‘But I am talking about the time when there wasn’t any Earth underneath or anything else solid, not even a celestial body in the distance capable of attracting you into its orbit. You simply fell, indefinitely, for an indefinite length of time’
(Italo Calvino, The Form of Space)
There is an elegance and organic malleability in Hiroe Saeki’s (b. 1978, Osaka) drawings which depict landscapes reminiscent of galaxies captured in a brief moment of their formation. Some of the scapes seem to fall from the firmament, others rise from the ground or stretch from both sides of the panels, creating an illusion of a languid movement and another dimension hidden outside the edges of the paper sheet. Lightweight and amorphous, Saeki’s terrains recollect the timelessness of Italo Calvino’s solitary orbits, where ‘you simply fell’.
Currently exhibited in the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London is a collection of Saeki’s ten prints titled Cosmogenesis (meaning ‘the origin of the universe’), executed in pencil, graphite powder, acrylic ink, water colour, gold leaf and bronze pigment. Emerging from the white sheets of paper speckled with black holes and iridescent particles, are the nebulae of dots, vessels, sprays and cosmic dust layered onto a Japanese washi paper in a meticulous yet spontaneous manner. Sombre and delicate from afar, the drawings burst with queues of lines and atoms of ink upon closer inspection, revealing a complex network of phenomena that guides the viewer’s eyes into multiple directions. In a way, these undescriptive scapes recall maps of no particular place or time, but rather of movements and journeys within the crevices of the universe; ‘a kind of catalog/ Of the lights of all ages’, as Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa would have perhaps described it. Thus, the attractiveness of Saeki’s art comes not only from its visual stardom, but the suggestion of stories that unravel in front of the spectator. Stories of the universe, science and humankind written within all the smallest particles, undetected by the eye.
Spread across two rooms of the Daiwa Foundation gallery in London, the show has been perfectly balanced between somewhat panoramic drawings of sculptural formations (Park Side Gallery), and smaller, more detailed pictures gathered in the Mews Side Gallery. Whilst the former room offers a wider glimpse into Saeki’s lyrical landscapes made of shapes and forms merging, separating and unfolding towards the empty planes of the pictures, the latter room focuses on their microscopic view. Here, we discover a surprising vibrancy and depth created by layers of graphite, ink and gold patterns. Together, the exhibition presents a beautifully crafted interpretation of continuous movement and interdependence between void and form, stillness and change, immateriality and physicality. Above all, Cosmogenesis expresses a curiosity about the unknown and is a testimony to simplicity that conveys the most complex ideas in the clearest way.
The craftsmanship of the show lays in the method, with which the artist handles a representation of unrestrained matter through controlled techniques and a discipline of form, resultant in a visual balance between energy and subtlety. This can be seen in Saeki’s use of vast empty or semi-transparent spaces, as well as a combination of forms, some of which appear constrained and others ‘released’. Collectively, they create a multidimensional landscape that parallels Miyazawa’s galaxies, inhabited by ‘Papers and mineral ink assembling/ Everything that flickers within me/ Everyone senses at the same time’. That is why, Cosmogenesis is a form of an aesthetic meditation on the way in which we look at the universe, how we encounter it and expand within it.
Objects and words also have hollow places in which a past sleeps, as in everyday acts of walking, eating, going to bed, in which ancient revolutions slumber.’
(Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life)
‘He cannot stop; he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else’s present.’
(Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)
In his ThePractice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau writes about the modes of social behaviour and how both the visible (walking, talking, eating) and the hidden practices of the everyday life (sleeping, dreaming, thinking) are responsible for the production of the city/place.[i] Somewhere in-between the perceptible and the hidden dwell multiple urban narratives and they come up to the surface when the city’s residents (permanent and temporary) unravel their readings of memory, gaze, time and places.
Expressed through different mediums, such as photography, sculptural assemblages and found objects, the exhibition Where I am when I am not here in Galerie Speckstraße in Hamburg captures the idea of distance, expressed through accidental connections and fleeting time that meet in a shared space, which is formed of many places. Crossing the boundaries of temporality, the exhibition displays a conversation between three artists, Carsten Rabe and Jessica Leinen from Germany, joined by Ayaka Nishi from Japan. It is a dialogue in the making. Creating an opportunity for a societal exchange – of art, of views, of stories – seems to be a focal point of this show, in which nowness is never completed. Instead, now constantly evolves and is formed of everyday practices: fluid, open and attentive. As Leinen, who is with Koh Yoshida (Tsukiyo to Syonen) the co-curator of the show says, its main attempt is the act of ‘becoming’ – instinctively and often indiscriminately.
