Yasuhiro Ishimoto died this past February at the age of ninety. This exhibition functioned as a small homage to the artist, who, over the course of nearly six decades, worked in a wide range of styles. Although he was born in San Francisco, Ishimoto was raised in Japan and returned to the United States in 1939, when he planned to study agriculture in California. He was rounded up by American authorities during World War II and held in an internment camp for Japanese Americans. It was there, surprisingly enough, that he developed his passion for photography, which was to occupy him for the rest of his long life.
While at the Institute of Design in Chicago, he studied under Harry Callahan, whose influence can be seen in the street photographs, displayed in a small side gallery, that were taken during Ishimoto’s school years and on a return visit to the city a decade later. Whereas Callahan was at that moment looking down Chicago’s long, straight streets, occasionally catching pedestrians in the middle distance, Ishimoto shot from a perpendicular position: His subjects are at times pressed against buildings’ facades, made to look like figures on display in a diorama. Several photographs taken at Halloween, in which children out trick-or-treating pause briefly to pose for the photographer, heighten this impression of the stage. The most impressive such composition, Chicago, 1948–52, features a child dressed as a witch in the foreground, contorting her body over a stick and staring intently into the lens. Her pose seems spontaneous, yet the overall balance is remarkable: A second child, who is dressed as a ghost, hovers a few feet back, framed by a stoop’s stairway, down which a third descends.
Most of the photographs presented here were made in Japan during later decades; the eight-by-ten-inch prints were in recent years sent as gifts to a friend in New York. They showcase Ishimoto’s penchant for formal experimentation, and are quite different from the images with which he had secured his reputation, a series of architectural photographs taken in Japan that appeared in the 1960 book Katsura: Tradition and Creation in Japanese Architecture. Here one encountered mostly studio investigations, several of which brought to mind the work of Western photographers. In the absence of contextualizing information, the connections one made tended to be formal. For example, Ishimoto’s exacting studies of flowers made in the 1980s stand toe-to-to, in terms of detail and print quality, with similar images Robert Mapplethorpe made during the same years, though they seem not to possess the sexual undertones of Mapplethorpe’s orchids and lilies. Ishimoto’s semiabstract photographs of light emanating from rolled sheets of paper, made in the 1980s and ’90s, prefigure Wolfgang Tillmans’s 2001– “Paper Drop” photographs. And the show’s only color images, three prints in which bands of green, blue, and other colors float like a psychedelic fog over the silhouettes of trees, call to mind James Welling’s “Hexachromes,” 2007. In their works, Welling and Tillmans were explicitly engaged with the material properties of the medium; it will take a further accounting of Ishimoto’s practice to know whether his intent was equally self-reflexive.
Minor White observed a dialogue between East and West in Ishimoto’s photographs, calling him a “visual bilinguist.” In this small, idiosyncratic survey, one could sense Ishimoto’s American forebears and colleagues more than the influence of his Japanese upbringing. The show did, however, hint at the richness and incredible variety of Ishimoto’s body of work, and whetted one’s appetite for more.
Spanning more than half a century, “Daido Moriyama: On the Road” confirmed the artist’s importance to the story of Japanese photography. The quintessential street photographer, Moriyama has, since 1965, prowled avenues and alleys in Japanese cities and across the globe. His quarry is not only the unguarded human subject, often seen from the side or behind, but also our idealized, artificial replicas of ourselves, from store mannequins to movie-poster idols. Moriyama’s art, despite his penchant for surface and artifice, is anything but celebratory. If his touchstone is Warhol, whose art he seems to mimic in a 1974 silkscreen Harley-Davidson and who appears on a TV screen in Tokyo, 2011, it’s the Warhol of the 1962-63 “Death and Disaster” series. For Moriyama, despite his disavowal in a recent interview of any social or documentary mission, urban life is tragic theater.
The exhibition opened with two rooms encompassing the artist’s recent output. His newest photographs of Tokyo, in the first gallery, struck an anomalous note: Hung in three rows that encircled the room, the prints were both large and vibrantly colored. Though familiar themes recurred—a family of Western mannequins in a shop window counterbalanced a homeless man slumped on a narrow ledge—the saturated reds and blues made a bright contrast to the small-scale, grainy black-and-white images that predominated elsewhere. I couldn’t help but imagine them as an acrid response to Nobuyoshi Araki’s intimate studies of flowers. The second gallery sampled images taken around the world, from Taipei to Buenos Aires, Antwerp to New York. In this last city, Moriyama’s lens transforms a dented trash can found moldering in half-melted snow into a gorgeous play of surfaces. Though the can is perfectly legible as an object, the photograph epitomizes another aspect of Moriyama’s art: his almost hallucinatory focus upon texture. Urban grit is equated almost literally with the grain of the photograph, as if dirt had been rubbed into each print.
