intent markings, an interview with Damien Molony
Recently I had a chance to interview my neighbor, Damien Molony, who is currently making the final preparations for an upcoming exhibition of his works. The exhibition, which will be held at the CASO gallery from January 12th until January 17th, will feature a series of paintings that Damien, who is based in Canberra, Australia, has been working on since he came to Japan with his wife and daughter for a one-year stay. The interview was held at my house over a freshly opened bottle of nihonshu, and we talked for about an hour or so. Though our conversation careened violently from point to point at times, it kept coming back around to the central concerns that Damien has outlined in the artist’s statement that he composed to go along with the CASO exhibit:
FOUR SCULPTED SCENES is my attempt to engage with the area in which I lived in Osaka in 2009.
I came to Japan with the intention of trying to paint what I saw, but with no real understanding of what the country looked like. I began by drawing the immediate area around our house, which included the cemetery at the top of our street. While I wasn’t looking to establish a theme in my paintings, I gravitated towards subjects that were familiar in an environment that was otherwise foreign.
I found a simplicity and order in the gravestones of the cemetery that was missing in the general streetscape of Toyonaka. It helps that I understand something of the sacred. The apparent contrast with the modern, secular Japan was interesting.
As I realized I wouldn’t learn enough Japanese to speak to our neighbors and that my ability to engage with people would occur almost entirely in English, I began to explore the medieval idea that iconography can transmit meaning to the illiterate. In the end I doubt it, but I can’t paint like Giotto.
I have also included paintings of more immediate experiences in the area, like the Tenjin Matsuri and the experience of being a tourist at Horyu-ji. Lastly, I’ve included some of the mundane aspects of my life that kept my head healthy, such as the books I read.
Trane: One of the things that I liked immediately about your paintings and the way you went about them — and it’s one of the things I’ve noticed in my photography as well — is that because of, I guess, the compactness of vista [in Japan] as well as the way in which a lot of shapes are put together in a small space, that aren’t necessarily arranged for the view, there becomes an interesting question of how do you put these structures into a frame so that they’re aesthetically pleasing without at the same time kind of lying about the structures. I’m very impressed with the way you deal with shapes and structures in your painting and I was wondering if you could say something about the sense of painting a landscape that doesn’t appear as a landscape in any kind of traditional sense.
Damien: In the beginning I thought to myself that I’d bitten off more than I could bloody organize. As I said earlier, I wanted to paint what I saw, but I didn’t know what I was going to be looking at when I got here. When I looked out of the window that first morning after we’d arrived, I thought “Oh no. I don’t have any idea how I’m going to do this.” And then it was a progressive thing. I think I was — because I had this year, within the context of Debbie working and then we realized that perhaps I didn’t have to, financially — I had enough leeway that I could, sort of, fail. And that gave me a little bit of courage to really tangle with whatever it was. So when I realized it was difficult I then tried to find something that was relatively simple, and this is the business of the cemetery, of the gravestones. And that wasn’t a conscious thing, but they’re so close to us, just up the hill. Walking to the monorail you could look across through the cemetery and, even the fact that it’s raised up a little bit meant that it was framed against the sky and there was a sort of clarity of line, and those lines are straight, largely. The combination of that straightness and the perspective just suggested that there was something that I could grapple with, sort of visually. Then — if you want to make yourself understood — work from the sort of simple to the more complex. So those very first ones that I did were breaking it down, almost stripping it of its context, into just the basic shapes of the graves. And what I wanted to do from there on was try and incorporate as much as I possibly could.
Trane: In your grave series you move from painting the graves as almost abstractions — very structural — but then, in later paintings, you’ve got the whole scene in there, including the background. Again, back to photography here, I’ve found that to be one of the most difficult things to manage; if you’ve got an image where you can see both the foreground and the background, it’s very difficult to make those two interrelate in a kind of way that makes sense visually when you take it out of the context of just walking through the space. And yet, in the paintings that you’ve done — both the ones of the graveyard and the ones of the view out of your windows over the rooftops — I’ve been very impressed by the way that your paintings have been able to capture that space in a way that feels — what shall I say? — truthful, yet at the same time presenting it in a way that makes it available to the eye in a manner that’s structurally pleasing. I think that’s a very difficult thing to do.
Damien: Did you say “truthful”?
Trane: I mean that in the sense of conveying an actual sense of the place rather than a kind of representation that’s like an idea of “Japaneseness.” It would have been easy, for example, with the rooftops outside of our windows — like the Takases’ rooftop [a beautiful traditional Japanese tile roof] — you could look at that and you could make a kind of painting incorporating that roof that was actually kind of very “picturesque,” shall we say. But in your paintings, you’ve incorporated the power lines, you’ve incorporated the other [more modern] households in the background, which are not arranged to the eye in a necessarily geometrically pleasing manner.
