Way Out East

In the last thirty years, Japan has gone a long way toward establishing total world domination of the camera industry. At both the high and low ends of the market, Japanese cameras--Pentax, Canon, Minolta, Nikon--aren't just the ones that predominate, they're the ones that have become household names.

If Japan's cameras are famous, though, Japan's photographers are not. Few Americans could name even one famous Japanese photographer. And though the Denver Art Museum's current exhibit Photography and Beyond in Japan: Space, Time and Memory is well worth seeing, it will do little to correct this problem.

The traveling show originated at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, where it was organized by an American, guest curator Robert Stearns. The stop here in Denver is the second to last one on a tour that has also taken the exhibit to Mexico City, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. Organizer Stearns has assembled more than 100 works by a dozen Japanese artists. He calls them artists, not photographers, because, as with contemporary practitioners around the world, Japanese photographers often use non-photographic methods to produce works that are not, strictly speaking, photographs. That's what the "Beyond" in the show's title is all about. As installed in the spacious first-floor Morgan Court galleries by assistant curator and resident photography expert Jane Fudge, the exhibit consists of three sections, also named in the title: "Space," "Time" and "Memory."

An artist given an in-depth look in "Space" is Nobuo Yamanaka, who is described by Stearns as a pioneer in experimental photography and is the only artist included in the show posthumously (Yamanaka died in 1982 at the age of 34). Yamanaka's career spanned little more than a decade, but in that short time he created a body of work that made him one of Japan's foremost conceptual artists. Fudge describes Yamanaka's oeuvre as being "revolutionary in Japanese photography," and it's an apt description; the artist was well-known for radical political views that went hand in hand with his photography. Unfortunately, that aspect of his work is hard to see in the pieces included here. Instead, what stands out is Yamanaka's embrace of primitive cameras--he even built his own camera obscura--and his sculptural approach to presentation. Especially notable is the photograph-and-plywood construction "Pinhole on Floor and Wall (1)," which dates from the late 1970s. For that piece, Yamanaka converted his entire apartment into a huge pinhole camera.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's contributions to the "Space" section have been chosen from his decade-long series on American movie theaters. Though people have come and gone and movies have been shown during these lengthy exposures, the theaters appear empty and the screens blank: Sugimoto left his shutter open so long that only the permanent details remain. He centers our attention on the unfilled screens, a decision that calls to mind the Japanese tradition of paying attention to the absence as well as to the presence of objects.

Like Sugimoto's theater interiors, Hotaro Koyama's altered gelatin silver-print photos feature voids as a center attraction. But Koyama also includes intentionally annoying red-light boxes, in which the back light invariably shines right in the viewer's eyes. Meanwhile, Toshio Shibata rounds out "Space" with beautiful if conventional black-and-white photographs of industrial scenes.

The "Time" section begins with the rapid-fire work of Yoshihiko Ito, who uses the 72 half-frames of a roll of 35-millimeter film taken in quick succession. His final product is the contact sheet, complete with the Kodak film logo. Though this might suggest that Ito relies on providence, Fudge insists he doesn't; the images may appear random, she says, but they have actually been carefully structured. According to Fudge, Ito even goes so far as to create a storyboard before he begins a piece. At times, though, it must have been hard for Ito to follow the storyboards exactly, as in "Shikaku (vision) SKK89009W," where his black-and-white photos follow a wild pelican in the water.

Like Ito, Tadasu Yamamoto uses multiple gelatin silver-print photos to create a single work. But instead of using the whole roll, Yamamoto includes only two shots in each piece. In his "Falling Water" series, Yamamoto juxtaposes top and bottom shots of Japan's sacred waterfalls. The paired photos are blown up and mounted on heavy steel frames propped against the wall. The pairing and enlarging make the waterfalls appear taller than they actually are. Yamamoto, too, leaves the edge of his contact sheet in the work. This time, though, the logo is a more expected one--for Fuji film.

It's unclear why Stearns put Ito and Yamamoto in the "Time" section, since these artists seem more concerned with issues of space. Also out of "Time," perhaps, is Tokihiro Satoh, whose photos record the artist passing in and out of the frame during long exposures. In "Breath-graph #87," a gelatin silver print from 1992, Satoh set up his camera on a busy corner in Tokyo. Periodically, over the many hours that the shutter of his camera was open, Satoh entered the frame with a small hand mirror. The light he reflected into the camera lens appears in the finished product as white dots in the fore- and mid-ground.

Some of the most memorable pieces in "Time" are Hitoshi Nomura's photos of the heavens. Using a very fast shutter speed, Nomura takes one shot after another on the same piece of film. For the "Analemma '90" group, for instance, he put his camera in a fixed place and recorded in color the movement of the sun across the sky.

Given the ephemeral nature of their work, it could be argued that both Satoh and Nomura really belong in the "Memory" section. And that last section could use them, because it's the least satisfying of the three.

"Memory" starts with an installation that should push any number of buttons: Nobuyoshi Araki's "Shikijo," which incorporates more than 100 color photocopies attached directly to the gallery walls. The photocopies depict prostitution in Tokyo, including still-life scenes of dirty ashtrays and unmade beds along with shots of partially clad or completely nude young women. The piece has been installed in a secluded hallway--which Fudge says reflects Araki's intentions and not a reticence on the museum's part to address this controversial material. Either way, the piece relies more on shock narrative than aesthetic vision for its impact.

Emiko Kasahara also contributes a failed installation to "Memory"--the scale model of a grass-covered field with sheep grazing on it. In the background, a billboard displays a black-and-white photo of a bed. The image, of course, is about counting sheep. Yawn.

Kasahara is one of only two women in the show; the other is Miran Fukuda, who is represented by both her photographs and her acrylic paintings on panel. One of those paintings is "Mrs.," a double portrait of a woman in Western clothes taken from a department-store catalogue. Another commentary on the banality of the Western world comes in 1990's "Tablecloth," a commercially produced color photo of a scene in Switzerland of the type seen on placemats around the world.

The show ends with a laugh--Yosumasa Morimura's drag self-portraits, in which the artist has morphed himself into historical Western paintings. In "Daughter of Art History (Princess A)," a 1989 color photograph on canvas, Morimura's painted face appears in a detail of the princess from Diego de Velazquez's seventeenth-century work "Las Meninas" (The Maids of Honor). Fukuda has engaged in a little morphing of her own, inserting herself into "Las Meninas" and copying several other Velazquez paintings. Why all the interest in Velazquez? Fudge explains that the Spanish baroque master is especially revered in Japan.

Fudge also has an explanation for Morimura's affection for drag, a decision she says reflects the gender-bending tradition of Japan's Noh and Kabuki theaters, in which men play both the male and female roles. But those Noh and Kabuki actors in Japan aren't just a bunch of guys in dresses--they're frequently known to live both on and offstage as women. So, Fudge's fancy footwork aside, Morimura does appear to be using drag to raise issues related to sexual identity--just as Western artists do.

Photography and Beyond in Japan is the first major photography show in nearly a decade at DAM. And it's the first opportunity in two decades for Americans to get a good look at contemporary Japanese photography. That amounts to a rare opportunity for gallery-goers--and not just the photo hounds. Don't miss it.

Photography and Beyond in Japan: Space, Time and Memory, through January 5 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-4433.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia