Friday, 29 July 2016

Piotr Frolov, the pleasure of movement - and sakariba

Sometimes I feel like just using my blog to spread the news about delightful things. Today I will do just that. I recently came across the works of a young Russian painter, Piotr Frolov (1974-) and I'd like to show a few of his works and share some of my impressions.

So my impressions? Let me first of all admit that since I know nothing about the artist's life or background my reflexions will simply be a very subjective attempt to clarify to myself what it is in these works that I find appealing. What is it that makes them speak to me and make me appreciate them? As a tentative answer, I will throw out four words: profusion, flatness, wind-like movement and happiness.

"Profusion" is the first word that comes to mind. Most of the pictures depict a multitude of people - chiefly cheerful young women. There is also a plenitude of animals, strange hats, all kinds of vehicles, samovars, flags, brooms, tea kettles, soap bubbles, pumpkins and phonographs.

Another important word is "flatness". Depth plays very little role in these pictures. Instead of being drawn towards a vanishing point in the picture's centre, the gaze is made to move across the surface, sampling the profusion of things. As Murakami Takashi points out, the eye's movement over a flat surface generates a pleasant sensation. This observation is true also of Frolov's work, which in this respect is similar to the Murakami's "superflat" art.

Yet Frolov's works are different from Murakami's. How? This is where what I call the wind-like movement comes in. In several of Frolov's works the gaze tends to be pulled out of the picture, almost as if carried along by a wind. Looking at his pictures, one has the impression that all these people and things have been thrown up in the air and left to drift with the wind. People seem to be blowing - or even somersaulting - across the skies. The impression of wind is strong even when people are walking, skiing, bicycling or pulled along by strange vehicles.

Connected to the windlike movement is the following sensation: what you see is happening just now, in this very moment, and in a second the entire scenery will have changed entirely. Vehicles will have driven past, faces will have turned in another direction, some things will have fallen out of sight and others will be thrown up in the air in their stead. This is quite different from the sense of durability and heaviness generated in perspectival works of art that pull the gaze inwards, towards a centre (even when this art is characterized by much movement, like in Rubens) or that make the gaze oscillate back and forth across the picture's surface (as in much "superflat" art). It is also quite different from works that at first sight might be thought of as rather similar to Frolov's - I'm thinking of works like those by Hieronymus Bosch or, among contemporary artists, Sergey Tyukanov or Michael Hutter. In those works too we find a profusion of people and things and a "flat" structure. Their panoramic quality, however, give them a stability and heaviness that is lacking in Frolov's. In their works, the gaze takes in the entire scenery or landscape at once, and despite the profusion of moving beings, the scenery or landscape as such remains static. In Frolov's paintings, by contrast, there is a strong sense that the elements of that make up the picture will part from each other in an instant - much like in a snapshot of a city street.

Even in the more peaceful pictures among Frolov's works, there is a sense of ongoing movement. The dogs and birds, one feels, won’t be still for long, and the faces too appear to be reacting to something and will surely have shifted expression in a moment.

It is almost as if the paintings were offering a kind of pictorial or figurative representation of Lucretius' universe of falling atoms. In this universe, everything is volatile since it is made up of nothing but the temporary combinations of the falling atoms. At the same time, unpredictability enters this universe through the swirl - or clinamen - of these atoms, that make them deviate from their trajectories.

Finally, there's a fourth word that seems apt when describing these pictures: "happiness". People are smiling, and seem to radiate pleasure and self-confidence. There's an exuberant, joyful feel to these pictures that make them seem idyllic or utopian. One expression of this idyllic quality is that they all seem to depict a world of pleasant temperature, neither too hot or too cold - despite the fact that some of the depict snow. In all of them, a cool and refreshing spring breeze is blowing.

What do we have if we put these words together - "profusion", "flatness", "wind-like movement" and "happiness"? I think they suggest a certain kind of utopia. A utopia connected with qualities like profusion or movement rather than a stable order. To describe it, we might use the word "carnivaleque". The strange outfits, the balloons and the bubbles all suggest a festive occasion, removed from the everyday. Some of the women seem to be witches, suggesting that the carnival in question might be Walpurgisnacht or some other witches' sabbath. But perhaps there is an even better word we might use - the Japanese word sakariba

Coda: the sakariba

The word carnival suggests something quite interesting, namely the roots of this utopia in a particular view of the sacred.