Damien: Well, I wanted to know. I wanted to know the place as best I could, more generally, just being here for 12 months. And as I said earlier, the limitations in terms of being able to talk to people and engage at all sorts of levels. And I had preconceptions about the way that I, you know, could get to know Japan before I arrived. And then with the painting and the limitations — language and the rest of it — I thought well, is it possible? How can I really get to know this place through this sort of visual exercise? And I thought, well, if I’m going to do that there’s no bloody point in trying to romanticize it. I mean, you might as well be honest about where you’re living. And I’m a little bit different to Debbie in this regard — I just say that Osaka is as ugly as a dog’s bum (laughter), and she just says “No.” I don’t know what she sees. And when I say that I don’t mean that I’m repelled by it, but I find it a really difficult visual landscape to work with. And it’s a difficult place to live in many respects. Well, for us. You know, I just wanted to have a crack at directly engaging with it as honestly as I could. And given that I was spending most of my time painting, why not do it through the painting?
The paintings aren’t an attempt to really say anything about that idea, but nevertheless, there were aspects of the things that I saw that were so striking that I wanted to just engage with them a bit more. So that sort of text-based thing about Horyuji [a famous temple in Nara] — those ascetic guys that are sitting, I think it’s to the side, are so striking. The physicality of the pain that they’re feeling in the context of the Buddha going into Nirvana, is so immediate, that when I saw them there was a sort of breathlessness. Like, bloody hell, that is amazing. And the whole business of Christ’s pain on the cross is exactly that pain. It’s so human, and writ so large in these tiny figurines, there, that the connection is obvious. It’s easy therefore to engage with, you know? Whether it’s a religious exercise, there’s also just the pure humanity of it.
Trane: I think we were talking about this — maybe when we were at Horyuji — about how the fact that there are so many representations of religious figures in Japan, and of course in Christian art as well, but for some reason there are those that just arrest you, and it’s because you’re looking at something that feels alive to you and speaks to you directly because of that feeling. Whereas with other figures, you might look at them and you might say, “Well, you know, I can understand why that’s important or aesthetically pleasing,” or “Yes, that’s impressive,” but then every once in a while there’s one of these figures that just arrests you, and I’ve had that experience too.
Damien: And different materials too. This is sort of off to the side, but you sort of store images in your head. There’s a crucifix in Florence — Donatello —in wood. And I remember seeing it and thinking, because of the nature of the material — wood is disposable, and it’s not part of that other longstanding European tradition of marble and bronze — I remember seeing that and thinking that it was quite stunning. And of course, here in Japan everything is less permanent in terms of the materials that are used. Certainly in terms of the housing.
Trane: Let’s get back to your paintings of our local neighborhood, and this question also has to do with some of those problems with photography we were talking about earlier. The place itself, as a place to live in, became instantly familiar to me. And yet, at first I couldn’t take photographs of our street that looked in any way, shape, or form like what I felt while walking through this street. I couldn’t frame things in the ways that I had been able to frame things in the States. And what impressed me about some of your paintings is that you’ve been able to frame things in a way that conveys the familiarity of the place here, but at the same time doesn’t convey that familiarity by forcing it into a structure that comes from elsewhere.
Damien: I’m really pleased you say that. I suppose when they go up there on the wall down there at CASO it will be interesting to see how the local people take to them, whether they recognize their own space. There’s this great cartoonist in Australia, this bloke called Leunig [cartoonist Michael Leunig] and this famous cartoon of his where you’ve got a father and child in front of a TV set. On the TV set is a sunset and behind the TV is a window, and exactly the same sunset is happening outside the window as is happening on the TV. And that puzzled me for years, as a cartoon. And then Debbie and myself went down the coast and we’re sitting in this restaurant, right on the beach, down the South Coast, close to Canberra. There’s this magnificent glossy photograph of a sort of mountain range quite close to where we are — a beautiful photo — and we’re eating dinner and I was looking at this photo and I thought, well why is it we want to look at the received perception rather than — because from where we were you could easily just go and have a look at this, and why would you want this bloody great wacking photograph of it? It’s an amazing thing here to see the number of people photographing — I reckon there’s a herd mentality — you see one bloke who’ll stagger over to a maple leaf on the ground and he’ll start photographing and three or four blokes come running by and they’re all doing the same thing. Soon it’s a swarm of people. In the end I came to the conclusion that what it’s about isn’t the natural phenomenon, or even the manmade phenomenon, it’s we want to know how other people look at things. That’s the thing that really interests us. So it’s possible to be looking at the TV set sunset and the sunset outside, because you want to see how it’s framed by another human being. Because it only makes sense in the context of us. So I’m interested, then, if it rings true to the local people here. You know? Is it a similar experience?
(Note: This is only a portion of the complete interview. Certain portions of the conversation reproduced here have been slightly revised in the interest of readability.)
Filed under: art, culture, exhibit, Japan, Kansai, Osaka, religion | 6 Comments
Tags: aesthetics, art, CASO, Contemporary Art Space Osaka, 絵, 美術, Damien Molony, exhibit, exhibition, figurines, Four Sculpted Scenes, graves, gravestones, graveyard, interview, jizo, life in Japan, local space, locality, Michael Leunig, Osaka, painting, place, poetics of space, religion, representations of religious figures, statuary, television sunset, the experience of vision, visual framing, 地蔵, 墓, 大阪