art is anything you can get away with

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I had an urge to be apart of something. I figured that’s what we are meant to do, as creatures we all conglomerate towards each other with varied similar interests, longing to belong. searching for soul mates, deep friendships, meaningful relationships of any kind, we humans crave it. as appealing as being hikikomori sounds, they’re still communicating to others via the internet. realizing I had no community, I felt obligated to join the bigger picture somehow.

I met a friend involved in the tokyo art scene as an aspiring art director, working at galleries. suddenly some opportunities arose and I decided to push myself to accomplish something. what, I didn’t know. I knew I needed deadlines or I would never get anything done. everything else was up in the air. I kept putting off picking out what photos I wanted to submit to the independent artist exhibition. a week extension, a week more procrastination.

I finally forced myself to view my collection. I picked out what I was drawn to, and narrowed it down. I picked similar color tones and an atmosphere that made me feel a vague nostalgia. the images began to tell a story together. they were taken over the span of a year, but together they told the story of an alternative future world in one day. they were of mundane images of tokyo, that japanese people ignore every day. I was fascinated with the city as an outsider. I thought my story could show that tokyo isn’t always what it seems, that if you change your mind, there is another universe right in front of us. I liked the images on their own, and I liked them even more as a storyboard to a sci-fi anime from a past future. such as a retro 1950s nuculear family prediction that we have already surpassed (2010 and no flying buicks, sorry, ’50s) I named it “retro neo tokyo”. a new tokyo future from the past. an alternate story telling of tokyo. to make the mundane exciting, to bring attention little details that I hoped japanese people could look at closely and re-examine.

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I struggled with how I was going to present it. I bought supplies and (several) glue guns and tried to create an acrylic floating frame. it was a mess and a disaster and low quality. not a good debut. my friend who works at the gallery I was submitting to, came over and helped me re-work the images. I had to change the quality, re-size, reprint, ditch the acrylic, re-arrange and work out an instruction installation guide. I paid my dues (literally $50 to submit), received several emails all in Japanese, and then I thought I was finally in the clear until presentation day. I opted in for the critique, and thought it would be a breezy day.

wake up the day of to find out I have to give a speech, in japanese. frantically rushed to get everything together, wrote some simple sentences on the train ride over, profusely sweated in the summer heat, ran through slow moving tourists, held back frustrated tears of exhaustion and stress before crawling up the stairs to the old high school now turned epic community art gallery. my friend was waiting for me with a bottled water, and helped me translate simple sentences of english to hirigana for my “speech”.

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after 2 hours of joining the crowd and hearing artists explain their works to have it critiqued by a photographer and a cartoon columnist, it was finally my turn for my debut. well, almost. they skipped past me and critiqued a lanky emotionless looking teenager (actually probably older) wearing what appeared to be pajama pants over vans sneakers and carrying a tote bag on his shoulder. his submitted art was a hanging board with a cloth taped to the front with a green abstract owl painted on it. the back was orange with scratches on the back. each artist has 3 minutes to explain their work and then you get a 3 minute response from the critics. I couldn’t understand all of it, but the cartoonist critic tore him apart. the tension was high and uncomfortable, the artist basically couldn’t explain why he did what he did or if it meant anything at all. she laughed and spoke into the microphone “why would you even submit this” and he stubbornly defended himself in a defiant teenager-like way. I felt like I was watching mother and son or high school art teacher and slacker student. she was blunt, he was stubborn. both were grumpy.

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then they turned to me. I tried to lighten the mood. I tried to make a joke, I said my simple sentences in japanese. the woman leaned in for a second, and backed away. she took the mic, said a quick sudden sentence and dismissed me completely. I didn’t know what she said at the time, but I could tell by her body language and attitude that I was insulted in the rudest way. I think I laughed, misunderstanding (cuz you know, language barriers). I waited and the photographer critic took a moment to look at my images and said he saw what I was trying to do and liked the light and tone of the images. so-so. nothing helpful I could really take away from it. the crowd shifted to the next victim of assault.

