FEMALE FORCE FROM JAPAN, Ibasho Gallery (1 June — 3 September 2017, Antwerp)

Tucked away on a quiet residential street in the cultural district of Antwerp (Zuid) is Ibasho Gallery, an exhibition space devoted to contemporary Japanese photography with an impressive collection of collectible prints and photobooks. Conceived in the spring of  2015 by a couple, Annmarie Zethof and Martijn van Pieterson, this small gallery combines original architectural features with clean lines of the white washed walls and a homely feel, allowing for the displays to be appreciated in a casual atmosphere. It truly epitomizes the ‘ibasho’, which in Japanese means ‘a place where one can feel at home’. Both devoted to sharing their enthusiasm for Japanese photography, Annmarie and Martijn decided to swap corporate jobs and set up a space that quickly became one of the hubs of the Belgian photographic scene. Their zeal becomes infectious as they talk about striving to promote both recognised and new artists, whose images prove that there is a strong need for a dialogue about the new voices of the photographic Japan.

The show Female Force from Japan proves nothing less than that. The selection of the artists and the variety of themes and techniques it exhibits is truly thought provoking. Moving beyond the topographies of particular gender, time and genre, the photographers seem to rather embrace the potential of the medium through experiments with textures, framing and realities. There is confidence and excitement in these attempts that share a certain penchant for the surreal, the ambiguous and transgressive. Miki Nitadori for instance utilises her dual-nationality and multidisciplinary approach to consider (and to surpass) social, national and medium related limitations of the photographic practice. Focused on her unresolved identity is also Tokyo Rumando, who projects dreams and desires onto images of her posing as death, temptress and a young girl – images that engage with the viewer through their voyeuristic intensity. In this, erotically charged series titled ‘Orphee’ Tokyo Rumando becomes artist of many selves, crossing the boundaries of time and sexuality.

 

 

The otherworldly and subjective also prevail in the oeuvre of Kumi Oguro, dominated by the images of women’s faces obscured by serpents of hair. Dressed in chemises, they recollect somnambulists awoken in the middle of the dream while continuing to engage with the uncanny interiors they inhabit. Other artists’ photographs occupy more spiritual realm, like in the blurry photos of Miho Kajioka influenced by the aftermath of the 3/11 tsunami. The sheer power and unpredictability of the catastrophe made her look at the worldly things ‘just as they are’ and portray them with wonderful simplicity. Mayumi Suzuki’s pictures revolve around documenting the post-tsunami landscape covered in photographs and objects; reminiscence of communities, families and personal stories, like her own embodied in objects found among the post tsunami rubble, such as a camera belonging to her father, who perished in the waves. White washed and fading, the images and memories disappear as life moves on.

 

 

Concurrently, Akiko Takizawa is fascinated by the dichotomies between the modern fast paced Japan and its unshaken devotion to the world of the supernatural. She photographs people travelling to or inhabiting near-solitary mountainous lands that, according to ancient beliefs allow for connecting with lost relatives and friends; lands where time stops in a perfect equilibrium between life and death. Yukari Chikura’s and Mika Horie’s works are similarly preoccupied by mysterious landscapes and their transcendental appearance, yet incorporating different techniques. While Horie makes her own Japanese paper, which texture is of a sculptural quality, Chikura takes eerie photographs of hauntingly beautiful skies and snowy landscapes populated by hints of her deceased father.

 

 

Meanwhile, Yoko Ikeda, Hiromi Kakimoto and Reiko Imoto focus on the small epiphanies of their surroundings: pale pink balloons invading a kitchen, light pattern formed on a concrete wall and a woman’s shoe anonymously playing peek-a-boo with the viewer. Whereas Ikeda and Kakimoto’s pictures are light and almost transparent, Imoto’s images are more saturated, exposing the textures, angles and dramatic structures of the urban realm. Accident, chance and seizing the ongoing moment are also the key components of Mikiko Hara’s works, where the lives of random passer-by’s (mostly women), are captured without using a viewfinder and resulting in the portrait of the frenetic, fragmented world of the everyday. Shot from unusual angles and obstructed by unexpected objects, the figures are depicted when lost in thoughts and living their ordinary lives. Lives that are more evocative and multi-dimensional than we could ever imagine.

