Critics’ Picks

Miyako Ishiuchi, 1906 to the skin #17, 1991–93, gelatin silver print, 30 x 41''. From the series “1906 to the skin,” 1991–93.


Miyako Ishiuchi

Yokohama Museum of Art
3-4-1, Minatomirai, Nishi-Ku
December 9, 2017–March 4, 2018

In this retrospective of the influential photographer Miyako Ishiuchi, her most famous work is left for the end: the series “ひ ろ し ま / hiroshima,” 2007–, vivid color stills of clothing and relics of victims of the 1945 bombing. A delicate white dress floats against a blank backdrop, stained, as it was peeled off charred flesh. On Barack and Michelle Obama’s state visit to Japan in 2016, the First Lady was presented with a memorial catalogue of these works, which she received with quiet respect. One can only wonder what the current US president would have said.

A sequence of color-coded rooms, which trace a life cycle of the everyday, begins amid the dilapidated postindustrial ruins of Yokohama in the 1970s. Ishiuchi’s trademark grainy black-and-white shots foreground texture, such as that of buildings or sky. As a strategy, its effects are even more vivid in her photography of old, wrinkled bodies—the feet and hands of the Butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno in the 1991–93 series “1906 to the skin”—and of scars, as in “Innocence,” 1994–2017, painful images of faceless women who have suffered physical injury. Surgeries, accidents, cuts, and burns—we pray our bodies will stay pristine, but they do not, as life wears on.

A biographical coda is found in a separate gallery: her first series, “Yokosuka Story,” 1976–77, which features ominous studies of the back alleys of this port dominated by an American naval base. Everything looks rainy and polluted, with the prostitution, sex clubs, and burly US serviceman just off-camera. This was how she started as a young artist, walking the streets.