Thus, the pieces exhibited capture something of a momentary experience, with their contemporaneity and curiosity that carry a potential to develop into narratives engaging on many levels (visual and personal). Inevitably, they interpret the invisible networks spread across the cities, which do not exist on any material map, but rather, they draw on personal geographies formed of the past and the future journeys. This is shown for example on the photographs by Carsten Rabe, who captures the stillness of the commonplaces. Approaching his subject matter in a detached way, he depicts kindergartens, decorative insides of the churches and the seaside scenes equally banal and interesting at once. Quiet and self-reflective, they are portraits which reveal thoughts about relationships formed through the act of looking; like in Rabe’s photographs of people taking photos of what’s in front of them, yet oblivious to what’s happening around. They are humorous vignettes of the contemporary society. Formally tailored and employing deadpan aesthetics, Rabe’s photographs play with ideas of depth and openness by hinting to the space outside the photo frame and creating a subtle linkage between the viewer, the photographer, the scene and what’s behind it.
A more corporeal interpretation of the bonding are Jessica Leinen’s organically shaped sculptures reminding us of fragile nettings attached onto sheets of transparent foil and hanging from the ceiling. Some of the accumulated webs recollect embryos shaped by the movement of the air, suggesting perhaps the beginnings of relationships that form spontaneously with every encounter taking place in the space. On the other hand, they bring in mind the time and process involved in formatting delicate folds of the cobwebs. Stripped of colour and positioned in between the Rabe’s and Nishi’s rooms, Leinen’s display offers an interpretation of time and communication taking place almost beyond words and images. The centrepiece of the installation is a small sculpture with a short dialogue written inside its cavities:
– (Pause) – Do you have a lighter? – I’m a non-smoker – (Pause) – OK.
This understated exchange sounds like an urban haiku; the essence and the alchemy of making bonds – transformative and inexplicable at times.
Similarly, Ayaka Nishi’s installation of around 1000 small paper boats responds to the idea of invisible bonds that appear through time and between different objects, places and people. Interested in the Japanese literary tradition of monogatari, which translates as a narrative about events: fantastic, historic, poetic and anecdotal, Ayaka Nishi employs both real and dream-like elements in her art, which could be seen as a visual poetry. She also draws on the Japanese idea of anima which Shigeo Goto handsomely defined as ‘the wonder of things’[i]. Animism supposes that everything has a spirit and this potential is revealed through Ayaka Nishi’s boats, which recollect not only multiple journeys in life but harks back also to Hamburg’s waterside location. For a brief moment we are reminded that Hamburg is one of the most important port cities in Europe. It is telling that the careful folding of the origami boats took the artist a month and she used leaflets, old books’ pages, maps, wrapping paper and other ordinary scraps of paper – each recalling a meeting, an acquaintance, a moment of being that somehow entered her life. ‘A story is born from anything’ she tells me. Spread in the gallery as a shoal of fish and secretly peeking from the gallery walls, its ceiling and parapets, the boats echo the nature’s natural movements and cast a reflection on the window – suggestive of a journey that continues outside the gallery walls.
The ‘movement’ of the boats lends itself to the surrounding space and forces one’s gaze to consider the history of the building and the area in which it stands. It is apt that a show dealing with the layers of time and encounters is presented in a gallery with so much history, which is literally peeling off its walls. Reclaimed and saved in 2009 from developers by the artists and activists, The Gallery Speckstraße is now a vivid, covered with street art, 19th century listed building facing the new offices – the glass houses – of the Brahmsquarter. It is a stark reminder of the anti-community politics sweeping across the cities around the world and yet, it is also a symbol of humanism and activism. Up until now the gallery has hosted around 200 artists from all over the world and it shows through a visceral appearance of the gallery’s inside. Covered in a mosaic of leftover wallpapers, writings, holes after past installations, the Gallery Speckstraße is now a palimpsest of its past and present dwellers, fashions and ideas, of human presence and absence.
Hence, the title of the show is an invitation to look closer at the relationships between space (where), time (when) and liminality (when I am not). Despite a suggestion of absence, Where I am when I am nothere is about presence formed of fragments and reminiscences. This brings in mind Edward Soja’s theory of the third space, which postulates openness to new spatial and geographical imaginations and can be described ‘as a creative recombination and extension, one that builds on a Firstspace perspective that is focused on the “real” material world and a Secondspace perspective that interprets this reality through “imagined” representations of spatiality’.[iii] Humorous, touching and personal, the encounters depicted by the artists formulate a space that asks important questions about the nature of human bonds, spaces we would like to share and the narratives that dwell in the everyday.
[i] Certeau, M. D. 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
[ii] Goto, S. 2014. Anima on Photo: Hidden Sense of Japanese Photography. Tokyo: Artbeat Publishers.
[iii] Soja, E. 1995. Thirdspace: Journeys to Los Angeles and Other Real-and-Imagined Places. Oxford: Blackwell, p. 6.