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it didn’t feel good. I had a creeping suspicion I was dissed. maybe they didn’t take me seriously, or it was lost in translation. maybe they were tired, and not interested. maybe they didn’t like foreigners (I was 1 of 2 of 200 applicants, I think). maybe my photos really sucked. maybe… it could be anything. I still wanted constructive criticism. something useful, but I had nothing. I felt empty and jilted.

a small group of us meandered to ueno for gyoza. I had a heavy feeling in my chest. it was later revealed the cartoonist judge said “looks like tourist photos, that’s all I have to say” and turned away, disinterested. my initial re-reaction to hearing the true translation of what she said was a punch in the gut. it didn’t knock me down but it knocked a little wind out of me. as we ate our giant gyozas, I burned my tongue on the hot dumpling insides after taking too large a bite. was this a metaphor. I got burned after biting off too much I could chew. I sat silently, helpless. what was I doing in Japan. if japanese people aren’t interested in my photography about their own country why should I even try. why would someone be so aggressively blunt and unhelpful in such an atmosphere of art and community. it was harsh, others standing by could feel the sting of her judgement, too. they probably felt sorry for me.

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I was moving slow, being weighed down by my thoughts. trying to be distracted by dessert and conversation to ease my mind off my embarrassing failure debut. we returned back to the gallery only due to the fact my friend had left her phone in her office accidentally. as fate would have it, we ran into the gallery owner, who many hold in high regard. the gallery was empty as people were out in the lobby drinking at the after party. I wanted to look again at my awful horrible photographs to reflect on what (nonexistent) advice was given to me. they can’t see what I see but maybe I need to see what they see. we said hi to the gallery owner and he immediately obliged to look at my work without prompt. I was so nervous!

he then gave me some constructive criticism about the display, and how he understood what I was doing and suggested some tips on different aspects. he said it felt almost vintage, from another time but still felt futuristic. I literally jumped up and down with joy, he understood exactly what I was going for! the art director and owner of this huge cool gallery that loves photography, gave me compliments and helpful criticism, one-on-one! my friend told him it was my first showing, and he was surprised! that is a compliment in itself, I think. I fucked up a lot of the way getting to this point and learned a lot and yet I still managed to pull off impressing the one who actually mattered. the day was a roller coaster full of emotions, but I am so glad my friend forgot her phone or I never would have had that awesome chance with the director.

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I learned the art world is like any other world. like high school, like real life, like shitty jobs. there are bullies, cliques and circles. you can’t please everyone, and you don’t need to. it takes courage to put yourself out there and you will be judged for what you do. you will be judged for what you don’t do, too. make whatever art you like. someone else out there will be looking for something you create and connect with it, and connect with you.

fuck the haters.

PS I looked up the woman’s cartoon she draws and she isn’t even a good drawer, so like, her opinion doesn’t even matter to me, man
PPS I owe everything to my friend, who I couldn’t have done any of this without her. 1000 thank yous (and many more dark orange chocolate bars).

5 Comments

  1. patricia says:

    Hey there! I actually got here from your tumblr blog, which I follow :D Your life in japan, which I get to see through the honesty that I feel you share thru tumblr, is really inspiring. And putting yourself out there in the photo exhibition is really brave of you and it inspires me to do stuff I never thought I could do. I know we’re strangers lol but somehow I’m really proud of you! Hehe And I wish you more success! Ganbatte!

    • alextthomas says:

      TT_____TT thank you so much for taking the time to follow my adventures on tumblr and for leaving such a kind comment! it means a lot to me, it doesn’t matter that we haven’t met, strangers inspire one another every day. knowing someone out there feels motivated to do something exciting for themselves because they saw something I did feels really good. so thank you, I’m glad I could help in whatever tiny way I could. we’ve helped each other :)

  2. Jack says:

    Hi Alex! I accidentally saw you on Lookbook I like your looks, then I check your tumblr AND I LOVE IT! I like everything about Japan and Anime, and I never been in Japan. Your stories, your love for fashion and arts! Its very inspiring! Thank you for sharing it! I just wanna ask I love studio ghibli so much is there any anime movies that you recommend?? Thank you! and stay pretty! ^_^

    Love from Philippines!
    Jack ^_^

  3. Jack says:

    Oh.. thanks Alex! looking forward for your new adventures in life! ^_^ Thank you again! ♥

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