This text is written for the lecture for the International Symposium "Global Photography Now: East Asia", held 18 November, 2006, at Tate Modern,London. You could see the symposium still on internet.
Event : International Symposium "Global Photography Now: East Asia" at Tate Modern, 18 November 2006, in London
At this discussion Qiu Zhijie (Shanghai), Yeondoo Jung (Seoul), Yao Jui-Chong (Taipei) and Japanese curator Masafumi Fukagawa (Kawasaki City Museum) give their personal perspectives on one of the most dynamic and exciting areas of contemporary art.
Keyword: Game of Photography, Site-Graphics, Lewis Baltz, Jean Baudrillard, Koyo Okada, Rika Noguchi, Tsukasa Yokozawa, Hirofumi Katayama, Nao Tsuda, Toshihiro Yashiro, Tomoko Sawada, Ken Kitano, Shinichi Tsuchiya, El Lisitzky
Towards a Game of Photography
Since the end of the 20th century up to this point early in the 21st, contemporary photography seems to have been undergoing a major shift. Today I would like to discuss two conspicuous aspects of this shift by showing you work by a number of Japanese photographers. One aspect is “change in the meaning of place,” the other is “photography turning into a game.”
1.0 Koyo OKADA and Rika NOGUCHI
I’ll begin by demonstrating the first of these changes by comparing two photographers: Koyo OKADA (1895-1972), a traditional landscape photographer who photographed Mt. Fuji, and Rika NOGUCHI (born in 1972), whose works are often exhibited overseas. She recently had a solo show here in London.
Mt. Fuji has a worldwide reputation as a symbol of Japan thanks to ukiyo-e prints by Hiroshige and Hokusai, souvenir pictures, postcards and so on. As Mt. Fuji has been loved and admired among the Japanese since ancient times as a spiritual home and a symbol of the beauty of nature, many artists have created masterpieces in poetry, literature and visual art with Mt. Fuji as their subject. Photography is no exception. Koyo OKADA, above all, was a master photographer of Mt. Fuji. He took numerous views of the Mountain’s changes with time and season from the 1920s through to the post-war period. However, OKADA’s photographs of Fuji were not merely pictures of a mountain. Edwin O. Reischauer, who was formerly the American Ambassador to Japan and famous for his knowledge about Japan, wrote of OKADA’s work:
‘Mount Fuji is a symbol of the beauty of the nature as a
whole in Japan, indeed, in a way, of the Japanese
character. It is hardly surprising that Mount Fuji has
always been a main theme of visual arts. To draw Mount
Fuji in all itsm moods means to depict the essence of
OKADA's photographs represent, then, the essence of Japanese aestheticism derived from nature through the imagery of Mt. Fuji. They also exemplify traditional landscape photography in Japan.
Then how do contemporary creative photographers see Mt. Fuji we might ask? Well, let’s look at Rika NOGUCHI's 1997 series titled “Fujiyama.” Although the title indicates the same subject, NOGUCHI's work is quite different from OKADA's. The use of kana script instead of kanji in the title seems to signify the difference. NOGUCHI's “Fujiyama” images include people climbing Mt. Fuji. However, they never show the beautiful ridge or the whole view of the Mountain. Only fragments are given here. The major concern in these photographs is the scenes the photographer saw as she climbed the mountain. So these images have nothing to do with an intention “to portray the essence of Japan” as OKADA's did. NOGUCHI's Mt.Fuji seems free from such notions as Mt. Fuji as “an historical site” or “a spiritual mecca.” They carry no such weight. The mountain exists only as the venue for her experience. An enormous gap lies between the two photographers’ approaches towards landscape. More than half a century apart, these two photographers may demonstrate respectively a difference in the mental states of the Japanese living in the modern era and we who live in postmodern Japan, or at least manifest one aspect of the shift that occurred in Japanese society. Let me consider now the nature of this shift and its causes.
2.0 The Change in “Landscape”
2.1 The Changing World—“History” becomes Chaotic
Looking back at landscape photography of the 1990s from a global viewpoint, we notice that the meaning of “place” changed as the meaning of the histories that had defined the significance of each “place” changed or got relativized. Behind this broad change, major social reform had taken place. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, followed by the disintegration of the Soviet Union during the 90s, the Modernist notion of “history” that had been believed in for a long time collapsed. As societies across the world became fluid and unstable, the notion of “history” was questioned. In the meantime, as computers and mobile phones became widely available, the digital network rapidly expanded. Now we can instantly communicate with everywhere in the world to share knowledge and information. Consequently our sense of time and space has been shaken. This tendency also seems to have accelerated our view of history as relative. As a result, the former stable historical meaning behind each place photographed has been dissolved and landscape photography has changed in character.
