Contemporary Photography from Japan

21 Oct 2000 - 18 Feb 2001

In connection with the commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Dutch-Japanese relations, a great many events and exhibitions that focus on various aspects of this are being held this year. The museums in Tilburg have also prepared a joint program of special ‘Japan’ exhibitions. The exhibitions at the Dutch Textile Museum, the Noordbrabants Natuurmuseum and the Scryption are listed further on in this bulletin. De Pont is contributing to these activities with a presentation of contemporary photography from Japan. A representative selection of work by eleven photographers is being shown. 

To a greater extent than painting or sculpture, the photography from Japan has come into its own over the past few years. There is widespread appreciation for the way in which the photographers manage to portray many aspects of their country and culture. Their work is surprising and resolute, and yet it relates to developments within photography and visual art elsewhere in the world. It deals with themes that are current in the West as well: the position of women, violence, alienation, industrialization, urbanization and virtual reality. In no other country is the fusion of the Asian background with Western modernism so striking. This gives rise, however, to all sorts of questions related to national identity and future development, be it social, political or cultural. In the photography shown at De Pont, such questions are dealt with in various ways. What is so Japanese about Japanese photography: that seems to be the main issue of this exhibition.

Nobuyoshi Araki (1940) is, without a doubt, the best-known Japanese photographer at present. His work can be found in many museum collections throughout the world and has been exhibited frequently in the Netherlands. For almost thirty years he has been the controversial chronicler of Japanese life. Araki is known for his photographs of Tokyo and his nude portraits of countless women every conceivable pose, ranging from the slightly erotic to ‘hard-core’ SM. His still lifes are also characterized by erotic associations. A segment of Araki’s work is autobiographical and tells about his marriage with his wife Yoko; this period began in 1971 with the publication of Sentimental Journeyand ended with her death in 1990.

Though the work of Araki is often labelled as being pornographic, it is particularly an intense account of the ultimate moments of life and death and of the man-woman relationship. And while it can be perceived as something offensive, it is part of the tradition of explicitly erotic pictures from the age-old visual culture of Japan.

Mikiko Hara (1967) represents a new generation and is one of the young women photographers who have been receiving considerable attention in Japan recently. In 1999 her work was included in the exhibition Private Room II - Photographs by a New Generation of Women in Japan. Outside of Japan, her work has scarcely been shown yet. Hara’s photographs are conspicuously inconspicuous. They seem to be private snapshots without a particular message or pretension. Here lies, at the same time, the dream-like beauty of these everyday images - moments and memories captured in simple pictures. 

The work of Naoya Hatakeyama (1958) includes River Series: these photographs were made while standing in the shallow water of a channelled river that runs straight through Tokyo. Beneath the bustle and immense scale of the metropolis, this river seems to be a hidden and isolated world. The rigidly horizontal perspectival lines of the quayside give the image an almost symbolic dichotomy of an upper and a lower world. Other work by Hatakeyama consists of recordings of reclamations and excavations. The desolate and damaged landscape bears the marks of human intervention but has, despite this, its own beauty and romance.

In 1991 Noritoshi Hirakawa (1960) produced his photographic series Dreams of Tokyo. These are twenty photographs of women who allowed their portraits to be taken on the street. They appear to be normal portraits, except for the fact that the women are evidently wearing no undergarments beneath their clothing. This voyeuristic sight gives rise to an awkward sense of embarrassment. It is a dualistic experience that Hirakawa evokes with his photographs: the relationship between seeing and being seen, between the private and the public, between man and woman. Unlike Araki, Hirakawa is less concerned with the erotics of the image itself than with the sociology of behavioral codes and moral standards.

Takashi Homma (1962) lives and works in Tokyo and has made this city the subject of his photography. He portrays the other side of economic success: unbridled urbanization in the rampant growth of suburbs (Tokyo Suburbia). This anonymous and impersonal living environment allows for little individuality. Homma records his subject in as neutral a manner as possible. His urban landscapes are objective registrations of entirely ‘pre-fab’ urban building. The viewer is therefore left to interpret the image either as an aesthetic composition or as social commentary.

Ryuji Miyamoto (1947) is also fascinated with the urban environment but has captured this primarily in dismal stages of decay. Dilapidated buildings, structures due for demolition, ruins and the disastrous effects of earthquakes (Kobe): all are brought together under the title Architectural Apocolypse. In a detached registration, an inventory of this decay is made as though it were an archeological study of our collapsing culture.

Of the younger generation of Japanese artists, Mariko Mori(1967) is perhaps the best known. A former model, she has made herself the subject of her work, presenting herself in all sorts of virtual settings as an extraterrestrial, fairylike child/woman. The films and photographic works of Mori are perfectly staged combinations of fashion, design, advertisement and entertainment which seem to arise from a blend of science-fiction, New Age and traditional Japanese ceremonies. In 1995 she carried out a performance in which she confined herself in a transparent capsule. At various locations throughout the world, she has produced photographic works from this under the title Beginning of the End.

Yasumasa Morimura (1951) also assumes various roles. In 1985 he began the series Self-Portrait as Art History, in which he depicts himself after self-portraits of famous predecessors such as Van Gogh, Manet and Duchamp. Later came a series of self-portraits after Rembrandt. Now he also uses present-day figures as models. Morimura has produced, for instance, a great many self-portraits after film stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo, Liza Minelli, Brigitte Bardot and Sylvia Kristel. In these alienating identifications of a Japanese male with Western females, Morimura is not interested so much in refined transvestism, but rather in the reversal of the ‘seeing’ of the photographer into the ‘being seen’ of the model.

In the midst of all of the modern developments in Japanese art and photography, the black & white photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto have an almost traditional and timeless appearance. In these he opts for fitting subjects: wax statues and stuffed animals, dioramas in which life is literally frozen in a never-ending moment. He photographs the interiors of movie theaters; the empty screen shows only itself and the space takes on a meditative quality. His seascapes are also tranquil recordings of fathomless panoramas; water and sky extend beyond the horizon like an endless space. In 1995 he was permitted to photograph the 1001 Bodhisattva statues in a Buddhist temple in Kyoto. This resulted in the impressive and sacred-looking Hall of Thirty-Three Bays.

The digitally cloned girls in the photographic works of Miwa Yanagi (1967) look like a modern variation on these uniform figures. The elevator girls, nurses, stewardesses and hostesses are dressed in uniforms or suits and appear in the sterile environment of the shopping center, metro station or hospital. Like mannequins void of emotion, they inhabit the stairwells, lobbies and hallways of such metropolitan centers. With her computer-manipulated photographs,Yanagi transforms the day-to-day environment into a surrealistic-looking virtual reality. Through this distortion of reality she comments on the typecasting of women.

Kenji Yanobe (1965) offers a less-than-promising vision of the future, and he comments on the optimism with respect to industrial progress. He is influenced by comic strips and cartoons and creates, among other things, all sorts of robot figures and space capsules as ‘survival facilities’. He walks amidst the ruins of Chernobyl in an astronaut suit in order to remind us of the constant threat of nuclear devastation. In a country which has once experienced the full force of this destructive power, his work undoubtedly has different meaning than it does elsewhere. Because of this, it is, in a certain sense, illustrative of the diversity of contemporary Japanese photography, which is shaped as much by national background as it is by international context. 

De Pont wishes to thank Takako Kondo for her assistance and advice on the above text.