Tokyo Photographic Research (website soon to be launched) is heading towards its phase two, digging deeper and bolder into Tokyo’s fractured layers. Inspired by the changes in the city undergoing major redevelopment before the Tokyo Olympics 2020, the photographers shift their focus to different aspects of the urban landscapes, including the everyday, the unseen and the eradicated. The project, founded by Taisuke Koyama (b. 1978), aims at conducting a multidisciplinary study and documenting Tokyo’s new metabolisms. In addition to Koyama’s pixelated images of Tokyo’s patterns exhibited previously as Tokyo Photographic Research #01: Phase Trans at G/P gallery in Tokyo, two other artists – Mayumi Hosokura (b. 1979) and Arata Mino (b. 1987) are contributing to the second stage of the project.
The current state of technological advance allows us to manipulate images to an unprecedented degree and we now live in the era when ‘to create’ often means ‘to delete’. Cropped, filtered, reproduced and erased (REPEAT), an image becomes a self-obliterating and self-reincarnated medium. Data extracted from the old are used to create the new, and vice versa – thanks to artificial intelligence, we can recover the photographic ghosts from the past. The creative potential of such a revolution is a prevalent narrative and a method of the contemporary Japanese photographers. Through its hybridity, Tokyo stimulates a collaborative spirit encompassing all means of expression and crossing the boundaries of visual art, writings, sound and architectural forms.
Consequently, the collective’s display assisted by a manifesto presented at the CO-OP programme of Unseen Photo Fair 2018 (Amsterdam) looks at Tokyo as an endless stream of data – mutable and infinite. Hosokura’s newest image TYV #1 depicts a frontman of a Japanese hip hop band Tokyo Young Vision, while Mino shows drawings tracing the transmission of electricity in Tokyo. These wide-ranging perspectives record photographic encounters which ultimately question the direction towards Tokyo is heading. Somewhere down the line, they become inquiries about the future of Japan.
Thus, there is a noticeable shift in the young generation’s approach to photography as a subversive form of information rather than a referential idea. Born into a world saturated with imagery and its endless reproduction, the young Japanese artists embrace errors, both accidental and intentional. The process and materiality/immateriality of an image is more important than a finished product or its context. The process IS the context. In all its capacity for radical and transgressive, the new erosion-fuelled methods somewhat recollect a stream of consciousness; a continuous flow of data generated pictures, embracing multitudinous viewpoints and impressions (visual, auditory, physical). The fluidity and interruption of Tokyo’s strata, its build-and-scrap character, as well as resistance towards tradition makes this city a perfect set for such a visual laboratory. We all who have visited Tokyo live vicariously through its endless façades.
and the ambivalent traces imprinted onto their surfaces.
(Annette Kuhn & Kirsten Emiko McAllister)
Memories are never still. They can expand, shrink and mingle with reality to the point where one trusts the vision and abandons the certainty. Memories can look, smell, sound, taste and feel but they do not materialise, although some say that a photograph (a materialised image) is the closest form to memory. Capturing life and death, still time (shot) and eternity at once, a photograph spills out of its flat frames and opens to possibilities and imaginations. Photography is liminal, because everyday is liminal; and because memories are never still.
The first thing one notices about Miho Kajioka’s photographs is how evocative and fleeting they are. Small in size (10 x 20 cm on average) and scattered unevenly on the four walls of Caroline O’Breen Gallery in Amsterdam (concurrently with a show at Ibasho Gallery, Antwerp), they convey an intimate feeling of opening a granny’s drawer filled with family images and old postcards; secret moments captured spontaneously and casually. Printed in black, white and sepia, they appear as happenings from a distant past, despite being a collection of the current everyday encounters with the artist’s immediate surroundings. These recollections of instances can be also smelled, courtesy of the installation of tiny bottles by Miki Tanaka, filled with the scent of a pine forest, strong and lingering.
The title of the exhibition So It Goes is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five and hints at the inevitability of things and events (‘life happens’ as they say), but also at the history repeating itself. Vonnegut’s masterpiece starts with the words ‘All this happened, more or less’, which illustrate the flimsiness of memory, especially when exposed to trauma and loss. With an acute eye for detail and receptiveness to the atmosphere of the scene, Kajioka creates ‘acts of memory and imagination’ (Anette Kuhn, 2002), where time becomes an image painted by light: soft, fluid and vague. And so, the series’ mood peels off layer by layer – from the enchantment, through sorrow, to hope and enlightenment.
The composition of the photographs is what captures the gaze and triggers the subliminal. Some vertically elongated, other horizontally stretched, they are dominated by emptiness and silence, out of which people and objects emerge like some ghostly presences. In one of the scroll-like photographs, a peacock appears on the horizon. Frozen in time, it exists only now/then when the picture was taken and with no references neither to the past, nor to the future.