Lewis BALTZ, a leading innovator in landscape photography, demonstrated the situation by his own shift. BALTZ had established his international reputation with his photographs of ruin-like places such as urban development sites and a former prison site since the mid ‘70s. In 1992, he exhibited the problematic series titled “Night Watch.” This work marked BALTZ’s shift from real-world landscape to the world of the new digital technology. In the catalogue of his one-man show, he wrote:
‘My work in the 1980's had an apocalyptic subtext; by
1990 it seemed that the world had, in a sense, already
BALTZ’s words and shift in practice can be read as evidence of the demise of an age of landscape. As this perception took hold, a new way of perceiving “place” emerged. In Japan's landscape photography, this became apparent in the latter half of the‘90s.
2.2 The Change in Japan A New Type of Landscape/ Site Graphics
So let’s turn our attention now to what happened in Japan. The '90s was a time of great social change and flux in Japan. In 1991, the so-called “bubble economy” burst and we began to suffer an economic recession. 1995 was a symbolic year. Two major events frightened the already anxious society: the Major Earthquake in Hanshin and the Sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. The former revealed the fragility of our prosperous urban civilization and the latter exposed the unhealthy, dark side of our spiritual life that had been brewing behind the prosperity. Meanwhile, Windows 95 was released and internet communication and other digital technology rapidly became commonplace. In the same year, Casio QV10, a compact camera as handy as a note pad became available, marking the arrival of the digital camera age. During the latter half of the ’90s, these factors intricately affected and radically changed our way of life. The shift in the notion of “place,” which has been in progress quietly and steadily in Japanese landscape photography up to this century, seems to be influenced by these circumstances.
So, what is this emerging new notion of “place”? Jean Baudrillard remarks in Simulacra and Simulation (1981):
‘..there is no apocalypse. The apocalypse is the end. The
Now is the superiority of the undecided, the superiority
of the undifferentiated int the neutral...‘.
Borrowing his expression, we may define a place deprived of its historical meaning as “a neutral, undifferentiated place.”
In the latter half of the‘90s, landscape photographers who seem to be concerned with this new notion of “place” emerged. I thought of the term “site graphics” to refer to their work instead of the old hackneyed one, “landscape photographs”, because “site” sounds more neutral. I considered this fresh term would describe the new characteristics of those photographs more clearly. Of course, its only to be applied loosely, in order to clarify our understanding of the situation.
So “site graphics” are a characteristic landscape that emerged in the chaotic condition of “history's” destabilisation. (Incidentally, opinions differ as to whether or not it is appropriate to call this condition “ahistorisation”.) Or, to put it another way, “site graphics” refers to a new relative vision of landscape as an ahistorical, indiscriminate and neutral place arbitrarily selected according to each photographer's concern. If the photographer's concern is intense, the landscape can possibly become absolute (as is NOGUCHI's.) The absoluteness is, however, no longer derived from any intensity of meaning in the site itself. In short, Mt. Fuji in NOGUCHI's “Fujiyama” is a site the photographer arbitrarily chose like a sample, in order to project her vision, while OKADA's “Mt. Fuji” is an aesthetic representation of the Mountain as an historical and cultural symbol.
2.3 The Current Situation in Site Graphics
Now I would like to introduce another photographer whose work I think can also be described as “Site Graphics.”
Tsukasa YOKOZAWA (born 1971) is one of the photographers whose work represents what “place” is today. Spilt Milk (2001) is a large-sized, vertical /horizontal photograph of sporadic city lights like constellations in the dark sky. It may remind you of Thomas RUFF's huge photograph of constellations. However, while RUFF photographed a segment of the actual night sky using the technique of astrophotography, YOKOZAWA filtered the cityscape by his own thought process and rather constructed the photograph. The cityscape is absorbed in the black hole-like darkness. The view in front of his camera is “strained” through the photographer’s cerebral/mental/intellectual filter seeking a higher dimension. The resultant image is quite different from the actual so you may want to call it by a different name such as “spilt milk” or something. Another YOKOZAWA photograph, On White (2004), which was intended to make a pair with Spilt Milk, shows the aerial view of a snow-covered city. It looks as if the darkness of Spilt Milk was suddenly converted into whiteness. Though making a vivid contrast of black and white, these pictures share the same disposition before “place” on the part of their maker. Actual landscape is/has been transformed through the photographer’s eyes. This is their significance. So there is no need to specify in the title where they were photographed—it is irrelevant to the final images.