Moriyama achieves this effect, in part, by increasing the contrast in his images, a technique that in its consistency also serves to unite a disparate array of subject matter. A male actor wearing papier-mâché breasts in one early photograph can be compared to the mangy animal in the iconic 1971 image Stray Dog. Neither an automobile on fire nor the collision of two others in a pair of 1969 images is discordant with a frankly erotic 1976 study of a cabbage head. Moriyama’s interest in light and shadow is made explicit in a series of that title, made in 1981-82, which features, among other subjects, denim jeans, the vinyl top of a Jeep Wrangler, and the rusting hull of a Russian cargo ship. With so many coarse, dark pictures, a room of color prints, much smaller than those in the first gallery, offered a pleasing contrast. Ishinomaki, 1969, features multicolor lightbulbs strung along two delicate curves that arc away from Moriyama’s lens; they hang in the twilit sky like reddish-orange plants. Captured by any other photographer, the image of camellia petals on the pavement in Izu, 1982, would likely have a certain delicacy; with Moriyama, however, the petals seem to have fallen like hammer blows.
The bulk of the survey proceeded chronologically, and one could witness Moriyama’s subjects becoming more pedestrian—in both senses of the world—without his images losing their oddity or compositional acuity. At the outset of his career, Moriyama claims, he was “deliberately seeking a strange image.” These days, though, “everything looks strange.” We profit from this alienated vision.
Review of the 2011 Yokohama Triennale published online at Art Agenda on September 13, 2011. The exhibition remains on view until November 6, 2011.
Organizing an international biennial or triennial exhibition is, in principle, a thankless task. Your two main audiences, locals unfamiliar with recent artistic developments and globe-hopping art citizens eager for new discoveries, have opposing needs and desires. Apportioning artworks among multiple venues, securing the funding to meet an outsized budget, and coordinating the corporate, political, and cultural bodies with a vested interest in your efforts all present significant challenges. Add to this, however, the widespread devastation of a three-fold tragedy—earthquake, tsunami, nuclear power plant crisis—and one would have forgiven Yokohama Triennale 2011 artistic director Akiko Miki for walking away from her project. That she and her colleagues not only persevered but also managed to coordinate an impressive display of art spanning several centuries is, irrespective of one’s opinion of the show, worth commending.
This is the fourth edition of the triennale, and the first to make the Yokohama Museum of Art its primary venue. Titled “Our Magic Hour,” the show focused upon an ability to see the wonderful in the everyday that has long been popularly ascribed to artists. The magic invoked is not one of mysticism, but rather of the temporary suspension of disbelief: artists see things differently than you and me and can show us what that seeing feels like. Such a broad theme can encompass a wide variety of art, and, indeed, the show ranged from conceptually inflected video installations to ukiyo-e woodblock prints to ghost-themed movie posters.
The opening galleries engage a notion of wonder in a literal manner. The first artwork one encounters beyond the museum lobby is Aurélien Froment’s video Théâtre de poche (Pocket Theater) (2007), which depicts the artist performing a series of sleight-of-hand tricks against a black background. To either side of this gallery are minimal installations by James Lee Byars, Wilfredo Prieto, and Motohiro Tomii that invoke, with varying success, the viewer’s astonishment at the properties inherent in simple materials. Byars’s juxtaposition of five crystals and a silent performer conjures an atmosphere at once somber and strangely weightless. The works by Prieto and Tomii play with our notions of value by arranging humble materials—cubic zirconia, thumbtacks—such that they appear cherishable. However, the “trick” in Prieto’s circular floor arrangement, that one of the thousands of shiny objects really is a diamond, almost spoils the effect. Nonetheless, these rooms are a useful primer in seeing the way Miki and her artists would want us to, and the attentive viewer is rewarded in other galleries with hard-to-find surprises, such as Still White, Corridor (2011), an installation between two galleries for which Atsushi Saga has polished a wall to a subtle sheen.