We are reminded here of one of the most captivating aesthetic ideas prevalent in the Japanese culture: the concepts of MA 間 (space in-between, gap, pause), MU 無 (nothingness, without) and KU 空 (sky, open space). There is more air than a substance in these depictions, forming a rhythm, which create something of a photographic haiku. This recounts Roland Barthes’ words from the Camera Lucidathat ‘the air (…) is a kind of intractable supplement of identity (…): the air expresses the subject’. Shadows, reflections and suggestions of something otherworldly make these vignettes mesmerizing and pertinent. We all dream of uninhabited places and remember mere scraps of events. We all forget what, who and where, but recollect only a feeling of the space we experienced for a brief moment: the rustle of the twigs, the swoosh of the cuckoo’s wings, the sound of the footsteps, and komorebi (木漏れ日) – light filtered through the leaves on the trees. Thus, the artist asks ‘Where did the peacocks go?’ and I am tempted to respond, ‘Are the peacocks real?’. Truth is liquid.
Aside the dreaminess and painterly qualities so satisfying for the eye, these images posses an uncanny feel of something lost, which Kajioka captures in a collection of words included in her new photobook And Where Did the Peacocks Go?. It is a diary with no dates; just an imprint of the moment, poetic and vivid:
Wave: She had never seen the beach so empty in August
Paper aeroplane: [empty]
Alice and the flower: Seven years ago Alice said good-by to her family in the north
In the book, there are also thoughts on the post 3/11 reality and we learn from one of the entries that in the aftermath of the disaster, peacocks were seen abandoned in the evacuation zone, wandering aimlessly and confused. We also read that
Kindergarten: “Many of our friends moved away from here so I am a bit sad” Next to a kindergarten there was a temporary storage space for bags with contaminated soils
Night in Tokyo: “According to the Czernobyl case we will start seeing the visible effects of radiation on human bodies from five years after the accident” a specialist said Then I walked in the glamorous Tokyo at night and felt dizzy with the contrasts
This adds another dimension to the reading of the photographs, which now become images of loss. Overexposed, the pictures hint to the effects of the radiation and detract from the sentimental setting by giving way to the silence after the catastrophe. Vonnegut was right, the history repeats itself and Japan was struck by a calamity once more, but the humanity persists and can be seen in Kajioka’s book filled with moments of grace and beauty. The lighthearted scenes of friends strolling in the park and the artists’ simple tricks with the photographic format confirm that all we can save from the flow of time are remnants of the day and the joy of living.
Miho Kajioka’s photographs are currently on display in Ibasho Gallery, Antwerp (9/Sept – 4/Nov).
‘We must cease once and for all to describe the effects
of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’,
it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’.
In fact power produces; it produces reality;
it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth.
The individual and the knowledge that may be gained
of him belong to this production’.
We are looking at a black and white photograph of a woman, whose image is projected onto a mirror. The woman does not look at herself and her reflection is not returning the gaze. The mirror takes a focal point on the photograph, but appears as a prop, whimsical and playing with our curiosity. The woman looks like a prostitute wearing a wig, which disguises her identity. The reflection also wears a wig but a different one and even though they both seem to be the same woman, they appear as different personas. In this complex game of images, their replications and selves, one can never be sure of who is who: what is real and what is imagined; what is desired, confronted and feared.
The author of this self-portrait is Tokyo Rumando (b. 1980, Tokyo), whose photographs are currently on display in the Daiwa Foundation in London. The show titled Double Method is a project between Rumando and Hideka Tonomura (b. 1979, Kobe), an artist fixing her lenses on the idea of looking, playing with her own identity and merging reality with fiction. Tonomura’s images show her mother’s relationship with a man, whose face remains permanently obscured. Making love, counting money, lost in post coital thoughts, mama love is honest and touching. Both Rumando and Tonomura fashion their own records based on everyday moments blended with personal mythologies. Fuelled by voyeurism and vivisection, these exciting photo spectacles are centred around looking and being observed. The confrontational character of the series is both exciting and unsettling. With ‘Double Method’ we are entering an oneiric ground, where the roles of a prey and oppressor are intertwined. Thus, the performative character of the gaze remains active, fluid and elusive.
It is rather telling that Rumando worked as a model and a prostitute, and Tonomura as a bar hostess. As a result, creating personalities and narratives is something that they both have exercised, used to protect themselves and now deliberately apply to confuse and to instruct. Erotica and camera are one and the fine line between observing and being objectified becomes fuzzy. Charismatic and controlling, both artists employ their practise in directing our attention, which brings in mind Foucault’s disciplinary tool of power – not negative and oppressive but quite the opposite: the productive, revealing and somewhat fulfilling. In erotica, punishment can be pleasurable, and suffering can be rewarded in sexual gratification. We cross the boundaries willingly and in anticipation because the thrill is irresistible.
