To Be A Reader

This month marks Passenger Art’s first anniversary. One year ago, we took the increasingly common step to assert ourselves on the Internets—to assume a “web presence,” as the shorthand goes. As steep a learning curve as it has been for a pair of technological troglodytes such as us, it has been an exhilarating year. We appreciate to no end the conversations and exchanges we’ve had with artists, curators, spectators and readers along the way and we hope that as time goes on the dialogue will continue. We do, however, want to acknowledge one big ending that paradoxically lies at the beginning of this project: the unexpected and irreconcilable death of Dr. Hajime Nakatani, our Master’s advisor, mentor and friend.

We likely never would have begun Passenger Art if it weren’t for Hajime. While the two of us became fast friends when we met, it was only through working with our shared supervisor that we also became colleagues and collaborators. One year of operations, then, but it really all began back in 2008, when we entered grad school, and fortuitously opted for a directed reading course with Hajime. The three of us met twice a month for three-hour sessions in his office on the top floor of a knock-kneed old campus building that threatened to give way each time one climbed the stairs. Holed up in this room with its chipped paint and slanted floors, the walls groaned with books arranged in subject sections that varied from manga to French literature, Chinese calligraphy, semiotics, slasher films and of course art history, East to West and back again. Hajime would trade his shiny leather lace-ups for slippers in his orderly office. We would pull up our chairs, and he would sit facing us, back straight, hands on each thigh, and look from one of us to the other with wide eyes and a little smile: “so…”

And it would begin. Maybe it was the feverish last-minute reading before our meetings, coupled with the usual trappings of graduate school—little sleep, daily anxiety attacks and Big Gulp sized coffees—but the discussions we had in that room consumed us. They got inside of us, took form and became the scaffolding for future conversations and written pieces. Hajime had a capacity to draw unlikely connections between seemingly disparate points of departure and bizarre conceptual planes, helping us weave together hypotheses that went from unlikely to obvious within the sequence of a couple carefully chosen turns of phrase. Tackling a wide array of subjects—some pre-planned, others arising organically—it often felt as if our countless discussions were but branches of a single perfect, if structurally tangential, conversation. Parallels were drawn between the nodal-like mapping of American football, Ariel Sharon’s military strategies, Baudrillard’s hallucinatory road trip through the landscapes and psyche of the States, the cinematic view from a train, and the suspension of history in the non-places of supermodernity. Our conversations and our thought processes would take on the form of the subject matter at hand. Notions of mobility and travel, transience and diversion, permeated our discussions. We drifted through and dabbled in theory promiscuously, bearing down over tricky passes, navigating a thousand plateaus. These texts weren’t textbooks, they were vehicles for other ways of thinking. And this in itself was a creative act.

Of course, this being grad school, we were becoming accustomed to the flash of terror that ignites when we’d open our mouths to speak without being entirely sure what we were going to say. But in Hajime’s office, these adrenaline punches became the beginnings of yet other branches of ideas. He would let us talk through our thoughts—however half-baked or dead-ended they might have been—listening intently or, perhaps, amusedly. He would nod slowly and thoughtfully and then often respond “yeeeeaaahh….” and then tweak or reinterpret what we had said with some startlingly perceptive comment, and off we’d go again! It sometimes felt like playing hopscotch at varying speeds through new and unpredictable terrain. (At least for us, that is. One can only imagine how many times he had humoured some earnest student “discovering” Benjamin’s melancholic messianism or some other such standard over the years).

Hajime was a small, understated and impeccably stylish man. Rare but memorable glimpses of an original and flamboyant nature included his use of a black lace hand fan on particularly hot days, his simultaneously subtle and showy proclivity for designer wear and his connoisseurship of unusual things. He was the kind of man who would pair a low-budget horror film with a bottle of Barolo, appreciating equally the character of each indulgence. His laugh was infectious—the word “mirth” seemed invented for him. He was as far as one could get from the cliché of pompous and elbow-patched professors who have little time or patience for the rotating stock of students that are put in their care. Hajime was passionate and personable and a hell of a lot of fun. We were recently reminded of an evening together—a dinner celebrating something—in which we realized at 3:00 in the morning that we’d burned through five bottles of wine and the expensive champagne that Hajime had brought (and that would have handily blown the student budget). It was at that moment when, unprepared to let the evening end, Hajime joined us in drinking the neighbour’s homemade hooch straight from the gallon jar, that we knew we were not only dealing with a scholar and an intellect of the highest order, but a bon vivant as well.