 

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BOOK, Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts. From Kishida Ryūsei to Miyazaki Hayao (2016) by Michael Lucken

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In his book A Japanese Mirror (1984), Ian Buruma, a Dutch historian and author of numerous volumes on Japan describes ‘continuities behind the façade of constant change’ that epitomize so-called Japaneseness. Japanese arts have long been considered as somewhat schizophrenic in their constant attempts to reproduce the West on one hand and their pursuit to portray the ‘national identity’ on the other. Marked by natural disasters and the tragic outcomes of its militarisation that erased Japanese cities to the ground, the history of Japan reveals a peculiar and fascinating need to look into the past with zeal to rebuild, to reimagine, and to remember.

This approach of discerning the past, while focusing on innovative aspects of Japanese art in the Twentieth century, is represented by Michael Lucken in his interdisciplinary study Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts. From Kishida Ryūsei to Miyazaki Hayao (2016). The book is a survey of Japanese ‘creative imitation’ and the author argues for the elasticity of mimetism that makes Japanese art so hard to pinpoint. It explores Kishida Ryūsei’s Portraits of Reiko (1917-1929), Kurosawa Akira’s Ikiru (1952), Araki Nobuyoshi’s Sentimental Journey – Winter (1970-1990) and Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (2001), and the author’s method is based on initial description, followed by careful historical and theoretical examination. In this way, the author avoids playing with pre-requisite ideas for the sake of proving the argument. All pieces present an interesting and chronological array that play with the idea of art’s reflective qualities and form an enriching dialogue between the old and the new.

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The book starts with Kishida’s Portraits of Reiko, a series of twelve depictions of the artist’s daughter, executed every year around her birthday. The viewer witnesses the striking transformation in the artist’s style and technique; from realistic oil painting a la Holbein, to chilling ink portrait of Reiko’s demonic face, conceived from simple brush strokes in traditional Japanese style. Through borrowing different methods from other artists but applying them in a highly personalised ‘distorted’ way, Kishida created an uncanny illustration of the passage of time and his own artistic education.

Similarly Kurosawa, famous for adapting Western literature, tends to direct attention to the nature of the medium. Watanabe, the dying protagonist of Ikiru wants to make a change; to leave a trace and build a playground in the post-war Tokyo’s poor neighbourhood. While the film bears a similarity to Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), it is also the director’s personal statement. What is the need of recording? What is the nature of mirroring the world in film? Lucken highlights that Kurosawa’s answers are to seek originality in a collective creation and juxtapose ‘the real’ with ‘aesthetical’; like Watanabe’s death, discernible on an X-ray photograph, and memorized through the cinematic medium. It is suggested that art seems to be at its best when meeting life.

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Araki is known for his daily repetitive routine of taking photos continuously, often of similar subjects and objects. Repetition is a part of his artistic oeuvre and he uses it in his Sentimental Journey, a series of photographs focusing on Araki’s relationship with his beloved wife Yōko, from their honeymoon to her death in 1990. Lucken focuses here on the significant and unexpected image of Yōko’s hyoid bone, traditionally being retrieved after cremation. The author’s insightful description highlights how by placing this venerable, yet never photographed object next to other common ones, such as a Buddhist tablet and Yōko’s portrait, Araki confronts his own fears and society’s dogmas.

In its excellent last chapter, the book takes the reader on a journey around Spirited Away and its recurring visual geographies of verticals, horizontals and ‘adventures of the oblique’. The vertical scenes are echoed in the design of the treacherous bathhouse and recollect a city with its all-consuming aspirations. These are contrasted by horizontal passages filled with tranquillity and restorative powers. Lucken notes the conflicting facets of the high-rise and landscape perspectives that have underlying social implications, subtly offered by Miyazaki. Out of both, the director distils his own diagonal way, which signifies the unstable, but also the transitional and regenerative. Again, as Lucken proposes, it’s when the art goes askew, that it highlights the importance of the mundane recurrence.

Maybe the subtlest of all of Lucken’s interpretations is encapsulated in the outer book sleeve, with the reproduction of Untitled (1959) by Gutai member Sadamasa Motanaga. By using familiar materials and inspired by tarashikomi (a traditional technique of Nihonga), the painter created a new artistic phenomena in the shape of so-called ‘performance paintings’. Led by the words of Gutai’s leader, Yoshihara Jirō, ‘transformation is nothing other than renewal’, he understood that inventing lays in disseminating the past and repetition that comes from profound appreciation. Following Motanaga’s example, Lucken also harks back to the fathers of re-invention.