The idea of life and death resonates across the exhibition, especially in the series Orphee by Rumando. A mythological figure, Orphee is a poet obsessed with Death (Princess) and following his lover from the world of living to the Underworld. The visual poetry of his journey is manifested in omnipresent mirrors, through which characters communicate with each other. Through placing herself in the centre of the screens, Rumando transgresses the myth and becomes Orphee, the artists, the poet… the visionary. In fact, anyone looking at her photographs is a representation of the lover, who is smitten by the fable and communicates with and through mere shadows (photography).
Interestingly, this Greek myth finds its close equivalent in the Japanese allegory about a goddess Izanami, who gave birth to the Japanese islands. She too, like Orphee, travelled into the Underworld and was followed by her brother/husband. He looked at her after Izanami forbade him to do that, ashamed of her putrefying body. As a punishment she sent female furies after him. In A Japanese Mirror: Heroes and Villains of Japanese Culture, Ian Buruma points at an ambivalent nature of women in Shintoism and sex, which is intrinsically connected to death. A Japanese woman, culturally programmed for obedience and timidity, is also entitled to pleasure and her own sexualised, powerful gaze.
Exercised in the ‘Double Method’ is therefore an idea of an authoritative photographic tool, employed performatively, actively and so intrinsically connected to the artists’ selves that reality and fable become one. Through the ocular of the camera, Japanese women photographers are looking at themselves and us, and they are forces to be reckoned with.
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’.
‘Certainly, for artists of all stripes, the unknown, the
idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived, is what must be found.’
Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (2005)
‘I believe that art is about discovery, learning, exchange,
and collaboration. Art has the power to create
experiences and phenomenological effects’.
Fram Kitagawa, Art Place Japan (2014)
Onomichi is a small town in the Hiroshima Prefecture right by the Seto Inland Sea. It spreads along steep slopes, inhabited by numerous temples cloaked by trees and bakeries so small that one discovers them only guided by your nose. ‘Watch out for the meandering cats’ somebody warns me, and I soon learn that if pastry is on show, the cats will claim it. One of the family run wagashi (traditional Japanese confections) shop is Tatsumiya, where I was invited behind the scenes to sample edamame mochi and where I quickly became enveloped in the scent of butter, green tea, sticky rice paste and sweet mixtures of unknown origins. Tatsumiya’s emblem is a sea horse and once again I was reminded about the proximity of the sea, which makes this place so scenic and relaxed. In 1168 a port opened here and for the next five centuries it became a centre of rice shipment and trades with foreign countries. When talking about the origins of Onomichi, Kiyohito Mikami, a local artist and curator in the Nakata Museum of Art tells me that the town’s community remained accepting and unbiased about other cultures.
I am looking at various brochures & texts received in Onomichi, which I visited in April as a part of my research residency in Japan. Here I was introduced to the AIR Onomichi project (acronym for Artist In Residence) with its hub in the Air Café/gallery run by Komyouji Kaikan, an art initiative founded around the Komyouji Temple. Not being able to read in Japanese (yet), I only paused at English phrases and this is what I picked up:
“Live in Your Head: When Attitudes Become Form: WORKS – CONCEPTS – PROCESSES – SITUATIONS – INFORMATION”
“… by combining multi-layered materials”
“I edited it as a document with quality, such as movement of the creation site and feeling of air, established the situation of exchange and creation”
The inability to understand everything gives at times opportunity to focus on ideas that shine through. And when foraging through maps, photographs and my own memories of the place and its people, I am now able to create a picture of an inspired society that stunned me with its openness, engagement with the past and thirst for ‘exchange and creation’. During the presentation I gave in the AIR Café, I met Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami, artists and art educators. They asked about a book that inspired me, any unrealized project dealing with utopia and my most current concern; questions suggesting curiosity about my relationship with the world. I also met art students, who shared with me their works: crafted, reflective and experimental. I was lucky to meet Fukuda Megumi, a photographer from Hiroshima, who planted hundreds of artificial red tulips around the country house that once belonged to her grandparents. She titled it Eternal Garden (2003). My views on Japanese photography were challenged by Akira Yasuda, a professor at the Fukuyama University, whose own photographs are seminar on light, form and tenuousness of the quotidian. Indeed, the AIR of philosophical and empirical investigations into the world fills the Onomichi’s historical landscape.
