“For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979”
Time Out says
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Packed tightly into its two New York venues, this absorbing show brings together some 350 artworks, photographs, books, magazines and installations by 29 artists. It focuses on a single decade in Japan when social, economic and political upheavals—plus an unprecedented cross-pollination between art and photography, as well as between East and West—spurred Japanese photographers and artists to find new forms of visual expression. As curated by Yasufumi Nakamori, associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, where the exhibition originated, it offers a nuanced view of a critical transition from kindai (the modern) to gendai (the contemporary) in Japanese art.
In the late ’60s, despite a booming postwar economy, Japan was roiled by protests against a renewal of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty (Anpo) extending American military presence in Japan and against the Expo ’70 World’s Fair in Osaka, which many felt was disconnected from the realities of a new era. A 1968 experimental film by Toshio Matsumoto that intercuts images of a transvestite’s daily life with psychedelic graphics and scenes of dance clubs and student protests conveys the rapid pace of change in the country’s urban centers.
Similarly, photographers associated with the journal Provoke initiated a new style of journalistic photography known as are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry and out of focus) to better convey the speed and complexity of modern life. The exhibition takes its title from the photo book For a Language to Come (1970) by Provoke cofounder Takuma Nakahira, whose haunting pictures of night seas and empty city streets are one of the exhibition’s great revelations. Even more fascinating is Daidō Moriyama’s 1969 sequence of images of a car crash, which are a series—inspired by Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” paintings—of close-up shots of a Tokyo police department’s DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE poster.
While in Japan art and photography remained very separate realms, the decade also saw contemporary artists increasingly adopting photography as a medium. In 1970, the 10th Tokyo Biennale paired Western conceptual and performative art by the likes of Jan Dibbets with pieces by Japanese counterparts such as Hitoshi Nomura. On view at the Grey Art Gallery is a portion of Nomura’s Cageian “‘moon’ score” project, for which the artist shot 34 pictures of the moon 20 times a month between 1975 and 2013, then double-exposed each image with a five-line musical staff so the photos might be read as a musical score. Visitors to the gallery can listen to a recording of keyboardist Norifumi Inada playing Nomura’s moon photographs from January 1977 and 1978.
Other artists of the ’70s took a structuralist approach, investigating the photograph as an object. They include Jirō Takamatsu, who photographed glossy prints of family pictures obscured by light reflecting back at his camera. And still others incorporated photographic reproductions into art objects, like Masafumi Maita’s Situation 1 (1973), a mural-sized image of a sunlit ocean with a real fluorescent tube running across the line between sky and sea. The waves in the photo appear to be illuminated by the light from the tube, blurring the line between reality and its representation.
At the same time, the ’70s brought a shift in photography from activism to introspection, epitomized by Nobuyoshi Araki’s intimate photographic diary of his honeymoon, Sentimental Journey (1971), and by Shigeo Gocho’s Self and Others (1975–1977), a series of small-scale snapshots of stiffly posed suburbanites that recalls the work of Diane Arbus.
Some photographers blurred the line between photography and art. Keizo Kitajima added a performative angle to his work by making the printing process part of his exhibitions, sponging developer and fixer onto huge sheets of exposed photographic paper hung on the gallery walls. Miyako Ishiuchi, who trained as a textile designer, referred to herself as an artist and to the making of her grainy, large-scale prints as an activity akin to dyeing fabric.
Ishiuchi’s studies of decaying buildings in her gritty hometown of Yokosuka anticipate LaToya Ruby Frazier’s images of Braddock, Pennsylvania. There are many such resonances between pieces in this show and Western artworks. But there is also a distinctly Japanese approach shared by nearly all the works here, one that goes far beyond rigorous phenomenological investigations or sociopolitical statements to touch on matters of existence itself.