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Janice Tanaka

Still from Janice Tanaka's
Memories From the Department of Amnesia

Searching for a mode that would act as a conceptual model for image making, I happened upon an essay by Ernest Fenollosa, titled "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry."

Fenollosa found in the visual way Chinese characters are read, a model for creating poetry. I believe the perceptual way Chinese characters are recognized provides a model for creating images that convey both internal and external processes.

The Chinese character is used as a means of writing for all of East Asia. There are over 30,000 Chinese characters. About one quarter of these characters still maintain their original pictorial qualities. Most have been reworked and reconfigured. In their abstracted state they have become symbols for phonetic sounds much as our standard of Arabic letters form symbols for phonetic sounds. As such, they must be read in sequence to derive any meaning. Because of the pictorial quality still evidenced in one fourth of the characters, it is still possible, in spite of the linguistic differences throughout Asia, to recognize certain words or conceptual meanings no matter what Asian language you may speak.

In his 1936 essay, Ernest Fenollosa waxes eloquently on the poetic virtues of Chinese characters. He states "that his subject is poetry, not language," and goes on to say "the roots of poetry are in language."

My interest is in the nature of the Chinese character as an ideogram, a visual symbol and a conceptual model of ideas, objects, and graphic symbols which represent phonetic sounds, to create images that are multi-dimensional in interpretative associations.

Observe the character for "man sees horse."

The man has legs; so he is capable of standing, he must therefore be alive. The man is followed by an eye outfitted with a pair of legs; the eye is capable of movement and, one may conclude, part of a living organism. The eye is followed by a horse. The horse has four legs; again movement is suggested. If the ability to stand and move is equated with being alive, then we sense that as the man stands, his eye and perhaps his head move as they follow the horse, which also stands or perhaps gallops across his field of vision. We are not only aware of the character-object association; we also experience the action.

There appear to be three levels, at which Chinese characters are perceived simultaneously:

1. As an ideogram which represents gesture, movement, or life: free from expressing a particular form or phrase; the experience of concepts rather than words describing concepts.

2. As a symbolic representation of a visual nature: what we actually see; in this instance, in the character signifying "man sees horse," we see the man, the eye and the horse.

3. As a graphic representation of phonetic sounds: in this example, the sounds for man, eye, and horse.

The third level of graphic representation is an abstraction of the previous two. To recognize the characters as phonetic sounds it is not necessary to experience the man standing, the eye turning or the horse galloping. You only need to equate the phonetic sound to the graphic symbol. This level of perception is the most absolute as a form of communication. Many see "horse" and understand only an abstraction of the complete experience. The abstracted form provides immediate gratification. We do not have to invest any time questioning, redefining, or rethinking. Our one-dimensional experience is a complete and effortless closure.

If we are to experience and understand the complexities of that experience a complete narrative is necessary. A complete narrative being one that provides an insight to the processes that lead to the outcome, simultaneously including internalized processes, external visual experiences and conceptual narrative.

My own experience that led to an awareness of the necessity of simultaneous inclusion of the three levels of perception occurred when I was a dancer. As a dancer, my experience of dance was internalized by memorizing the physical movement and position of dance steps. Memory locked in the body is not made up of images; it is however a reality, an awareness, a nonverbal, nonpictorial awareness which we all share. The world I saw as I danced was one that was in constant motion. Concentration was dislocated as points for spotting were re-established.

When I saw my first ballet from an audience's point of view, I was astounded at the differences in experience between performer and observer. There is a marked difference between the physical sense of awareness within the body's cognizance of movement or pose, and what is actually seen from the outside observer's point of view. I was impressed with the importance of the simultaneity of internalized and external processes to accurately communicate the totality of an experience.

The camera, however, only documents the outer visual experience. It just hints at the internalized processes. Though, we may be consciously aware of the medium's limitations, we, nonetheless, trust its accuracy and we are inspired by its abstract, simplified singularity of representation, a form of representation that has been effective in creating a body of single dimensional discourse.

Rare are those moments, that are so complete, that we can succinctly identify the origin, nature and effect of an influence. Often we are conscious of a change or transition, but we are more likely to sense the change as an intuitive awareness. As in waking from a dream, where the images are lost, yet we are mindful of the experience. It floats in our consciousness as a sense, not an image or a thought. The effect of this awareness cannot be empirically measured, yet it cannot be denied.

The Chinese character provides a conceptual model for creating images that can include complexities of personality, experiences and issues. These images then can re-configure the basis on which representation takes place, and in so doing, serve to unsettle and dissolve more established, dominating forces.

In Memories From the Department of Amnesia, the aftermath of my mother's death left me in what I can best describe as a time vacuum and emotional chaos. Past and present seemed to collide with the surreal and remembered.

My intent was to recreate the reality of chaos and confusion in a way that the viewer could also experience it. How do you visually create a time vacuum and emotional chaos?

It would of course be easy to have a person actually recount what had happened and say, "I am in a time vacuum and experiencing emotional chaos." However, this abstraction would fall short in communicating the visceral impact of the total experience.

Secondly, the physical dislocation, the confusion was so acute that when I was spoken to, I only heard gibberish or what sounded like a foreign language. I found that I could not retain anything I read. I could not remember people's names. This very disconcerting sensation seemed to last ad infinitum. How do you visually recreate this lengthy confusion? A wind up toy bumping into walls and falling off the edge of a table?

Confusion is then followed by poignant images darting out of some well-guarded amnesiac part of the brain. Although the duration of these images was barely a millisecond, the residual impressions left felt like a lifetime. How do you convey this microscopic lifetime?

It is possible to say I've just experienced a flashback, while projecting a flashback on the screen. And although this would suffice to define an internal reality, it would not adequately convey the process, or the turmoil these flashbacks created.

Fortunately, sadness and pain have a limited life as grief and sorrow evolve into comedic absurdity. How can this be represented? A dozen large crying clowns climbing out of a tiny VW?

By stepping through the previous processes of confusion, pain, and absurdity, I was able to move through another point of entry and able to see my mother not as a parent, but as a complex, whole, human being, struggling to survive under circumstances over which she had little or no control. I felt both closer to her and further apart from her. How could I convey the complexity of her personality and my evolving empathic postmortem bonding? A shot of a hand placing flowers on a grave?

I've rhetorically answered my own questions with common images; an interpretation that falls short of conveying any real sense of my original experience.

In Memories..., a diner, a hand mudra of a diner customer, a glass of water appearing and disappearing, being over-filled and slowly falling, an empty white space, the overlapping audio tracks, are used to represent and evoke the contradictory and overlapping qualities of Eastern and Western philosophies. Flashes of photos left on the screen just long enough to be recognizable as family photos, but not long enough to be stereotyped, are symbols used to evoke a sense of a shared reality placed within a different cultural context. In this manner, the viewer is plopped into an alien environment without memory or any recognition of the surroundings and must vicariously live the experience of an unfamiliar culture by collecting/recollecting objects of familiarity. These objects exist within my memories and are suffixed to the larger film within this conceptual framework.

In Memories, although the structure within each verse, or chapter or vignette adopts a structure that is nonlinear in format, the overall framework is a series of vignettes that are linearly edited together. A total experience is contained within each vignette. Each vignette relates to the one preceding and following it, and it is the subject of this linear framework that conceptually ties each vignette to the other.