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Abstraction provides no respite from interpretation

by Miki Ambrózy

On Meeting Makino Takashi

July 2019

I went to see Makino Takashi’s Memento Stella in a MO museum screening. I have not known him or his work before, but the encounter was rich with associations.

Here’s someone for whom textures and surface matters, someone looking for an organic image, a noisy image. Takashi has worked extensively with layers on Memento Stella. He uses layering as a way to create an intutitive, arresting image, imposing layer upon layer of 4K video.

As abstract films go, Memento Stella is built from texture and still camera compositions. The transitions are subtle and unpretentious, everything is done with great sensitivity. There’s a gentle looking at the world, and a thoughtful and meticulous approach to composing. Takashi's process, he admits, is arduous and time-consuming. Experimentation with the layers is the head, while composition is the reflective tail. Through multiple cycles, sometimes with musical scores  added, sometimes with collaborators invited, the film grows over the time of a couple of years.

The encounter with the Vilnius audience was an interesting side-effect to the 60-minute long film. About 40% of the audience left the screening, probably dumbstruck by the rawness of pure abstraction, the duration, the fact of having to construct a meaningful flow out of the projection. Confronted with time, dreaming awake, boredom, transcendental cinema and a fair amount of repetition – audiences flee for the exit. Takashi recalled how his work is received similarly in all countries. Is it because audiences know what to expect of abstraction in the visual arts? Is it because the lack of patience for this form of experimental film?

In the light of his film, I was curious to go back to one of Kirk Varnedoe’s lectures where he speaks about the different interpretations of Pollock’s work in the 1960s. In general, “abstraction provides no respite from interpretation, nor any retreat from the contingencies of history”.1 Consequently, someone’s practice can face a multitude of interpretations. What happened to Pollock is very similar to what may happen after Memento Stella is screened, and here’s why.

In one reading, we may notice the freedom, the flow and the individual presence of a great master working very hard to break free of locked forms of image-making and cinema. A plea for universal understanding beyond language, Memento Stella constructs a collective picture of harmony. In a quite different reading, however, we may wonder at the raw materiality and the peculiar practice of how Takashi proceeds to create a dense sonic and visual experience, using body and gesture, composition and music, structure and chance. In this version of the story, his temperament  and intention to find the right form are what make or break his work.

I agree with Varnedoe that interpretation goes into constant arguments about form, intention, praxis etc. – this is the nature of abstraction. Takashi’s quest for a universal cosmic experience is both romantic, minimalist and high modernist. I felt a certain longing to belong to the grand tradition of expressionism. I thought I was witness to the epic quest for meaning by an individual-universal spirit (the filmmaker), using the means of cinema and layering.

Fortunately, Memento Stella doesn’t feel self-conscious. There’s an intensity that generates respect, a sensitivity in looking for motion, pattern and collaging it in time. It is visual music at its best, with a charming obsession for particles, water ripples and the like. It was the nearest experience one can get to watching a river intensely for an hour while night falls.

It was a welcoming feeling to return to the clarity and pureness of abstraction, even if on a personal level the film lacked the trigger of reality and the warmth of the everyday. Admittedly, I know very little about Japanese experimental filmmakers. The presence of Makino Takashi at the screening, however, his gentle voice, the humble way he introduced the film and responded to questions, made all the difference I needed to put flesh on this visual extravaganza.


1 Kirk Varnedoe, Pictures of Nothing, 2003