Shuji Terayama's cinema of the absurd

A battle of wills at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall.

"The Trial" at the Tate Modern event "Terayama Live" on 18 March. Credit: Brotherton/Lock

By day, Tate Modern can make for a less-than-ideal viewing space: with its department-store escalators and shop shelves stacked with merchandise (Yayoi Kusama tea towels, anyone?), the gallery seems to emphasise a bleakly Blairite species of populism, in which attendance figures and column inches are prioritised over all else. But huddled in the dark of the Turbine Hall around a reel-to-reel projector for an after-hours screening of films by the Japanese avant-gardist Shuji Terayama, I was struck by the building's cathedral-like power to evoke reverence – even for the absurd.

The first picture of the night, An Attempt to Describe the Measure of a Man, is about a lovesick dwarf (this is experimental cinema, after all). In the second, Laura, on-screen showgirls hurl abuse at the audience until one angry member (OK, an actor) climbs into the frame through cuts in the screen, whereupon he is stripped naked and molested.

The programme's curator, Thomas Dylan Eaton, assures me that a profound seriousness of intent belies Terayama's irreverence and I believe him. Other films in the ten-day season of his work – such as The Eraser, a haunting meditation on mourning in postwar Japan – are at once inventive and affecting.

However, Terayama's quasi-pornographic ruminations aren't for everyone. A small group walked out after the first film and, during the final movie, The Trial, a battle of wills erupted between audience members (including the critic Tony Rayns) hammering nails into the screen as part of the interactive section of the picture – don't ask – and a heckler shouting, "Frivolity! Fuck the Tate!" Or so it sounded from where I stood. Was the heckler part of the show? Who knows? Terayama once said that logic was "the worst villain". That night, at least, he vanquished it.

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