Tokyo is a difficult city to get to know.
Paul Waley, Tokyo: City of Stories (1991)
Regardless of what you’ve heard about Tokyo, it takes you by surprise. Chaotic, almost incomprehensible and destined for incompleteness, it is a city of contrasts stretched upon endless horizontal and vertical axes. Visit Shibuya and the crowds will carry you in their ebbs and flows; up and down, inexhaustibly. Go to any shopping centre and you will end up lost in the labyrinths of underground passages, aisles and numerous exits, which you will never rediscover. Tokyo recollects a wave and it might sound like a cliché, but Hokusai’s Great Wave seems like an adequate metaphor: swim against the current and you will forget how to breathe, but if you drift with the tide, you will be hypnotised by its sheer energy. Time runs quite differently here, and it takes practice to be in the sync with Tokyo’s heartbeat.
On the other hand, Tokyo is a place of vanishing beauty, interesting textures and everchanging vistas. It’s filled with an unparalleled compilation of styles: flamboyant, kitschy and serenely minimal, especially in its back alleys, where life rolls on peacefully in an attempt to disregard the havoc taking place two inches away. Constantly reshaped, altered, erased and resurrected, Tokyo has been a permanent construction site since the impact of the 1945 air raids. Later, when the Japanese economy rocketed, the city couldn’t keep up with the tempo of modernisation and built… expanded… built more. Now, after the bubble burst and Japan lost its economic stability, Tokyo is facing yet another facelift and the reason is seemingly exciting: The Olympics 2020.
But the implications of this transformation can be challenging, as is documented by Taisuke Koyama (b. 1978, Tokyo), a Japanese photographer whose exhibition ‘Phase Trans’ in Tokyo’s G/P Gallery presents a visual kaleidoscope of the city’s recent state. Just as the title indicates, Koyama’s work documents the transitional appearance of Tokyo’s build up (literal and mental) for the Olympics. The show is a #1 in a project called Tokyo’s Photographic Research, an initiative of Koyama and Junya Yamamine (curator of Contemporary Art Gallery, Art Tower Mito) which will investigate artists’ responses to Tokyo’s ongoing metamorphosis. Koyama himself admits how after coming back from years spent in Amsterdam and London, he was staggered by the experience of crossing Shibuya. Interrupted by road works, fences and endless diversions, they contrasted with the city’s almost dystopian calmness like ‘waiting for something to happen somewhere in the imminent future’; the calmness before the storm. By breaking up the city’s rhythms of commuting and communicating, these obstacles alter the organic character of the urban environment. This is taking place currently, but what will Tokyo become in 2020? And how will it further change in the aftermath of the Olympics? Koyama and Yamamine’s project aims at documenting and discussing this ongoing momentum.
Thus, Koyama’s images reflect today’s Tokyo with its uneasy rhythms and atonality sensed in the photographs’ geometrics. Colourful lines cut through each other and pixelated shapes lose their original poise, all forming a mesmerising montage of manmade forms and their photocopied reproductions. The patterns (phases) are vivid, energetic and inconsistent but they are also surprisingly orderly, like electronic music, pulsating and trance-inducing. In this way, Koyama’s fragments of Tokyo form an abstracted portrait of the city, which at times recalls some of the city symphonies from the 1920’s. Back then artists used new montage techniques to capture the movement and chaos of the newly industrialised metropolises. Koyama’s images though remain less enthusiastic, but rather more suspicious and inquisitive.
Tellingly, in his essay ‘From Tokyo/Towards Tokyo’, Koyama writes about the dubious character of the city: quiet and punctual on its surface, weary and dystopian when inspected closely. The title brings back Yutaka Takanashi’s canonical photobook from 1970 titled Toshio-e (Towards the City). Famous for its design, Takanashi’s album is hidden in a black matte box and opens vertically, which is how Tokyo was expanding in the 1970’s. The collection reveals a smoky megalopolis punctuated by construction sites and in a process of transformation. It is quite striking that forty years onward, Koyama notices similar aspects of the city but instead of producing – like Takanashi – a journey towards newly industrialised Tokyo, he focuses on the actual depths of the city; its granularity and textures. His camera magnifies the rubble, wire fences and crumbled walls, and then they are printed in fluorescent colours in a form of a poster, producing an abstracted image of Tokyo. It’s impossible to say if something is being erected or ruined, if it is reality or an advertising campaign. This reveals a novel approach of looking at the city, fractured and uneven.
There is a tendency in contemporary Japanese photography to question the photographic medium by altering both the image and its production. This experimentation goes hand in hand with the changes taking place in Tokyo. Similar process can be observed in Koyama’s practice, which investigates printing techniques, extended into scanning, thus allowing for errors and variations. Both Tokyo and image creation are strongly intertwined here, proving that the city demands constant shifts of vision and gazing techniques. This applies also to the way in which Koyama’s works are exhibited. Some are displayed as free standing vertical scrolls, while others lean against the wall. They overlap and stretch our gaze from top to ceiling and across, forming an interrupted procession of outlines. Materiality is key as Tokyo is a material construct. There is not much elusiveness about it.
The excitement and honesty of these new experiments is refreshing, and one senses that the camera shutter can’t even keep up with the city’s revamp pace. Once you take a photo, the view is dead. Not because photography implies death, but because Tokyo is alive. It will change before you raise your eyes to take another snapshot. In this way, Tokyo has never changed. ‘Tokyo is Tokyo’ – as Koyama writes – ‘no more, no less’.
* The review is a result of a research trip kindly supported by the The Great British Sasakawa Foundation