Every year AIR Onomichi invites artists from around the world to participate in their residency programme. The scheme coincides with the Abandoned House Reclamation Project, an ongoing renovation (2007- ) of derelict houses scattered around Onomichi’s rolling hills. The number of vacant houses in Japan is rapidly growing and some say that by 2020 there might be almost 10 million of such properties. I stayed overnight in one of these renovated homes and woke up to a breathtaking view lit up by the sun (and an empty house just in front of the window). Often left behind by the elderly who can’t cope with the town’s vertical layout, the dwellings have been slowly reclaimed by nature. Seeing them as a legacy of the past and a hope for the future, they are used for the artist residencies, projects and performances. One of such initiatives is ‘Organizing Abandon’ in collaboration with Malaysian artist Shooshie Sulaiman (b. 1973). By scrupulous collection of literally everything (from wooden beams to ashes) found in the ruins of a former greengrocer, Sulaiman acts as an archivist unravelling the unknown stories to map her own narratives. Blending Malay and Jomon culture, astronomical observations, carpentry from Indonesia and new materials, the project turns into a conversation about multiculturalism and histories of the others that become ours. Deconstruction is being replaced by enrichment through participation and interpretation.
Onomichi’s artistic scene is driven by multi-layered debates, intellectual inquiry and experimentation. Arts are thriving here, whether they are visual, literary, performative or architectural. One could say that AIR Onomichi, or maybe even the Onomichi’s society are an experiment themselves. Being artists and art teachers, Yutaka Inagawa, Ono Tamaki and Kiyohito Mikami place the emphasis on cognition and investigation. The process of unearthing something and the path to understanding are productions of art too. Art’s place therefore is not only in the galleries and the exhibition venues, but it also belongs to the playing ground, garden, studios, laboratory, kitchen, inquiry and the infinity of try and error.
Japanese art critic Arigo Tsuguchi writes in his short essay To Create Everyday Life that ‘art doesn’t really exist somewhere in isolation separate from our lives’ and adds that ‘we can understand “art” as an activity of creating a new way of life and an investigation of the (possible) ways of life/or the world we live in’. Here in Onomichi art does come out from the institutional walls into the surrounding fields; and vice versa, the ways of living implicate artistic perspectives. The possibilities of such collaborations are endless, and the walls come down creating an open stage; borderless and beautifully unpredictable. In this way, Onomichi’s artistic collaborations remind me of situationism with its spontaneous mapping of the everyday geographies.
And that is precisely why standing at the crossroads with the blues in one’s ears is as artistic as any portrait by Cezanne, readymade by Duchamp and Jack Kerouac’s poem. It gives us choice and makes us alive. Thank god for journeys and intersections!
Japan is changing. Inevitably. The country we know from old postcards and associate with ancient stories and bamboo groves is heading towards an unknown future. There have been periods of long stagnation and compliance in the Japanese history but there have been also moments of extraordinary composure. And even, at times some violent confrontations, during the which the society stood up to orthodoxy and fought for their land. Two approaches: the calm acceptance with all its serenity, and the resistance with its quiet despair have been voiced on the images of two Japanese photographers, Tomomi Morita and Tadashi Ono.
While almost everything differs these two artists, from age to attitude towards the photographed landscape, there are some aesthetical elements which bind their works. Both tell a collective story of people’s relationship with their land, drastically changing in front of their eyes. The two exhibitions, Sanrizuka – Then and Now by Morita and Coastal Motifs by Ono feature on the main programme of the International Photo Festival Kyotographie 2018 (Kyoto), and it seems apt that they share the same exhibition venue, Horikawa Oike Gallery. Being a part of the Kyoto City University of Arts, the gallery can be associated with youth, curiosity and diversity. Indeed, with their displays Ono and Morita provide a meaningful discourse about environmental issues, capitalist culture and the choices artists make to convey their ideas.
Tomomi Morita’s (b. 1994) empathy can be sensed in his images of fences, walls and borders. Taken out of the context, the structures remain metaphors for divisions, some visible and some unspoken, yet remaining inherent in lives of people connected to the land they have been fighting for. Morita’s project looks at the so-called ‘Sanrizuka struggle’ fifty-two years on from the moment when in the 1960’s local citizens started battling for their rural village in Chiba prefecture, threatened at first by the creation of the Narita airport, and with time – by its expansion. Despite representing a much younger generation, who cannot possibly empathise with the Sanrizuka issue, the artist succeeds in seeing a universal struggle in the story of Sanrizuka people. Now, when the visual representation of the revolt disappears, and the barracks once occupied by the fighting students are gone, Morita contributes his own memories of the events; silent constructions that divide us from the bygone actions. Placed on the wire fence, the exposition aims at remaining concrete and relevant.
