Whitehot Magazine

September 2013: Summer in Tokyo

Andreas Gursky, 99 Cent, 1999. Courtesy of the artist.

Summer in Tokyo

by Tristan Hooper

There is no single art district in Tokyo. No artistic hub, buzz area or point of convergence. It’s difficult to even whittle the list of locations down to two or three key areas. Instead the many galleries, art spaces, cafes and collectives are stitched haphazardly and in abundance across the sprawling fabric of the city. Whilst Tokyo plays host to many conventional shows, a great deal of the most exciting works the city has to offer are presented in transient, sporadic bursts. Venues exist both permanently and temporarily amongst a labyrinth of huge skyscraper districts, dark alleys, anonymous office buildings and residential areas. Like any other capital city, Tokyo definitely has its fair share of major galleries and museums, however a great many of the most intriguing shows are held within the myriad of mid-sized independent galleries.

So far, the summer of 2013 has been a typically hot and humid affair. Fortunately however, along with all of the minor discomforts that a Japanese summer has to offer, Tokyo has delivered a number of exciting shows - both big and small.

Andreas Gursky @ The National Art Center, Tokyo

Wednesday, July 3rd marked the beginning of German photographer Andreas Gursky’s first solo exhibition on Japanese soil. The National Art Center Tokyo plays host to the work until September 16th, after which the exhibit will be packed up and moved to Osaka.

The exhibition comprises some 65 photographs, spanning a career which began in the 1980s and continues to the present day. The scale of the exhibition is as grand as the scale of the photographs themselves. But such enormity seems only too fitting for a photographer whose work is primarily concerned with such cultural monsters as globalization, environmental impact and the human condition. No small feat. Contrary to what you might expect, the work isn’t organized categorically or chronologically, but instead is presented in what the press release describes as a ‘single unified entity’. This seemingly random order betrays what is indefinitely the product of meticulous consideration and selection. As a result, the exhibition as a whole dazzles the viewer with the sheer spectacle of Gursky’s vision, the intimidating scale, ambition and unfaltering precision of his work.

The exhibition comprises all of the images that have established Gursky as a contemporary photographic legend, including the record breaking Rhine II, a photograph that fetched somewhere in the region of 4.3 million dollars in a Christie’s auction room back in 2011. Well known images appear alongside more recent images, notably a number of photographs from a series made in Bangkok. Recurring themes appear throughout the work; mass production and mass consumption, corporate identity and human influence upon the landscape. The memorable image, 99 cent, makes an appearance. A picture that could hardly be described as beautiful with its garish colours and telling repetition; a kaleidoscope of branding and advertising. The photograph certainly isn’t subtle, more a searing portrayal of consumerism in the modern age. 

Gursky’s gaze places the viewer in a position of privileged perspective, a kind of voyeuristic, observational perch. It’s almost as though these massive images could be used to fashion an ambitious study of humankind; our inherent tendencies, preoccupations and evolution as a species. The images are highly subjective in that they are the products of the photographer’s choices, approach and indeed manipulation. However, the images seem to masquerade as detached, coolly logical or objective captures. This quality is indeed a significant factor in their potency. The massive size of Gursky’s prints, some which measure 4 meters across, conjure up associations with the painted dioramas and moral tapestries of days gone by. The size of the photographs elicits a physical reaction. The prints are awe-inspiring and overwhelming, beautiful and sometimes frightening. There seems to be a simultaneous sense of utopia and dystopia in Gursky’s vision. The spectacle is both impressive and disturbing. We are reminded of humanity’s startling progression and the heavy cost of such advancement.

Yu Kiwanami, Confirmation of Happiness, 2013. Acrylic on canvas 130.3×160cm. Courtesy of the artist and Imura Art Gallery

Yu Kiwanami: Appetite for Painting @ Imura Art Gallery

Imura Art Gallery inhabits a little space on the second floor of the creative collective, 3331 Arts Chiyoda, a reclaimed elementary school that retains many of its original features. Recently the small gallery presented the work of Yu Kiwanami in an exhibition entitled Appetite for Painting.

