Accessorization is ideology. Rather than being what we eat, we are what we wear, regardless of whether one’s wardrobe is full of carefully-curated intent or blasé could-not-care-less inclinations. Ask me what my favorite piece is right now and I’d easily pick my kitschiest accessories: a silver ring embellished with a fake jewel-studded cross with wings, huge earrings repurposing religiosity with half a dozen dangly gothic symbols, or lime green socks featuring a glitzy Aphrodite posing on an oyster shell à la Botticelli. The kitschier an accessory is, the more fun I’m having.
Kitsch consists of art, objects, or design generally thought of as tacky or garish yet purposefully embraced or appreciated in an ironic way. Like camp, it has always appealed to marginalized communities as a way of repurposing and reclaiming objects, styles, and attitudes once discarded for their lack of “good taste” by the dominant bourgeois class. In our contemporary visual culture, however, the internet and digital media has allowed the flow of capital, attitudes, and ideas to rapidly redefine their own shape and characteristics, so much so that dress, being one of the many forms of visual coding, is no longer a top-down trickle process (yuck!). While celebrities and style icons continue to influence the majority of media consumers, unpopular and avant-garde fashions proliferate each within their own community of practitioners and followers — thus emerged our incredibly rich and transgressive visual subcultures.
That’s not to say that “high” and “low” visual culture are mutually exclusive. They now exist on a bilateral spectrum,. What’s most visually compelling to me is the not the successful mastery of “high/classy/bourgeois” aesthetics versus “low/kitsch/proletariat” ones but rather a surprising and, at times, messy blend of the two. This summer, I met up with friends old and new in various cities in Japan, Korea, and China, and proceeded to document colorful and insanely contradictory cityscapes on both film and my trusty iPhone camera roll. Through these images, I meditated on kitsch, convenience, and the exuberant joy in self-expression.
In looking back on these images, I feel an inconceivable sense of nostalgia for a skill I had practiced everyday in Asia — the skill of looking and really seeing. The carnival of images I encountered everyday required me to actively capture it, sift through and organize it, and, ultimately, glean meaning from it. What I deciphered is the sense of youthful naïveté and excitement I felt in blending kitsch with high culture, observation with action. In capturing spaces of convenience, of consumerist communion (i.e. McDonald’s, FamilyMart, various markets and landmarks and modes of transportation), I discovered, for myself, the extreme flair of these overstimulating and massively unique cities, their über-cool moments of self-contradictory complexity — the push of singular bodies toward a plethora of destinations.
The apex of where style and kitsch and visual and consumerist culture ultimately collide, however, can be found nowhere other than the fluorescent-lit aisles of FamilyMart. Enter at any hour of the day or night and encounter all kinds of characters buying all kinds of packaged and processed goods wearing all kinds of uniforms, gear, casualwear. In FamilyMart, the private is made public, the visual “low” made “high” — for just 30 yen, in this sleek, stylishly-packed tuna mayo onigiri, you may see the city with new, deliciously-confused eyes.