up area of the city, the two girls look at the glow of the fireflies. The motif of the fireflies recalls the animation Grave of the Fireflies or ‘Hotaru no haka’ (1998), directed by Isao Takahata, which highlights the struggle of young children in wartime Japan and their unvanquished, persevering spirit. The faraway moon, the reflection from the glowing fireflies on the girls’ faces, and the mellow light coming from countryside houses, are imbued with a poetic sense of harmony, celebrating the value of innocence, tenderness and hope.

Carl-Randall---Firefiles-LRG

BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibition from now until 15 September 2013 at National Portrait Gallery London. Free admission

Murakami’s birthday girl

birthday girl‘The Birthday Girl’ is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Published initially in the Guardian in 2006, Haruki Murakami’s story tells of a girl who made a wish when she was twenty, working her shift in a restaurant.

I loved it when I first read this story, and to tell the truth, a few years had gone past and it has grown on me ever since. I feel that it is about what we really want to make out of life, the spontaneous choices or decisions that somehow made us. The girl refuses to reveal what she wished for. She says only time will tell whether the wish has come true. There is a deliberate contrast between her current and past life. Now a mother and housewife with a seemingly comfortable lifestyle as opposed to the poor waitress who worked her long evening shift on her 20th birthday, the girl tells her tale in an unaffected, self-absorbed tone, and there is no letting on whether she is happy or not. This is precisely the magic of the short story – the briskness of it all, the enigma, the uncertainty as to whether one has attained what one has set out to do. Tobias Hill describes it as the refusal to reveal.

The story speaks to many because it is a question on everyone’s mind: if you were to be granted a wish, what would you wish for? What do you want to do with your life? I find it irresistible, the imagery of ‘the dent’ in the front of their car – that imperfection in life that you have to put up with, that stays no matter what. I am impressed that Murakami can crystallise this idea of helplessness in life in a poetic and cinematic way. I am touched to see many readers ponder about the same puzzle in the narrative. There are various websites and dialogues on this. An example is the wiki dialogue (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_was_the_wish_in_birthday_girl_by_murakami).

Like many others, I identify with his writing a lot, and I always have the image of him writing away at the kitchen table, daily, in the wee hours after his work at the jazz bar in Tokyo. It left me such a strong impression. In spring 2008, when I was in Tokyo, I went to a bar in Ginza, where a friend used to work and manage the bar business. Many Japanese businessmen went to the bar to chill out after work. In that quaint bar there were posh leather sofa chairs and a long, elegant, dimly illuminated bar where the bartender stood and mixed drinks behind the counter. And I had imagined that it would be similar to what Murakami’s life used to be, managing the bar business, working till late, clouded in that lazy music and dim lights. If he had not become a serious writer instead. If he had not gone back home those nights to scribble down what was swimming in his head. According to what Murakami told the papers, when he was 29 he realised he could become a writer.

In the story, I think the girl wished to become a different person.

Now that Norwegian Wood is going to be out soon across London’s cinemas, I have this longing to reread all his books again. That story still kept me thinking on some nights.