Eight pictures hang on the wall in total equilibrium; continuity achieved through the consistent colour palette and stylistic approach. Kiwanami’s acrylic paintings seem to be very much derived from a number of different influences. The clean lines and block colours that etch the figures out from their environments, separating them from their habitat, are reminiscent of those seen in pop art or Manga. However, the brushwork employed for backgrounds or depictions of flowers and foliage is far more akin to Impressionism. The figures, more often than not female, appear superimposed upon their surroundings – they seem ill at ease or out of place within the environments they inhabit. They intrude upon the landscapes.

Each painting depicts a figure without a face; often the body is cropped at the neck or presented from behind. We are faced with a solitary figure, but strangely not an individual. The lack of identity renders the figure more as a point of reference; individuality and personality are dissolved and we are instead confronted with a human image reminiscent of some kind of celluloid, clichéd archetype. The paintings are definitely of our time, a number of the pictures certainly seem to draw influence from cinema, the various poses and stereotypes inherent in the medium. There is a certain universality to the figures, almost as though we as viewers are gazing at a gender role rather than an individual man or woman.

There is an underlying sense of narrative that haunts each picture; the figures are sometimes postured in what looks like a state of duress, in others they seem almost lost. The paintings present a fragment of something that exists with a distinct lack of beginning or end, foundation or resolution.

The series seems to operate and achieve success through the omission of certain aspects or details rather than through the inclusion of motifs or visual clues. It is through the absence of these aspects that the paintings are imbued with possibility.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller - Experiment in F# Minor, 2013. Mixed media interactive sound installation including
72 loudspeakers on two wooden worktables 2.44 m x 1.83 m. Courtesy of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller / Gallery Koyanagi

Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller: Experiment in F# Minor @ Gallery Koyanagi

Gallery Koyanagi is situated in the Ginza district of Tokyo, a high end, fashionable area infamous for yielding some of the world’s most expensive land prices back in the 1990s.

Inside the space, the lights are dimmed to the point of darkness and in one corner sits the installation piece – illuminated by directional lighting. The mixed media installation, the work of Canadian duo Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, is comprised of two wooden worktables on top of which a total of 72 speakers, of various size and design, are positioned. A wide variety of recorded sounds, produced by a range of instruments, are emitted by the installation at different times dependent on the viewers’ position and proximity to the lit surface of the table tops. There is something distinctly playful about Experiment in F# Minor. It’s hard to imagine that anyone wouldn’t feel a sense of child-like glee when they discover that their own shadow triggers the different sounds that emanate from the piece. The work has an organic element to it – movement produces the sounds – the viewers experience is governed by their own personal interaction with the piece. The wide variety of sounds, especially the lower bass tones, produce vibrations across the tables – almost as though the objects themselves are living things – responding to stimuli and producing sounds – communicating. The fact that this stimulus is required creates the foundation for a kind of symbiotic relationship. Without an audience, the installation sits dormant and lifeless within the darkened gallery space, a series of inanimate objects. The piece requires the physical presence of the viewer – the viewer wants to see and indeed hear the piece.

Yu Ichino, Kasane no Iroko: The Layers of Scales @ Gallery MoMo Projects

Gallery MoMo is hidden on the second floor of an anonymous-looking building in the Roppongi district, one of the more cosmopolitan areas of modern Tokyo. The space is simple and functional – a little, white sanctuary tucked away from the bustling main street nearby.

