Los Angeles

“Photography and Beyond in Japan: Space, Time, and Memory”

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

While photography is generally considered to be the technological child of Western perspective and representation, the 12 artists in this show approach the medium in ways that draw on both Japanese and Western traditions. Japanese photography is fundamentally a hybrid medium, partly because Western art is the source of much of the barrage of visual information that constitutes the contemporary Japanese cultural imaginary. The organizers of this exhibition of Japanese photography and photographically informed painting took pains to structure the viewer’s experience, in the effort to preempt interpretations couched exclusively in terms of either Western or Japanese representational strategies.

For example, Miran Fukuda’s The Force of Vulcan, 1992, a painting depicting Velásquez’s Las Meninas, 1630, from the perspective of one of the waiting maids, may immediately evoke strategies of appropriation familiar in recent art. But the work can also be interpreted in terms of mitate, a Japanese esthetic convention predating the tea ceremony (codified in the 16th century) that involves the reintegration of a well-known image in a new context. In digitally edited photographs, in which the artist performs the roles of all the female figures, Yasumasa Morimura exactingly re-creates the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Those Pre-Raphaelite paintings (which always seemed to me like a red herring in the canon of Western art history) find an intriguing response in Morimura’s drag performances that draw on Japanese theatrical cross-dressing.

Other artists use the camera to take on more specific aspects of temporal representation. Hitoshi Nomura allows the movement of the sun and moon to dictate the form of his seemingly abstract photographic works. To make The Sun on Lat. 35° N, 1982–87, Nomura photographed the sun every day for a year with a fisheye lens, then assembled the images along the line of the sun’s movement around the earth. Yoshihiko Ito’s work possesses a gentle rigor similar to Nomura’s. Ito exhibits contact prints of 72 images, reproducing the results of photographing a finite subject such as clouds, animals, or the artist’s own shadow. Taken as wholes the prints look like detailed mosaics, while inspection of each frame reveals a choreography of chance events.

In some of the works the distance between Western and Japanese traditions of spatial representation is more marked. Traditional notions of space in Japanese culture conceive it as palpable, not empty; space and time seem comparable, as intervals. In Breath-graph #87, 1992, for example, Tokihiro Satoh uses photography to measure these intervals with light. To make the piece, Satoh left the camera’s shutter open while he moved around a vast Tokyo intersection, aiming a mirror at the lens from various points. The resulting image is an urban space inhabited by dozens of bright white points, with the presence of thousands of people and cars only suggested by the time that elapsed in the creation of the image. Light also defines temporal intervals in Hiroshi Sugimoto’s time-lapse photographs of American movie-house interiors: their screens blaze with light, because the photographer exposes the film for the duration of the movie. Records of the lost memory of the movie and the people watching it, Sugimoto’s photos have a haunting presence.

Laura U. Marks