Picking up his gong in the Breakthrough category at The Times/South Bank Show 2010 Awards, artist David Blandy might have thanked the man who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. During WWII, his grandfather was a prisoner of war and Japan’s surrender is said to have saved his life.
“How do I reconcile my life and the life of most of my family with the 200,000 dead in Hiroshima?” he wonders aloud in his East London studio. “It can never make sense really.”
Blandy now looks East for inspiration. Martial arts, manga and video game culture all feature in his work. As a performance artist, he has long posed as a Zen-like wanderer, making countless films as The Barefoot Lone Pilgrim, armed with record bag, staff and portable turntable.
His latest alter-ego, The Child of the Atom, is a response to the atrocity which saved his grandfather. This time he has styled himself as a manga action figure with legions of fans.
“I thought it would be interesting if they were already fan made things, about this character who was already existing, so it’s like a fan homage,” he says of the film, shot in Japan in December.
Blandy himself is the consummate fan. When we meet, he is quick to show off his current favourite graphic novel, his vintage arcade machine cartridges and just a few of his many vinyl records. He may be up on art history, together with Freud, Lacan and Žižek, but this serious artist is a pop kid at heart and well aware of the absurdity.
“Art’s been very important to me in my life,” he insists, “But at the same time has it really changed me? Has it been as profound an influence as . . . Karate Kid?”
He laughs, just as the viewer might at footage of a tall, bespectacled Blandy, dressed in his orange Kung Fu suit, wandering the streets of New York in search of soul. Humour is everywhere in his work, or more seriously, “the joy of acknowledging the truth that maybe identity itself is a fiction”.
“Once you embrace that idea you realise that anything is possible,” he explains. “Rather than feeling completely constrained within your boundaries of – I don’t know? White middle-class male from North London – why can’t I be a superhero anime action figure?”
Or for that matter a black soul singer. Another film finds Blandy made up like a minstrel in reverse as he mimes along to Syl Johnson’s classic, Is It Because I’m Black? The track lasts eight minutes and in psychological terms is something of an endurance piece.
“I may have put on clown make up, but I perform the song with total . . .” he is lost for words. “I’m just inside it and in a way it’s inside me now because I’ve learnt it for the last eight years. It’s just become such an intrinsic way of how my brain is”.
It is this depth of engagement which makes the work so interesting and Blandy compares it to an experiment: “I guess I’m not scared of making a fool of myself in the aid of art, in the aid of trying to understand a bit more of who I am.”
But this serious question about identity leads the artist back to the video game Street Fighter, which he says is also hard-wired into his nervous system.
“Where do we get our ideas if we don’t read philosophy or if we don’t deal with religion?” he asks. “That desire to believe in something or have rules to live your life by is still there, so you end up relating to [game character] Ryu, wandering the world looking for the perfect fight.”
This in turn, he argues, might lead you to an interest in reading actual Zen philosophy. Just as going to a show by David Blandy could lead you to Syl Johnson, Street Fighter or manga epic Gundam. “I guess I see that almost as my role as an artist,” he adds, “To be the finger pointing at the moon, as Bruce Lee would say”.
Written for Art & Music.