Currently, the gallery is showing the work of Yu Ichino. This is the first solo show of the young artist and comprises some 16 pieces. Ichino describes her work and chosen approach as relating to the accumulation of time. In combining lithograph and multiple layers of various materials including Japanese paper and acrylic sheets, Ichino creates incredibly intricate and detailed visions of landscapes, flora and fauna. The images have a real illustrative quality to them; they could be quite at home in a work of fiction. Ichino’s meticulous methods produce objects of real beauty; the level of detail that can been seen in her seascapes and mountain ranges is astounding – stone lithograph paired in some cases with pencil creates a vast tonal range in which one can become completely absorbed, almost forgetting they are looking at a monochrome image. In some pieces, the use of Japanese paper naturally inspires association with traditional screen doors, or shoji. This material is ideally suited to Ichino’s needs due to its translucent qualities which make partially visible anything that lies beneath it. This quality adheres to Ichino’s conceptual intention, each layer of a composite acts as an echo in time, a trace element that lingers in the background, informing the present like a past event.

Yu Ichino, Myaku - Chain, 2013. Stone lithograph on Japanese paper 41.0 × 168.0㎝ . Courtesy of Yu Ichino and Gallery MoMo.

Tomoko Yoneda: We shall meet in the place where there is no darkness @ The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography
In contrast to the aforementioned exhibition of Andreas Gursky’s work, the photographs of Tomoko Yoneda speak to their audience using far more subtle and understated tones. That is not to say that Yoneda’s work doesn’t have a lot to say, it does. However, the approach is one that is far softer, its message requiring close consideration.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography currently plays host to Yoneda’s work, bringing together photographs from separate projects in an exhibition entitled, We shall meet in a place where there is no darkness.

A great many of Yoneda’s photographs present their audience with apparently unremarkable scenes. Quite often these are dull or bland locations, conversely other images are beautiful, picturesque even. As viewers, we observe an image, take what we see and draw our own conclusions about the content, message or implied meaning. Yoneda’s approach however, juxtaposes images with text, placing what an audience sees in a fresh context. Subsequently, the audience is compelled to reconsider the photographs and indeed their initial assumptions or flippant disregard for the content of the images. Looking at Yoneda’s work, it becomes obvious that the choice of the locations is the result of scrupulous research and selection. The geographical locations and types of setting vary greatly; Yoneda’s work exposes us to cliff paths, baseball grounds, room interiors, clandestine meeting spots and even an ex-penal colony. All of the locations possess a history – something that we are informed of through the text. The work throws into sharp focus the arbitrary nature of photographs, an attribute which is so often overlooked or forgotten about entirely. What first seems innocent becomes infused with a certain tension or atmosphere, especially in the images of borders, whether it be a river between China and North Korea or an imaginary line between Japan and Russia on the Kuril Islands.

Yoneda certainly touches upon some controversial topics, namely Japan’s historically troubled relationship with China. An innocuous image depicting a railway track and its unremarkable surroundings could be easily passed over if not for the accompanying caption, which informs us of the site’s history. Japan had made use of this location for an orchestrated bombing, subsequently used as a catalyst for the invasion of Manchuria. The text places the image within a fresh context; a renewed consideration of the photographs elements is demanded. A rising column of smoke visible in the background acts as a visual reverberation of past events, a suggestion of a metaphysical trace that still hangs in the air.

Prior to development an exposed sheet of film or photographic paper holds something widely referred to as the latent image - an image that technically exists yet is invisible. Yoneda’s photographs, whilst developed, printed and framed seem to possess such a quality. What exists within Yoneda’s images is something firmly rooted in the past. Her photographs of interiors in particular hold a kind of latent presence, a well of feeling that reverberates from the wooden beams and tatami mats that furnish the spaces. The peeling wall paper of one such interior speaks to us of a building or place, shedding its physical or allegorical skin over time, yet still retaining the traces of past occurrences from days gone by.

The 50th Parallel: Former border between Russia and Japan, 2012. Collection of the artist. Courtesy of Shugo Arts






Tristan Hooper



Tristan Hooper is a British writer and photographer currently based in Japan. He graduated from the Documentary Photography programme at the University of Wales, Newport in 2010. He has exhibited within the UK and has written widely on the field of photography. He is currently pursuing personal projects and writing for a range of online publications.

view all articles from this author