I made a trip today to the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia to see the ‘Masters of Japanese Photography’ exhibition. The exhibition focussed on three photographers – Nobuyoshi Araki, Eikoh Hosoe and Kikuji Kawada.
One of the more interesting aspects of the exhibition were the historical narratives about photography and Japanese culture. One of the later periods of the 20th century was described as follows:-
‘During the 1980’s and 1990’s, the modernisation of Japan that had begun in previous decades, resulted in an increasing tension between the past and the future, as the influence of foreign trends and the ascent of mass consumption became more apparent. Photographers struggled to reconcile their desire to join the international art world without losing sight of their cultural and national identity’.
It struck me that whilst globalisation and revolutions in photography happen the world over, they must be all the more difficult to accept in distinct and unique cultures such as the Japanese one, which is intensely traditional with strict rules of acceptability for its inhabitants. Pushing the boundaries of photography must have been challenging in this atmosphere but perversely it appears that it encouraged more subversive photography, designed to shock and this seems particularly apparent in Araki’s work. He often seems to focus on themes of female sensuality, frequently depicted in flower forms such as in the images below:-
On researching more of his photographs online at home, I stumbled across an image by a younger artist, Mika Ninagawa, which I found much more accessible than Araki’s style. Her image below is similarly vibrant and it definitely seems to have traces of Araki’s influence embedded in the photograph, retaining the overriding sensual floral theme, but in an altogether more modern, playful way. The bold colours of Japanese floral nature still hit you straight between the eyes also:-
Eikoh Hosoe’s ‘Eye of Photography’ image below left is a multi-layered, surrealist photograph and this stood out for me in the exhibition. I like how the face of the human figure is replaced by the clock-face and the torso and head appears as yet another layer at the base of the image. There were several other images from his ‘Ordeal by Roses’ series in the exhibition and the photograph of the rose in front of the model’s face below right, is powerful for its gritty texture and strong contrasts. I later read that Hosoe teamed up with the Japanese writer Mishima as his subject for several months to create the series and that Mishima later committed suicide by seppuku (the Japanese ritual of suicide by disembowelment). Nothing very cheery here, but the depth of Hosoe’s imagination used to create these photographs is positively febrile:-
Kawada’s photographs were based on astronomical phenomena such as eclipses and the supporting script suggested that the light and shade involved was intended to reflect the powerful opposing forces of good and evil. I must admit I strolled quite quickly past these images as they didn’t interest me.
Overall it was a eye-opening exhibition and my first introduction to Japanese photography, and unlike the Taylor Wessing experience last weekend, this time I had the entire exhibition centre to myself and the security official, so not bad at all!