Concurrently, Tadashi Ono’s images of the coastal wall built along Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima in the aftermath of the tsunami 2011, seem to expose the uncanny beauty and serenity of this shielding structure. Reaching ten or even fifteen meters in some places, it is a striking reminder of the catastrophe and a monument of hope that the next great wave can be stopped. Displaying a soothing scale of monochromatic greys, the concrete barrier at times blends almost seamlessly with the sky and the sea. They form a rhythm, which travels along the origami-like fragments of the wall, its folds and stretches. Partially documentary and somewhat poetic, the images of the partition – despite its eminence – present it as a canvas for the emblematic motifs of the coastal landscape: the houses, the bushes, the tiny flowers. This is perhaps an attempt to accept the inevitability of the changes and to show that such a new landscape can appear harmonious and that life goes on. Regardless.
I am visiting Kyoto and Japan for the first time ever. I was never going to be objective about the land of the Rising Sun because – as shallow as it sounds – this is Japan; a distant country that has fascinated me for quite some time. At the beginning, you can’t believe you are here, remaining fooled by the beauty of the temple gardens, the sound of the gongs and the grassy scent of the matcha tea. After a period of a sheer disbelief, the curiosity kicks in. Your senses become spongeous, absorbing all things big and small: the linguistic expressions, the order in disorder, the invisible movements, the organic rhythms, the in-between colours and tastes: delicate, opulent and often indescribable. Some things are different here, some are pretty much the same as in ‘the West’ and everything is either overwhelming or underwhelming (but in a good way). Bear with me. This is a story of Kyotographie 2018, the International Photo Festival taking place in Kyoto right here and right now.
This UP-beat impression of the city might have been stimulated by the Kyotographie’s inclusive character. With its fifth edition and a theme of ‘UP’, this young photo festival has been growing into an influential enterprise which prides itself not only on rediscovering the established artists and noticing the most talented ones, but most of all on showing thought provoking themes. As Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi, the festival directors say, the main concern of this year’s programme was to stimulate and to provoke, which perhaps eventually may lead to a change: in looking, thinking and understanding the world we live in. I also sensed that the idea behind the ‘UP’ leitmotif is to stay alert and not to become immune to the things that do matter, whether they are local affairs or global issues.
To rise UP
To wake UP
To show UP
To make something UP
To blow UP
To look UP
To set UP
To keep UP
but not to give up.
With this message, Kyotographie touches on the national Japanese psyche strongly bound with societal responsibility, historically placed here beyond and above the individual. Concurrently, there is a clear allusion to a national stagnation – both economical and sometimes cultural. Kyoto, as an old capital and a beacon of Japanese tradition remains as unchanged as it possibly can, protecting its unique ways of being and seeing. Even its geographical position surrounded by mountains gives it an air of a protectionism. Being different can be risky here and both Reyboz and Nakanishi have been determined since the beginning of the festival’s life to open the city up onto new trends and influences. Remaining unchanged becomes with time a false comfort. Promoting diversification, openness and, most importantly – curiosity about the other is what makes this festival so powerful and relevant. Especially at times when the world needs to stay UP and together.
Being a photo festival, Kyotographie definitely delivers on the visual side with its programme rich with striking exhibitions that linger in memory for long, whether it’s a documentary about fashion (Jean-Paul Goude, So Far So Goude), images of the workers from a local wholesale food market (The Hatarakimono Project), Stephen Shames’s photographs of Black Panther’s protest in the 1960’s or a photo document about the richest teenagers on Earth. Kyotographie is constantly opening our eyes onto the world’s most impending or exciting affairs through its main curriculum, which is accompanied by KG+, the festival’s satellite event that aims at providing a networking platform for emerging photographers, curators and writers. A plethora of talks, screenings, guided tours and performances take place across the city, rejuvenating it and making it a celebration of photography, arts and passion for life.
Moreover, Kyotographie aims at providing a more unique understanding of the city through the choice of the venues, which the attendees have to find by meandering across Kyoto with a map. Take for example the exhibition Flowers at Their Fate by Yukio Nakagawa, an ikebana artist that fashioned his own form of this traditional Japanese art of flower arrangement. Perceiving flowers as humans, he understood that when cut and artificially composed, flowers – just as people – become devoid of life, remaining rather symbols of death; however seductive and elaborately composed. The photographs of the flowers and vegetables occupy the interior of a Ryosokuin (Kennin-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto) and face a beautiful vegetation of the garden outside the windows. Tradition and modernism sit side by side here, forming an irresistible dialogue on the perils of beauty.