In other rooms, however, these small didactic tricks seem overly simple or even somewhat manipulative. Take, for example, a number of mid-twentieth-century Surrealist paintings from the museum collection hung side-by-side early in the show. All of them depict stairways, and once one discovers this formal alliteration, the paintings’ other qualities recede into the background. (These canvases, like other works from the museum’s collection, are laboriously integrated into the Triennale. They would have been better served by being presented as a separate-but-related exhibition.) Elsewhere, a large room is given over to Massimo Bartolini’s whimsical sculpture Organi (2008), in which a series of pipes, arranged like scaffolding, have been transformed into musical pipes, with a small music box placed on the floor pushing its notes through them and out into the room. It is a remarkable feat of hare-brained ingenuity, and its placement in a roughly circular, high-ceiling room makes one think of chapels. But, just in case you hadn’t made the connection on your own, several large-scale collages of multicolored butterfly wings by Damien Hirst, shaped like stained-glass windows, line the wall on either side. Perhaps complaints about the literalism of these installations sound like the carping of a professional who believes in his own sophistication. On the other hand, one also hopes that curators can trust non-specialist viewers to appreciate such details without having them communicated so directly.
At the outset, however, I suggested that art-world insiders are forever in search of the new, and this edition of the Yokohama Triennale presented to me several revelations. Whether the decision to include a greater proportion of local (i.e., Japanese) artists than is typical for such exhibitions was conceptual or logistical, I was particularly happy to encounter work by Keiichi Tanaami, Ryosuke Imamura, and Taro Izumi, as well as from the Koichi Yumoto Collection. Tanaami’s contribution is a series of short nonnarrative animated videos created in the 1970s. Their bright colors, collaged aesthetic, and surrealistic content call to mind Western counterparts such as Terry Gilliam, creator of animated Monty Python sketches. Small details such as an envelope bearing a Soho address testify to Tanaami’s familiarity with the psychedelic art then popular in the United States (and elsewhere). Imamura’s ingenious sound-art hybrid installations are in the tradition of cross-disciplinary elder statesmen like Christian Marclay. And Izumi’s accumulation of everyday objects, placed on pedestals of varying heights that crowd several rooms in the BankART Studio NYK, a second venue, were delightfully strange and evocative. So, too, is the Yumoto Collection, of which only a small portion is on view. It focuses on yokai, or ghosts, and includes movie posters, toys, traditional paintings and prints, and other ephemera, offering a welcome peek into vernacular Japanese culture.
The three-level BankART Studio, a nearby waterfront building, housed large-scale works by a range of well-known international artists. Here the theme of wonderment was somewhat harder to discern, but a handful of works stood out. Foremost among them was Peter Coffin’s utterly strange and spellbinding untitled computer animation, which I now think of as “3F,” for “Fruit: The Final Frontier.” The video, which presents an endless, never-repeating pattern, depicts eighteen semitransparent images of fruit accelerating towards the viewer at a leisurely version of warp speed. The images, succulent and oddly haloed, were created with the help of a specialist in 3-D medical scanning. At the other end of the technical spectrum is Henrik Hakansson’s Fallen Forest (2006), a DIY version of the “living walls” of foliage currently in vogue with certain interior designers and architects. Hakansson’s vertical surface of greenery, however, comes from simply turning large-scale potted trees on their side and inserting them into industrial metal shelving. Spotlights give the object an additional charm.
It’s worth noting that the disastrous events of March 11 not only affected the show’s production—making certain works logistically infeasible, say, or causing insurance rates to skyrocket. It also inspired some of the participating artists to devise new proposals as a direct response to the tragedy. The smartest of these is also one of the last visitors come across (if following the proscribed route through the venues). Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba, known in the West for his haunting videos of men struggling to pull submerged rickshaws along the seabed, has here created a memorial video installation that also serves as a participatory public art project. Using GPS technology, Nguyen-Hatsushiba has plotted paths through Ho Chi Minh City, his current home, and Yokohama that, when drawn on a map, resemble cherry blossoms. Members of the public are invited to jog along the routes to metaphorically trace onto the surface of the earth these symbols of transience and renewal. The runs are themselves ephemeral and bring to mind the concept of mono no aware, an awareness of the pathos and impermanence of things. The artwork is moving but not maudlin, and at a moment when the labor of recovery means that permanent memorials are still far off on the horizon, it seems thoughtful and noninvasive. And, by virtue of the idiosyncratic paths that cut through the city like Situationist dérives, it also defamiliarizes Yokohama for its resident joggers, thereby involuntarily slotting them into the exhibition’s theme. One can imagine such a run, though tinged as it must be by the awareness of pain and suffering in the northeastern part of the country, as a magic hour indeed.