The sacred, however, is not usually associated with motion, profusion and flatness. To understand how these things hang together we can turn to the word sakariba - a common Japanese word for amusement quarters that is also used in a wider sense as the generally busiest and liveliest parts of town (as a synonym to hankagai), or in other words parts of town that prosper through their ability to attract large crowds. In the sakariba we find the same qualities that we identified in Frolov's pictures: a profusion of people and things, a pleasurable  flatness (similar to what Simmel called sociability, a "play-form" of society in which one abstracts away real problems in personal life or society), a centre-less windlike movement, and happiness. My reason for mentioning this similarity is not that I want to dismiss the world of these pictures as a mere reflection of capitalism or consumerism. Rather, I'm interested in elucidating how the sakariba - like Frolov's pictures - are connected to the sacred.

In the Edo Period, sakariba were places of refuge in times of fire such as broad roads (hirokôji) or river banks (kawara). In ordinary times these places were used by various people to offer attractions that drew the masses. Another origin of the modern sakariba were the amusement quarters next to religious centers in temple towns, such as Asakusa (for this background history, see Linhart 1998). What's interesting here is that these places - riverbanks, temples and markets - were places of what the historian Amino Yoshihiko (1996) calls muen, a quality with roots in medieval religiosity that could be found wherever people were lifted out of the ordinary and liberated from the hierarchies regulating life in the profane world. People were made equal by virtue of being present in a "sacred" setting ("in the eyes of the Gods and the Buddhas") where they, freed from profane hierarchies, could associate across class boundaries.

In modern Japan, the sakariba of course simply function as part of capitalist society. Despite this, the religious connotations of these places haven't disappeared entirely. Many visitors to Japan have, I'm sure, been struck with a certain similarity between religious festivals (matsuri) on the one hand and shopping arcades and supermarkets on the other. One can think, for instance, of the white-red colours (kôhaku) that sometimes adorn supermarkets and which are also used as auspicious colours in Shintô rituals. The mood evoked both by festivals and and large shops or commercial streets is that of hare - a peculiar notion of the sacred associated with purity, vitality and productivity. As many anthropologists have pointed out, hare is a quality that recurs cyclically, regenerating the community after a period of decay and dissolution (e.g. Sakurai 1985). It is associated with the auspicious visit of gods who should be celebrated and who will, in turn, bring blessings and prosperity. Something of the quality of hare still seem to cling to the idea of the sakariba. Linhart, for instance, refers to the sociologist Ikei Nozomu with the following words: “For him, people who go to a sakariba enjoy an almost religious feeling among the crowd there, comparable to a traditional festival” (Linhart 1998: 232). We can also note that like most religious festivals (and many Shintô shrines) sakariba invariably have a colorful, exuberant and "reddish" feel that contrasts sharply with the usually very subdued, plain and quiet quality of the profane spaces used in Japan for work or living.
Why is this interesting? Not only the notion of hare but also the idea of religious rituals have often been associated with the regeneration of community (here I think not only of Sakurai's theory of hare but also of the more general theories of Durkheim and Randall Collins). However, the sakariba is a "sacred" space that depends on the amassment of strangers who never coalesce into a community. People walking through a sakariba partake of the extraordinary atmosphere yet remain strangers. This is similar to the quality of space Amino associated with muen, where people are cut off from community and their status in the profane world and where thereby a space is created where strangers can associate on an equal footing. The quality of anonymity is also stressed by Linhart who quotes the expression “disappearing in the sakariba”. He describes it as a “zone of liberty” where people interact as strangers on a voyage: “When a man is visiting a modern sakariba, he is on a journey, and for the Japanese ‘on a journey shame can be thrown away!’” (Linhart 1998: 238). He also states that if they would happen to meet acquaintances in the sakariba, they can become very bashful (ibid. 239). Here it is very clear that the sakariba is antithetical to community – it thrives on being a place for strangers.

To return to Frolov - is the world he depicts a world of hare? A world suffused by the same sense of the supernatural or "sacred" as the sakariba? A sense that thrives not order, stability or community, but on movement and profusion and that is welcoming to strangers?


Amino, Yoshihiko (1996) Muen-Kugai-Raku: Nihon chūsei no jiyū to heiwa, Tokyo: Heibonsha.

Linhart, Sepp (1998) “Sakariba: Zone of ‘Evaporation’ between Work and Home?” in Joy Hendry, ed., Interpreting Japanese Society: Anthropological Approaches, London: Routledge.

Sakurai, Tokutarō (1985) Kesshū no genten – Kyōdōtai no hōkai to saisei, Tokyo: Kōbunsha.

Links to sites with Piotr Frolov's works:

The artist's homepage:

Artodyssey (entry introducing Frolov):

I also recommend the "Virtual museum", an impressive site which contains several of Frolov's works:

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