Vectorscape (2002) by Hirofumi KATAYAMA (born 1980) appears to be an impeccable photograph of architecture at first, a product of the meticulously analytical ability of a camera lens at its best. It looks so still, objective and completely flawless that viewers may feel it somewhat uncanny due to its ultimate photographic reality. Some of them may suspect it's somehow digitally processed. Precisely. This photograph is not photographed with a camera. Based on a landscape photograph he took with a large view camera, KATAYAMA simulated the image on the computer. However, the photographer didn't simply scan and digitalize the original photograph. He had the whole image converted into vector data on the computer and reconstructed. To the photographer, the place he chose to photograph is a mere subject matter, only of secondary importance to the achieved effect of the digital process. The sites KATAYAMA chooses can be any ordinary places in the city. Anywhere is converted into nowhere. The works of KATAYAMA and YOKOZAWA share an important feature: although produced by different methods, they are images made by converting real scenes through a certain visual meta-system. While seemingly belonging to the modernist aesthetic of “objective” photography, these works betray it and relativise it.
Nao TSUDA (born 1976) has made a series titled “Chikazuku [Coming Closer]” since 2001. At first sight, the photographs seem natural landscapes such as views of mountains or lakes, and the sky. However, they focus on the photographer's physical and spatial experience at the site rather than its particular characteristics and invite viewers to simulate his relationship to landscape. His approach is similar to Rika NOGUCHI's in “Fujiyama.” TSUDA, as well, never provides information about each location whether it is famous or not. Dismissing the symbolic meanings that each place has, TSUDA seems engaged with offering the actuality of his experience at the site. To achieve this goal, TSUDA carefully processes his prints so that they exquisitely represent phenomena, such as fog and clouds, and designs their display with an extreme prudence to evoke the actuality of their subtle changes. As a result, while inspired by an actual place, the photographer opens up a new dimension in which to experience landscape.
3. Photography turning into Games
So far I have discussed the shift of contemporary Japanese photography focusing mainly on landscape. Now I would like to talk about another tendency recognized since the 1990s—“photography turned into games or play.” Let me show you some examples.
3.1 Playing with Images of Self: Toshihiro YASHIRO and Tomoko SAWADA
Toshihiro YASHIRO (born 1970) began his career photographing Japanese bathhouses with a large view camera, in a minute, typological manner. All of a sudden in 2001, he began a series of self-portraits wearing tights. Using a handmade turntable, he photographed himself spinning on it in various public spaces such as buildings and parks. The title of the series is “Revolving +Revolution.” Each blurry image of YASHIRO looks like a spinning disk (or a top.) The abruptness of his movement and its trace dissimilates the space. Recently the project changed into a public event and he asks volunteers to revolve on the turntable and photographs the scene. He said:‘In the previous style of shooting, the difference between this side and that side, namely, the subject and the object was always present. However, the boundary is now gone.’The events in which the artist and participants are involved are recorded in photographs and on video. In“Revolving +Revolution,”YASHIRO is project planner and designer. And he is also a performer, the photographer and the organizer as well. It is like a game and its whole process makes the work.
An incident that promoted the recognition of game-like photography occurred in 2003. Tomoko SAWADA won one of the most prestigious photographer’s awards, the Kimura Ihei Award. One of her representative works titled “Costume” is a series of portraits of herself dressed as women of various professions such as a landlady of a Japanese-style hotel, a supermarket salesgirl, a policewoman, a nun, a barmaid, a receptionist, and so on. For her series called “Cover”, she clad herself in so-called “kogyaru”, a phenomenal fashion among Japanese teenage girls’ in the 90s. Sawada also had herself photographed in a portrait studio, impersonating various women in her series “Omiai [Portraits for Match-making].” While self-portraits of a photographer disguised as somebody else had already been done by Cindy SHERMAN, Yasumasa MORIMURA and others, SAWADA's were different from theirs because she impersonated the “girl next door”, that is, women of various real vocations, instead of virtual characters such as film stars and the subjects of famous portraits. The winning of the Kimura Ihei Award by Sawada was controversial. One of the reasons for this reaction was that she didn't photographed what she presented. (She often used vending machines to photograph herself.) Her works look like the record of her dress-up games, so some objected to the giving of such a significant award to photographs that appeared to be a game. However, SAWADA eventually won. This was an epoch-making decision because when Yasumasa MORIMURA, a pioneer artist of self-portrait in disguise, was one of the finalists in 1993, he didn't win the award due to strong objection. A conventional snapshot photographer was the winner. More than a decade has passed since then. This shows how the criteria of photography has shifted in Japan.
