Familiarity famously breeds contempt.
It can render what’s in front of you invisible. However, when what is in front of you is so different to what you’re used to, you have to take notice. Nolan Price taught in Japan for 5 years, adjusting to what was his ‘new now’. How did this affect his life and teaching?
Into the unknown
Teaching art is centred around encouraging students to look and build awareness of artistic opportunities in the world around them. Artists should inherently notice things others might not, but this can be a difficult skill to nurture and, as I was finding, it can be hard to maintain this open focus yourself. 20 years of teaching in the UK had left me in need of sharpening my senses. More than this, the relentless forward thrust had left me not quite as attuned to the here and now as is healthy.
In terms of getting a change, Japan was up there at the extreme. I was equally entranced and confronted by the world of other I encountered. There was little that was familiar. I was back to questioning what I saw. Back to the position I expect of my students. Becoming the learner, the one that needs to somehow be comfortable in the unknown.
Acclimatisation was hard. Although everything is, as you’d expect, ordered and aligned in Japan, I was confused. The Western cultural cues I brought with me left me ill equipped to make sense of the newness in front of me. Think in your head: what does a post office look like? You’ll no doubt have quite a clear vision, but these pre-sets did not match what I saw. Things did not compute. I was lost. So much of the working out of the world around you is garnered from embedded knowledge, things we intrinsically know, visual prompts we have.
This is crucial to how we interact and exist with other people in society. When you are walking down the street and are about to pass people – how do you know which way they are going? Are they carrying on? Turning left? Turning right? Until now I had somehow known and with this understanding mirrored, a sleek crossover was the norm. In Japan I never performed this easy ballet. My movements were awkward and obtrusive. I just couldn’t grasp what other people were likely to do and thus what was expected of me. You don’t know what you know until it is gone.
Emerging from the bubble
In my familiar home society, mixing with those of similar background and cultural experience, I had long taken for granted that others would share my frame of thinking. Like most, I lived in a bubble. My western education had left me secure in a certain frame of knowledge. My immediate everyday world was one of a shared perspective. My time as a foreigner, a gaijin (literally ‘outsider’ or ‘alien’) was a time of a lack of shared understanding, but of a constant bridging toward it. As I’d expect of my students, I questioned to try and understand. Are there ways I can be less of an individualistic member of society? Should I wear shoes indoors? Why has my rice arrived at the end of my meal?
My new world
When I look back at the first photos I took on arrival in Japan in September 2016, there’s a fascination in the differences I noticed in the most mundane things. When your everyday is not so everyday any more, it is a curious place to be. I would wonder at subterranean driveways, the dramatic downward sweeping curves not computing after the London terraces. Then it was the street rubbish. We’re not talking actual throw aways, this is Japan, that is not done, but most journeys were enriched by street surprises, unintentional sculptures of the everyday. As an artist, I think seeing these discoveries as sculpture, not necessarily needing to understand more, went someway to helping me understand the new world around me.
With little cultural grounding, I had no choice but to see afresh and appreciate things on a surface level. There was a freedom in the unadulterated pleasure of just enjoying what I was seeing without needing to understand it: Ghostly wrapped belongings hinted at what lay beneath, mysterious shop signage with illegible text, mascots and cartoon characters related to animals or deities outside my education, new plants on verges. Dutch garden designer, Piet Oudulf, world famous for his plantings on New York’s High Line has said “I discover beauty in things that are not on first sight beautiful. It is the journey in life to find out what real beauty is and notice it everywhere”. Those Japanese verges set me on this path. I’m developing into a keen gardener, on the lookout, even on home ground, for what is new in my now.
Teaching by nature is in the now with the new. We bring new knowledge and experience to students, they bring their multiple new perspectives. The world they inhabit is one of constant refresh. Their digital lives can lead them to have constant input. To have a life on the cusp of news cycles and a TikTok post can paradoxically numb the ability to live in the now. Art is a subject where this connection to the new in their now can be re-established. The hands-on physicality of the touch of clay, the movement of paint are places away from everything else. I often talk to my students of ‘getting in the zone’.
To help with this I have introduced a ‘Headspace time’ into my lessons. This is a 10 minute task, most often at the start of the lesson, in silence. This is intended to provide the space to reset, so that students are able to acclimatise and find their space in the room, the subject and themselves. I want students to benefit from forgetting the lessons they’ve just had, the conversations they’ve had on the way, what lies ahead of them and the all-round buzz of their busy lives to be here, and enjoy the new things that are happening right now.
Nolan Price is currently Head of Art at Alleyn’s School in Dulwich. Whilst living and teaching in Tokyo, Nolan drew inspiration from Japanese culture and aesthetics to create ceramic sculptures and abstract painting, which utilise chance and gesture.