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Monkey at the Contemporary

27 June 11 words: James Walker
The cloud-flying 70s icon finally gets the respect he deserves
If you thought a weekend away in Skeg with the in-laws was bad, try a pilgrimage with this lot.

If you think that flying on a cloud is more fun than public transport, that Britney Spears looks sexier as Britney Shears, or have ever put a pencil sharpener between your fingers and blown across it so that it makes a noise, then you’re part of the generation who grew up watching Monkey (1978) as a kid.

Monkey is a cult classic and one of the few saving graces of growing up in the seventies. The story is simple: Monkey – born out of an egg on a mountain top and armed with a magical staff gifted from a Dragon King, undertakes a pilgrimage to China from India to fetch holy scriptures. On his journey he’s accompanied by a bald monk called Tripitaka (who is played by a woman), a cannibal and Pigsy. Along the way they have various scrapes with demons, monsters and bandits, do loads of Kung Fu, and then offer up a simple moral lesson each episode that chimes with Buddhist or Taoist philosophies. Violence and opinions: how very seventies.

Although our love for Monkey is born of a nostalgia for poorly acted, cheesy television, this Japanese television series was in fact based on the classic sixteenth century Chinese novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng'en. One of many interesting points raised by Wayne Burrows at the Nottingham Contemporary in a lecture on the origins of this canon of popular culture.

Burrows took Danita Fleck’s influential essay, Chinese Tricksters, as his starting point. In this Fleck groups Huang Yong Ping with Xu Bing, Gu Wenda and Song Dong as artists who have ‘taken on the role of trickster in modern Asian society.’ They form part of a long history of fools and misfits who have appeared in folklore, fables and mythology. ‘Trickster’ has since become a label used to denigrate any individual or group deemed a threat to the Communist Party – so very topical for the current exhibition.

Fleck goes on to say that the monkey king is the personification of these cultural anxieties because ‘he has been born from a stone, fertilized by the wind, rain and sun, and so contains within himself all of the four elements of the universe.’ Given his formative years it is little wonder that our antihero is always on the lookout for a good time which invariably gets him in to trouble. Burrows then asked whether the BBC’s promotional animation for its coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (made by Jamie Hewlett of Gorillaz) may have been a deliberate play on precisely this rebellious association.

 Tripitaka is protected from demons by a monkey, cannibal and pig monster. Britney Shears was married to Kevin Federline.  

Wu Ch’Eng-En is largely credited as the author of Journey to the West although this has only been since the twentieth century – prior to this the work was published anonymously. Burrows suggested that there may have been two reasons for this. Firstly, the Imperial hierarchies in the Heavenly realms of Monkey are as corrupt and inept as their earthly counterparts and so, despite the ancient setting, could be seen as satirising the Ming Dynasty. Wu Ch’Eng-En spent part of his life as a Ming Dynasty bureaucrat and his distaste for political corruption was well known. But Burrows suggested that Wu may have concealed his authorship because the vernacular style of its prose was at odds with the prevailing literary models in Wu’s own time. He was trying to protect his literary reputation as association with this ‘vulgarity’ could have led to future works not being taken seriously. This seems plausible, particularly when we consider other modes of expression. For example, in the early days of Hollywood cinema, actors didn’t want their names credited because it was seen as a lesser art form than the stage.         

The monkey myth may never have reached these shores if it hadn’t been for Arthur Waley who, on joining the Oriental prints section of the British Museum, began to teach himself Chinese and Japanese. His translations of poetry would appear in Ezra Pound’s The Little Review as well as in self-published collections which were eventually picked up by the commercial publisher Constable. During the Blitz years, Waley began his translation of Monkey. But it is how it was received that is particularly interesting as a good myth has an almost sponge like quality in its ability to absorb cultural anxieties of the time. On receiving her copy, Edith Sitwell noted, ‘I do not know of any work which so abolishes the horrors of this time and our wretched material worries…how strange it is to come back from Monkey and realise how hideous people are making the world.’  

Burrows' talk was filled with many other interesting facts and included clips to help visualise what may otherwise have been a difficult historical and philosophical journey to follow. He neatly wove together various strands of the myth, taking us from the Hindu monkey God Hanuman to the market created for martial arts films after a certain dragon entered the silver screen in 1973. But most interesting of all was seeing how serendipity has as much to play in creating and adding to the mythology as any political, social or religious context.

Jun Inoe and Masaaki Sakai were lead singers in the sixties outfit The Spiders who quickly built up a reputation for fooling around on stage. These ‘tricksters’ of the pop world mastered a routine known as the Monkey Dance, which in turn led to the song Mr Monkey (1966). The Spiders were instrumental in taking a very different journey by bringing the music of the West to the East. It was only natural then that Masaaki Sakai would go on to star in the lead role of the 1978 TV series Monkey and make the pilgrimage in the opposite direction. It is this looping of cultures and layering of meaning that has enabled the Monkey myth to live on. Most recently this has seen a new TV series and film released in Asia in 2011. But for purely nostalgic reasons, I’m off to Staples to buy a pencil sharpener to summon down a cloud. That’s what going to the ‘tempreh on a Friday does to you.    

Future Nottingham Contemporary Talks

Wayne Burrows website

James Walker’s website

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