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Text originally commissioned by  The Japan Society Review available here

Mat Collishaw: In Camera (The New Art Gallery Walsall & Library of Birmingham, 25 September – 10 January 2016)

Mat Collishaw’s approach to art is filled with respect for the past. Victorian and Baroque cultures in particular are being constantly reiterated in his oeuvre, with the artist seemingly spellbound by their dubious character. Filled with symbols of religion and disease, innocence and corruption, desire and crime, both periods constantly oscillate between excitement and disgust, and both use illusions to trick us into the worlds of beautiful abominations. Two current displays by Collishaw gather evidence of the artist’s fascination with darkness and manipulation of one’s perception, ‘Mat Collishaw’ at Walsall’s New Art Gallery and In Camera at the Library of Birmingham.

Spread across two floors in the New Art Gallery is the largest survey of Collishaw’s work to date, a spectacle of the sacred and profane that bursts with allusions to art history. It also questions the viewer’s role in the history of imagery: Are we just the vulnerable victims or rather voyeuristic spectators of the media-dominated world? ‘Insecticides’ (2006), for example, is an ongoing project, in which Collishaw photographs squashed butterflies, magnified to magnificent proportions. Here, the camera behaves like a 347501Victorian entomologist mercilessly dissecting the delicate, dismembered bodies of the insects to reveal beauty of a cosmic nature. Their crushed wings are transformed into a colourful powder that awes spectators, who end up staring at death in its unearthly presence. The same illusion appears when admiring works from ‘Venal Muse’ (2012), a series of sculptures shaped into exotic flowers that are ridden with venereal diseases. Springing out of the soil and spoilage that kept its seductive shine, we end up examining these ‘flowers of evil’ that are reminiscent of rotting sexual organs. ‘Catching Fairies’ (1996) on the other hand is a series of photographs that explore the Victorian interest in the ephemeral. Here, Collishaw depicts himself trying to capture the fairies of the title – an idyllic scene we desperately want to believe in.

The intelligence of Collishaw’s work is informed by its constant play with the spectator and allusions to the masters of fine arts. He breathes life into Albrecht Dϋrer’s depiction of turf by animating it with a gentle breeze and changing the original title into ‘Whispering Weeds’ (2011), onomatopoeia that is an illusion in itself. He adds a new dimension to George de la Tour’s Madonna-like depictions of women, and in ‘Last Meal on Death Row, Texas’ (2011) creates a series of harrowing photographs that borrow from the aesthetics of 17th century Dutch still lives and draw on the theme of the death penalty. Placed in the chapel-like gallery, these conversations with classical artists have a focal point and my personal favourite, ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (2010), is as ecclesiastical as it is erotic. Here, three surveillance mirrors flanked by wooden frames play a video of a pole dancer in slow motion. Hung on a red wall, this triptych is accompanied by intense music and becomes a gruesome display of a vulnerable body that we devour with our greedy eyes. Alluding to the history of sexual exploitation within the thick walls of the church, the spectacle is not for our eyes only. Others are watching too. The exclusivity is just another illusion.

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On the second floor of the gallery is Collishaw’s latest zoetrope ‘All Things Fall’ (2014). Combining a biblical theme (the Massacre of the Innocents) with a Baroque design and a Victorian mechanism, this 3D sculpture rotates in frenzy and seduces us with its illusion of reality. Everything here is timed precisely and aimed at a single purpose: to expose the mechanisms of the trickery and then, to trap the spectator in his or her own desires.