He spoke multiple languages, but rarely spoke of them. This was true for Hajime in general: while we came to develop a warm, humourous and intellectual relationship, becoming close in many ways, he always remained something of an enigma. His wisdom came in parables and metaphors whose subtlety or silliness could initially distract from their gravity, yet took on ever-greater meaning after marinating for a while. There was a pithy awareness of the ridiculous in him that was as funny as it was vaguely tragic. We never really knew what he was working on and his expertise seemed to stretch so wide, that it was ultimately anyone’s guess. He offered little hints of his past and his personal life, only deepening the mystery and inciting more curious speculation on our nosy parts. We came to accept the difficult truth that we had to enjoy and learn from the partial and paradoxical Hajime that he gave us and to appreciate our every interaction. Our time with him was necessarily temporary; such pedagogy cannot last forever. It wasn’t a premonition, it was just the way it was. But it was made all the more poignant one day last summer when we learned of his death at the age of 44.

This knowledge was ungrounding, more so because at that point we’d already been living for a few years in some sort of strange suspension with Hajime. He had left Montreal at the end of our two-year Master’s degree to teach at Rikkyu University in Tokyo. We had said our goodbyes, we had lamented our loss, never expecting it to be so final. It seemed to us that, although little had changed in our immediate surroundings, if Hajime had passed away, then the world had become just a little more hollow, emptied of a certain reserve of beauty and brilliance and general goodness.

And because it feels as if he’s only as far away as he was before we learned of his death, we still find it hard to believe. We would rather think him still alive and admittedly allow ourselves this fantasy now and again, concocting conspiracy theories and absurd explanations that we know he would find amusing or, at least, more interesting than his simply having died, before he should have, without giving us any warning of the coming event, and leaving us here, not knowing what do with this new idea.

We have both returned many times to a single comment that Hajime made in one of our marathon meetings. Remarking on the work of Gilles Deleuze, he argued that beyond being a great philosopher, linguist, writer or cultural critic, Deleuze was above all a brilliant and adept reader. It became instantly evident that, for Hajime, this was the base requirement for a great scholar. And it was equally clear, that the art or skill of reading extended far beyond the comprehension of written words and complex concepts, or even the analysis or interpretation of art. A truly accomplished reader confronts and consumes all experiences and ideas – whether sensational or banal – with curiosity and critical awareness. And Hajime was a reader if ever there was one.

We were lucky to study with a scholar such as he. Between us we will likely never be able to read as much or as widely as Hajime had, nor necessarily do so as incisively or openly. But we are made better readers and writers from his mentorship and friendship. We owe him a huge debt of gratitude and we miss him deeply. Co-writing every article for Passenger Art somewhat elides the fact that the two of us are quite different thinkers and writers. Hajime was attuned to this and seemed to appreciate what each of us brought to the table. It was a greater gift than we knew at the time—grad school can be terrifying and highly unsettling in terms of developing or articulating one’s identity as an academic or individual thinker—and Hajime’s acceptance and support of our particular strengths showed us that there is no one way to do it.

When we say that we may never have started Passenger Art if we hadn’t known Hajime, we mean that in a number of ways. At its very core, our continued collaboration is an extension of all those discussions—both academic and informal—that began with our advisor. But even more than that, it’s on the model of Hajime’s mind that we envisioned the structure of Passenger Art: a forum for conceptual mobility and unmapped exploration; an avenue to question our own preconceptions and investigate even the most unlikely of connections; and, ultimately, just an attempt to continue the conversation. So, it is, therefore, with love and gratitude and respect that we dedicate Passenger Art to the memory and legacy of Dr. Hajime Nakatani.


 Natalie Zayne Bussey and Reilley Bishop-Stall

© Passenger Art, 2014