Tetsuya Ishida, Mechanized Routine and Surreal Internality

There is something invasive, and perhaps a little obscene, about the way that Japanese culture has adapted to technology and modern life. It’s not all Astro Boy and our helpful friends of humanity. Really, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it could be said that the Japanese experience with technology has been felt like a collision. This was particularly evident in the 1989 cult film “Tetsuo: The Iron Man”, and also in the artwork Tetsuya Ishida. Ishida was a brilliant and gifted Japanese surrealist who died, perhaps fittingly, after being struck by a train, brought the kafkaeque experience of mechanized life into a sharp and personal contrast, with himself, alone and lost, as the only person he could represent.

There is a terrible feeling of impotence in Ishida’s work, and the alienation of Japanese life which is, despite all cultural differences, still something a western audience can appreciate. Even our own bodies take on, with surprising regularity, the automatic functioning we traditionally associate with machines. “Auto-Pilot”, particularly while working in some service sector job, is a common phenomenological void in which most people one day find themselves.

At the same time, this external and routinized response to modern industrial processes seems to have a kind of backlash effect that lends itself to the surreal. While our bodies, and even our words seem to be behaving in such a mechanical way, what strange places do our minds occupy? Ishida’s repeated self-portraits often depict him with a decidedly liminal expression, often troubled, but also distant, not all there, as if reflecting on his internal state with surprising lucidity, despite his limiting circumstances.

I was sad to learn that Ishida was dead shortly after discovering his work, and that there is still more than a little suspicion that his was not an “accident” properly speaking. In either event, he has left behind a rich collection of psychological self-portraits that says as much about himself as they do about the place that he has come from, and where we all may go at times.

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