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Burnt in. Burnt out.
catalogue essay for Phip Murray's animation "Brace Brace", exhibited at BUS, Melbourne & online @ ABC Strange Attractors, 2004


Phip Murray's Brace, Brace is a series of delicate minimal vignettes based around poetic movements of decorative details: a woman bleeds, a bomb is dropped, a soldier crawls, rose petals fall. A soft morbidity is exuded by the restricted colour palette and the animation's controlled line-work and graphic veneer. Yet while the work can be appreciated at surface level for its formal qualities, it is within that same molecularly compacted surface that its illustrative purpose be viewed. Brace, Brace stems from a range of Japanese illustrative techniques, effects and modes which define the calligraphic nature that arcs across pre- and post-war Japan.

One of many documents left by the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 is the shadows of victims burnt onto walls from the initial blast of radiation. These are recordings of the most palpable sort: like Australian indigenous paint splatters formed by hand-stencils, the shapes of these dead figures are literally composed by their former selves. Binary distinctions between abstract and representational have no play in such acts of encoding. The resulting images are haunting, disquieting and stilling - not through metaphor but through the fusion of material and manifestation.

The calligraphic base of Japanese visual culture results from similar acts of fusion. The brush strokes of kanji by any master of the art are less a recourse to expressionism and more an encoding of electro-magnetic energy channelled through the body and expelled in a motion gesture of ink on paper. The kanji character is read as sign but its actuality is a physical incident whose phenomenological traits determine its presence and status more than an extant linguistic system.

In this fundamental collapse between inscripture and mark-making, the world of Japanese aesthetics takes root and sprawls. The bulk of its two major trajectories of painting - the traditional yamato-e and the modern nihonga-e - have been diagnosed by European sensibilities as 'decorative'. Nothing could be more appropriate: Japanese painting is about the cosmic scale of existence that shimmers within the surface depth of any act of painting. The granular brush stroke is the utter thinness of the brush's presence on paper; it operates at the epidermis that bleeds ink into paper's porous realm, just as it throws us into the universe of natural chaotic patterning and texturing that occurs when ink touches paper. Like life under a microscope, Japanese painting is both declaration of its ephemeral transience (hence the attraction to nature's seasonal cycles) and statement of life's complex folding between the ecological and the philosophical. The fact that the most profound objects of Japanese 'paintings' are screens, scrolls, kimonos and bowls adorned with pictorial devices which acknowledge the symbolic and utilitarian aspects of these objects lends them to be misinterpreted as celebrations of the decorative.

Japanese manga (printed comics) and anime (animated films) are largely treated as 'pictogrammatic' by the same sensibilities which insist that Japanese painting is decorative. Side-stepping that limiting perspective can allow one to trace an ongoing morphology of form and style which links the appended screens of 17th Century painting to both the sequencing of frames in manga and the layered dynamics and contrapuntal movements of anime. Neither of these latter-day story media are aligned to realism - which moves the blind westerner to ungainly equate them with the tone and purpose of Disney productions. And just as yamato-e grew with delicacy from an interplay with waku (a 31-syllable form of poetry), manga and anime poetics are infused within their audiovisual momentum. Reading manga and anime is a complex activity which reflects the sophisticated approach to form and gesture taken in these populist forms.

Manga's post-war approach to accelerated momentum and compressed dynamism is split between the heady sensual swirls of bishojo manga (girls' comics) and the heated searing slashes shonen manga (boys' comics). Gendered symbolism is heightened by a florid explosion of flowers, stars and jewellery in the former and a violent expulsion of swords, bullets and fists in the latter. The line work in manga promotes a hyper-abstraction of gravitational sway and dimensional wavering as frames are blurred, blended and broken, which in turn renders the manga page as a hyper-graphic emotional map. Plot and theme will be inconsequential compared to the para-baroque excessiveness of the illustrative detailing. Again, the 'decorative' might be discerned in manga's splash pages, but the brush work is a fractal network of dramatic signage 'read' as energy moving across the page's sequenced frames.

Anime takes manga's inference of movement and actualises momentum. In doing so, the balletic denouement which simulates camera movement recreates the implied subjective viewpoints which invite one's movement in front of traditional screen paintings (usually comprised of sets of 6 panels, totalling around 1.5m high to 3 metres wide per set). Rather than subsume cinematic language into its form, anime returns us to the greater lineage and traditions of those screens. And true to Japanese visual aesthetics and scopic articulation, anime is neither a box trapping life or a window onto the world, but a screen emblazoned with a poetics of movement.

In place of the momentous, Japanese storytelling focuses on the moment. Not unlike the cinematic figure of a passing train in the distance or a close-up of pouring milk into a cup of coffee (both archetypes of reflective points in Japanese cinema and anime) the 'moment' is the space for reflection. Japanese visual arts extol vistas of emptiness and nothingness in order to spatially denote and formally direct the viewer to reflection. These moments can be violently interrupted by a bold brush stroke (as in traditional calligraphy scrolls of haiku), a slice of a samurai's sword (as in the broad chambara genre of swordplay movies made famous by Akira Kurosawa) or a detonation of an atomic bomb (as per most cyberpunk anime in the wake of Otomo Katsuhiro's Akira).

Japanese post-war culture has spent the last half-decade not simply undergoing yet another wave of 'modernisation' (as described by many Nippophile commentators in respect of Japan's series of socio-political shifts from feudal society): it has forged substantial links with its traditional history of artistic endeavour. The ideas discussed above which fuse the old with the new in the arts in Japan are hard to disavow at the start of a new millennium.

Importing many of the Japanese sensibilities outlined above, Phip Murray's Brace Brace stands as a transcultural use of screens, reconfiguring the gestural, painterly and graphic aspects of traditional Japanese screen painting into a televisual form that embraces the poetic movement and cultural iconography of manga and anime. The simplicity of the animated sequences foregrounds their gestural status in a way that recalls the general grace and elegance of much Japanese art. Brace, Brace's imagery occurs mostly in voids of white, referencing the aesthetic and purpose screen painting employs to frame its visual contents. The animation's restricted palette, flat surfacing and hard-lined contours heighten supposedly decorative detailing not for ornamentation, but to touch the deeper symbolic resonance of motifs like clouds, roses, dresses, blood, planes and mountains.

While appearing to be poetic and beautiful, Brace, Brace is most 'Japanese' in its modulation of unsettling content with gentile statement. Elements like the blood that soaks a dress and the approaching shape of a B-52 bomber inevitably site the narrative in a voided post-war emotional terrain typical of that etched into global consciousness by Hiroshima's aftermath. Brace, Brace's title and its quotation of the emergency-call to passengers on a plane about to crash suitably snares our current perspective on inexperienced history via the intersection of the luxury of international air-travel and the nearest we might get to a true ground zero.

 

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