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Walking among thomassons
Walking among thomassons
First Site : 2017-06-07
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If the Internet has taught us anything it’s that we’re seldom alone in our passions and obsessions. However apparently singular and obscure your interests, somebody somewhere almost certainly shares them. Chances are too that somebody has already set up Facebook and Instagram groups and is organizing seminars and conferences on the subject, maybe walking tours as well.
This is reassuring in some respects, but occasionally disappointing in others, in a “Oh, I’m not nearly as special as I thought I was,” kind of way. And so we come to the Thomasson, a term I’d never heard until a few weeks ago.
The tern was devised in the 1970s by the Japanese artist Genpei Akasegawa (above; he seems a cheerful fellow) who taught a course in “Modernology” to students in Tokyo. He and they noticed that in modern cities there are various architectural features, remnants, that no longer serve the purpose for which they were built. In fact they often serve no useful purpose whatsoever, and yet they remain a part of the environment, sometimes ignored, sometimes vaguely repurposed, but often surprisingly well looked-after as a kind of art object.
We’re talking about staircases that don’t lead anywhere, doors that open into fresh air up on the second or third stories of buildings, bricked in gateways, the remains of cut down telephone poles, bridges to nowhere, inaccessible balconies, and there’s the Atomic Thomasson – the silhouette left by a building that’s no longer there, as if it had been obliterated by a nuclear blast.
In some ways the Thomasson is a kind of folly, although in other ways it seems to be the opposite of a folly, since a folly is designed specifically to be useless or at least decorative, but the Thomason was originally designed to be useful but has somehow lost its way and become an aesthetic artifact.
It also has something, though not everything, in common with a ruin. Genpei Akasegawa is especially taken with freestanding chimneys, which remain even after the buildings they served have been demolished. But these are not precisely ruins since they’re intact and potentially usable, it's just that nobody has any use for them.
Genpei Akasegawa formalized and discussed these matters at length in a book titled, in English, Hyperart: Thomasson, a collection of essays that had first appeared in the Japanese magazine Photography Times. It’s a rum old book that sometimes seems to take itself too seriously, sometimes not nearly seriously enough, but the description of Thomassons as “schisms in man-made-space, appearing along a fault line of a city’s architecture” seems fair enough.
The name comes from the American baseball player Gary Thomasson, who in 1980 was signed to the Yomiuri Giants in Japan for a huge amount of money. He was supposed to be a slugger, a big home run hitter, but he proved to be quite useless. To be honest I do think this is a bit hard on poor old Gary Thomasson. I mean, it’s not like he was trying to be useless, he wanted to hit the ball out of the park, he just happened to keep missing it.
I realize now that I’ve been noticing and appreciating Thomassons for most of my life, and sometimes I’ve photographed them, despite never knowing there was a name for them. I’ve been sent back to my photography files to look for appropriate pictures but also, perhaps more importantly, when I walk, and not only in the city, I now find myself looking for flaws, looking for Thomassons, with a brand new intensity.
You’ll see examples from my own collection of Thomasson pictures scattered around this article (they’re the ones in color, the black and white come via Genpei Akasegawa himself).
I’m especially fond of steps to nowhere, but I can’t imagine I’ll ever find anything quite as wonderful as the Thomasson on the cover of Genpei Akasegawa’s book, it appears inside too, a door handle stranded in the middle of wall.
It’s easy enough to imagine that somebody might want to closed off a doorway, in which case you might brick it up and plastered over it, (this one is behind concrete, apparently) but why on earth would you leave a door handle sticking out? And if the in the caption is to be believed, the handle actually turns.
Genpei Akasegawa gives a detailed explanation of how, when and where this Thomasson was found (not by him, and it’s the wall of a drycleaner’s) and I want to believe him, but I think there’s at least a possibility that this is an installation, a work of art created by him or somebody else. You know what artists are like.
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