Then we reach the Sazanga-Kyu (a former Ice house), an abandoned space which is as claustrophobic and disquieting as the exposition of Gideon Mendel’sDrowning World. Presenting a personal effect of the flooding across the globe, he inevitably comments on the endangered ecosystem and the fate of our planet. Filmed from the water surface level, the recordings of the submerged streets and houses inhabited by people ploughing through the high waters, the audience very soon becomes a part of the narrative: hopeless and discomforting. This is additionally heightened by the darkness of the ice house, corroded and filled with the stench of damp. Another display in the ice house challenges us to face the Irreductibles by Alberto Garcia-Alix, portraits of the outcasts, who dared to live differently and cherished the freedom of expression (political, artistic and sexual). The use of rough interiors stresses a tender and compassionate attitude of the photographer towards his sitters. His humanity and sincerity prompt questions about our own openness and acceptance of the unfamiliar.
Afterwards we visit a retrospective of Masahisa FukaseMasahisa Fukase: Play in a machiya, a traditional wooden townhouse typical for Kyoto’s downtown. Later we follow onto the Former Printing Plant to view the Generation Wealth by Lauren Greenfield, where the lingering smell of ink plays on the blackness of this vast underground space. The humid, suffocating scent of the interiors play on the leitmotif of the money and wealth, displayed so unashamedly by the characters on the photographs. The golden path guides us around the show and the overwhelmingly vast space, ornamented with rusted pipes, hand written notes and red alert lights; remnants of life, work and money which all once inhabited this place.
In this and many other ways Kyotographie remains an inclusive and enriching experience, which does not forget about the past, but forces us to investigate the present and to be vigilant – but also to look forward to – the future. Always onwards. Always upwards!
One thing is noticeable in Osaka’s art scene: a general lack of gallery space and an attempt to create something local, non-commercial and individual. Forced into reconsidering their own function, purpose and size, small galleries mushroom here and become flexible ideas, somewhat confined by physical proportions. Size does matter here. It is important that the city has always been a trading institution; a capital of commerce, looking outwards and more curious about the unknown than perhaps other Japanese megalopolis.
Run by artists who transport culture into their work space in the form of a hair-dresser/gallery, cafe gallery and a pub/gallery, the exhibition spaces here become concert rooms, bookshops and workshops studios. The owners are mostly young, friendly and open minded, driven by ideas, in which art is a social enterprise. They remain adaptable and often move from one place to another in pursuit of inspiring connections. In this way, Osaka’s art scene is nomadic, which can be linked to the inclusive character of Gutai Collective, active in the area in the 1950’s and 60’s.
Private art buyers in Japan are sparse and their interest is caught rather by the big galleries owned (ergo internationally recognised) art. It makes it rather difficult for young artists to share their vision. Yet, the big exposure and money oriented projects are not at stake here. The creative independence is something of foremost importance and always striven for. One senses though that Japanese artistic scene would very much welcome a chance to connect with other artists through international exchange and as an opportunity to enrich art readings and dialogue. Experimentation is what perhaps should be prescribed here.
Osaka is then a place, where art can be encountered everywhere and the works exhibited (from what I have seen) are often of small format and represent the everyday experiences. Forming a diary of the quotidian, the subjects are as real as they are imagined, and as happy as melancholic. It might be that the presentation and character of the pieces reflect the confinement of the physical space. Small can be beautiful, but on a larger scale poses a danger of uniformity and falling into obscurity in the sea of charm.
Zazie Hair is a hair salon and a petite art gallery in one which is a space-invitation to stop by and breath in some art. Currently exhibiting Somebody Who Knows (or rather ‘Somebody Familiar’) by Hirofumi Suzuki and Naoko Izawa, the show tells of people and places we know, or assume we do; just as the gallery itself, which isn’t quite what we were thinking. While Suzuki creates drawings of monuments depicting esteemed Japanese figures, Izawa impersonates characters from famous Renaissance paintings. Her imaginings are often funny and recollect a travel journal from a trip to Italy. One could ask if the journeys actually took place or are simply ‘What if?’ scenarios: What if I was Botticelli’s muse? Similarly, Suzuki’s interpretations are based on his own perception and sculptors’ vision. The line between the real and fictional is vague. What matters is how we see things for ourselves, what they mean to us and how we remember them.
It helps to see Suzuki at work, sketching quickly and being attuned to movements taking place within the landscape.
Other similar (but different) to Zazie Hair spaces are iTohen, Gallery Yolcha and Atelier Sangatsu. I-tohen is a cafe and a well stocked bookshop with publications of both established and new artists. Their new show Happy Delivery by Yuka Sakamaki from Tokyo, a collection of lively watercolours is again, a visual illustration of everyday encounters and things, with which she perhaps felt a brief connection.
Gallery Yolcha, apart from being a cafe/bar can also serve as a gig spot and even has got a relaxation room, all designed to create a sense of community outside the commercial environment. Atelier Sangatsu, whose director is also a Gutai fan, has collected a small permanent collection of contemporary artists and is currently presenting a show on the inexhaustible – so it seems – theme of cherry blossoms.