The Anatomy of Melancholy (Part Three): “The Joker’s Warpaint”

I write of melancholy by being busy to avoid melancholy.” – Robert Burton


This is the third and final part of a loosely connected trilogy of posts about my recent investigation into cheering the hell up at a couple of Beijing’s art galleries.

For part one click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/10/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-one-the-bittersweet-notebooks/

For part two click here: 

https://bentheforeigner.wordpress.com/2017/05/12/the-anatomy-of-melancholy-part-two-three-hundred-and-sixty/

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“Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.” – Kurt Vonnegut


In the first of Tim Burton’s now-dated versions of the caped crusader myth, which I recently re-watched for the first time since childhood, the psychotic Joker is portrayed as an ambitious but petty thug with an aptitude for chemistry and art. After falling into a vat of chemicals and emerging looking like Sylvester Stallone’s mum, Joker terrorizes the people of Gotham with some poorly-lit MTV infomercials for tainted fashion products that turn people into ‘works of art’.

Like most people, I much prefer Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning ‘agent of chaos’ version of Joker, the mad dog chasing cars who “doesn’t even know what he’d do if he caught one”, an anarchist torturer with unevenly applied greasepaint slapped on his unwashed, pallid, mentally-ill face.

Some Marxist writers and thinkers (Zizek springs instantly to mind) have stated that they actually identify more with villains like the Joker and Bane than with the Dark Knight himself, feeling that where Batman represents the capitalist status quo the villains usually offer a socialist or anarchist worldview, albeit one brought about by the ‘regime change’ of terrorist action.

However, what the sort of IRL, mentally divergent cunts who put on fright wigs and shoot people because they’re ‘inspired’ by movies like Batman or Old Boy or Taxi Driver, seem to forget is that these characters are fictional. They only exist to drive a narrative forward and to butt heads with other characters.*

They are also bell ends.

Even so, a terrorist villain as frustrated artist was an interesting angle for Tim Burton and his screenwriting team to choose. It wouldn’t be the first time some absolute helmet took their artistic ambitions and pissed them away into more Machiavellian pursuits: In the mid-20th century there was an Austrian fella who, after being absolutely ridiculed in the art world, turned to politics. He finally took Europe by storm in 1939 with a little piece of his called World War Two. Here in the 2010s, even Dubya turned out to be a frustrated painter all along.

What is an artist anyway? It’s just someone who can see something that others can’t, and then articulates that vision through a chosen medium in a way that is, hopefully, understandable to at least a handful of people.

My day spent searching for multimedia gems in China’s capital led me from the virtual reality floor of the 798 Art Factory to the very real third floor of a building in Blue Harbour shopping precinct.

The Yang Art Museum is known locally by the slightly odd but decidedly delicious acronym YAM.** I knew, when I found a xeroxed copy of Guy Debord’s La Société du Spectacle (in French, alas), that I had come to the right place.

I was here to see the exhibition ‘Rebel Cities’, an effort by multiple artists, many of whom were engaging in “research and activism at specific – often socially and geographically marginalized – places in Beijing.”

No photography was allowed in the gallery, and I don’t really like photographing art that much anyway. The map is, of course, not the territory: Seeing a photo of the Sistine Chapel is not the same as standing under its ceiling, any more than watching a virtual herd of elephants is the same as shitting your pants in a Jumanji-level stampede. I did scribble some notes (most likely indecipherable to anyone else) a habit that I actually picked up from the coffee shop companion and gallery-owner-to-be mentioned in the previous entry: “Your writing about it can be the photograph.”

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Mostly I just wandered around looking. After a morning of interactive virtual reality it was nice to passively watch the work of painters, filmmakers and typographers from the city; to soak up some of the hard work of creative Beijingers who are as inspired by their own urban space as I am.

A crumbling semi-shithole of a space it may be. A space that I spent my morning escaping from as tenaciously as the beaten down protagonist from Brazil. A space that the clown prince of crime would have no hesitation in razing to the ground while laughing hysterically. but a space that, for now at least, I call home.


*Conflict, as anyone with even a cursory interest in film or literature knows, is drama.

**They even have an enticing loyalty card called the Super Yam.

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