Rapid movements, restricted vision and flashing ephemera are the stimuli that Collishaw deliberately engages to attack and fool his audience. ‘In Camera’ at the Library of Birmingham is a small show but it is as poignant and hypnotising as the exhibition at the New Gallery. Again, we descend into darkness as soon as we open the gallery doors. But it is not an Beef-1atmospheric light of the baroque that emphasises the shadows. It is a darkness of death with no light. It is a room of sins with no contrition. Twelve negatives from the 1930s and 1940s taken at the crime scenes are placed in the transparent boxes that are dispersed around the pitch-black room. The images, found by the artist in the Library’s archives remind us of some photographic off cuts; pictures that say nothing at all. But it is precisely their uncanny silence and emptiness that makes them so disconcerting. One by one, they are randomly lit up by a flash bulb. Like disorientated moths we instantly turn towards the phosphorescent image but it transforms into blackness soon after. Experiencing ‘In Camera’ is like reliving a nightmare, and by implementing digital technology alongside antique mediums, Collishaw, the Caravaggio for our times, once more plays with the eye and enhances the impression of a ghost inhabiting the machine; a voice from the past hidden behind the photograph.

Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here

Photographic HAIKU: Bettina von Zwehl and Sophy Rickett, Album 31 (Library of Birmingham 20 June – 29 August 2015)

In her beautifully poetic book ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag describes a so-called ‘involuntary memory’ that Marcel Proust applied in his remembrance-fuelled writing. Bleak footprints of the past mix with the meshes of reality so powerfully sealed within us that they cannot be erased. Photography and the archive carry an elusive notion of depicting reality, yet they can also take us on an uncanny journey into worlds that are barely tangible and only just visible. The latest exhibition at the Library of Birmingham ‘Album 31’ epitomises the idea of a photograph that is a trace of reality and, most importantly, an encounter with the unreal.

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When wandering around the exhibition I caught myself in a subconscious (or rather ‘involuntary’ according to Mr Proust) attempt to categorise and to find a common denominator between the images, sitting next to each other in the sterile white-grey-black exhibition space. But as the title of the exhibition states, it is an album. Nothing more, nothing less. Portraits of children follow images of butterflies, tree tops, a dark chocolate Leibniz biscuit, an X-ray of Bettina von Zwehl’s hands and other seemingly album_31_page_101__largeunrelated objects. Or perhaps unrelated only for us. What we know is that the exhibition was inspired by the Library of Birmingham’s photographic archives, particularly an archive of images created by Sir Benjamin Stone, a Victorian photographer who managed to neatly label almost all of his prints under sensible categories, except one labelled ‘Album 31: MISCELLANOUS’. Stone’s album encompasses everything that is fascinating about archives: exceptions, misfits, curiosities and photographic orphans. The idea of a what-not collection was very much in vogue among Victorians, who liked to surround themselves with memories of people, places and events that even though unrelated to each other, formed a private cabinet of curiosities; a visual diary with no theme and no date but endless possibilities. And just as the Borgesian idea of a library, these collections encapsulated the indefinite, the invariable and the infinite. Labyrinths of memory among the labyrinths of library.

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The exhibition poses an interesting challenge by combining the sensitivities and practices of two different artists, presenting both separately made photographs and a series of newer collaborative works. While Rickett examines relationships between humans and nature, von Zwehl is known for her sombre portraits and Georgian-style profiles, particularly of children. Even though the two artists are interested in different subjects, one can sense that there is something that unifies their work and these ‘accidental’ images: memory and intimacy. In the collaborative works, row by row, dream-like images remind us of visions interrupted just before wakefulness. Accompanying them, poetic diary entries are presented almost as a stream of consciousness than any other traditional linear narrative. Rickett’s series of black and white photographs of butterflies titled ‘The Death of a Beautiful Subject’ are close-ups revealing something of the relationship with her father, a personal engagement with the subject, as well as a preoccupation with their fragility. Similarly, von Zwehl’s child sitters can appear vulnerable and delicate, on the border of fairy-like appearances. We are here meandering between fleeting reminiscences, un/fathomable images and random thoughts, all wrapped up in a conversation between two artists and two sensibilities that take all shapes and forms.

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Take, for example, ‘Page 4, Album 31’ which consists of the medallion shaped centrepiece depicting a baby with eyes gently shut, surrounded by three black and white images of a ship and the word ‘CURTAIN’ typed on grey card. The exhibition guide states that this word derives from a misunderstanding between Rickett and von Zwehl. Suddenly, out of the unexpected juxtaposition of the pictures and words, emerges a vague meaning. Or rather an impression of a very thin string that binds the contents of the album together: half-closed eyes, a curtain, a ship finishing its journey … the end of the day. A photographic haiku.

Text originally commissioned by This is Tomorrow available here