3.2 The Spread of Game-like Photography
The works by both SAWADA and YASHIRO can be regarded as playful expressions in photography. Theirs is like a fun game. In these works, being the photographer is not ‘the whole story’, not absolute. Instead, taking photographs is only a part of the game. Shooting itself is important in some, while unimportant in others. These photographers (or artists) are the ones who give the original idea and manage the whole project but not necessarily the ones who photograph. However, these works never exist unless there is artists’will. And today they are accepted as a legitimate photographic expression.
While these playful photographs seem conspicuous especially in the field of self-portrait, they are pushing the limits in various themes. Here are some photographic artists.
Ken KITANO (born 1968) is opening up new possibilities in portraiture, the most conventional field in photography. He first makes portraits of individuals who share the same profession or the same characteristics and then stacks them together to print out as one portrait. For example, Portrait of 29 Barmaids Unified), Portrait of 60 Doctors and Dentists in Chiba and Tokyo Unified and so on. The largest number involved is 3,141 People living in Japan Unified. KITANO has carried out this project in many places in Japan. You may think the outcome is like an average portrait of each selected group. However, the aim of this project is not to erase the diversity in each group but to reveal the kinship within it, or the common ground of individual identity. It is a way to examine if individual identity can survive the age of globalization. KITANO is going to develop this project internationally. It is another photographic game.
Keisuke SHIROTA (born 1975) takes photographs of casual scenes either walking or driving. Gluing a photograph on a canvas, the artist extends the landscape of the photograph outward with monochrome acrylic. While appropriating the spatial structure in the photograph and maintaining continuity, the artist depicts the landscape of both memory and imagination, abbreviating and altering at times, instead of representing the view with photorealism. The photograph’s clarity is led toward the domain of uncertainty and ambiguity by the artists paintbrush. This is a game, too. As SHIROTA explains,‘I draw in a sequel to a landscape photograph. It is nothing but a process to transform the content of the photograph by painting and to realize the uncertainty of memory and existence. The landscape created through the process replicates the world we live.’
Digital media has enabled us to instantly access “here and now” information and images of remote places that are not really available in our “here and now”. This new reality urges us to reform and reconstruct our perception of space and time. SHIROTA’s work seems to resonate with our perception of the world in which clarity and ambiguity coexist.
It may even be possible to make landscape a material for some photographic games. Shin’ichi TSUCHIYA (born 1972) demonstrates it. TSUCHIYA’s photographs of the ground show a strange spatial distortion and cause an uneasy feeling. They may confuse your perception as if you are afloat in the air above the pavement. These rather two-dimensional images were created simply by converting images photographed with a large view camera originally taken at an angle of 45 degrees into the vertically looking down view on the computer. The depth in the original image is flattened in the process.
In “site graphics”, a place is an element to be sampled. Such a place is no longer a site of historical or social significance. Rather, it is a field where the rules of creation can be applied. In this sense, it is neutral and indiscriminate.“Site graphics” can be thus considered as one aspect of game-like photography. As the worldwide network and globalization continues to develop, the meaning of places and the identity of individuals and of communities are being blurred and the field of game-like photography is growing (in response) in every type of photographic expression.
The cover of Foto-auge, which was republished for the occasion of the historical Film and Photography exhibition [date?] was El Lissitzky’s photomontage of 1924 titled The Constructor—Self Portrait. It shows a hand with a compass, a sheet of section paper and the letters X, Y and Z laid around Lissitzky’s eyes. The image represents a vision of the 20th century machine age to come: a new type of artist who will deal with the photographic image and the new visual media that will enhance the creative and intellectual world. Then, what is the image of photographers today? Do they handle a mouse instead of a compass, a computer screen instead of section paper? Not only these, they will also be able to employ various media and tools, even a paintbrush. Will he or she be a game designer using photography? Will she be a programmer or an engineer? What is the photographer-artist to be like in our 21st century?
(This text was wirtten for the lecture at the symposium Global Photography: East Asia held at Tate Modern/ London on November 18 2006. The lecture is being webcast and podcast on the website: http://www.tate.org.uk/onlineevents/webcasts/global_photography/east_asia/default.jsp )