Review: Tokyo-e @ Le Bal

Keizo Kitajima, Photo Express Tokyo Le Bal's Japanese summer season continues this week with the opening of the exhibition Tokyo-e, which brings together work by Yutaka Takanashi and Keizo Kitajima with a series by an almost complete unknown photographer, Yukichi Watabe, a photojournalist who worked in Tokyo. The three groups of work on show are very different, related only through their strong connection to the Japanese capital. Although this selection seems a little arbitrary (as is almost inevitably the case with city-based shows), Tokyo-e is a rare opportunity to see an exhibition that goes beyond the ever-popular Moriyama, Araki or anything-from-Provoke choices. Tokyo-e only opens officially tomorrow, but here's a little sneak preview to whet the appetite.


Keizo Kitajima, Koza

Kitajima gets the lion's share of the exhibition space with the entire downstairs floor including work spanning 15 years of his career, from his 1970s series in Tokyo and Okinawa to his work from the 1980s taken in New York, Eastern Europe, Berlin, Seoul and Beijing. The most striking feature of the Kitajima room has to be the Photo Express Tokyo grid, a band of photographs covering an entire wall. The installation is a nod to the 1970s Camp gallery where Kitajima covered the walls, floor and ceiling of this tiny Shinjuku space with his prints. In conjunction with this show, Le Bal and Steidl are releasing a facsimile of the full set of 12 Photo Express Tokyo booklets that Kitajima made in 1979 at the rate of one issue per week throughout the 12-week run of the exhibition.

Keizo Kitajima, Colour Works

Although Kitajima's work features most prominently, I found the upstairs room to be the more successful half of the show. The combination of Takanashi's Machi, a series of opulent, colour-drenched shopfronts and interiors from Tokyo's Shitamachi district, with a clever installation of Watabe's small 'film noir' vignettes creates the sense of wandering through the streets of a city from the past. The Watabe criminal investigation series is a wonderful anomaly. Shot in 1958, these photographs document a criminal investigation by the Tokyo police of a horrific murder by a suspected serial killer. In a radical departure from the straightforward 'objective' documentation that was so prevalent at the time, Watabe's photographs could be a set of film stills given how heavily they seem to be influenced by film noir, an effect which is compounded by the charismatic lead investigator, a kind of Japanese Humphrey Bogart figure. While they are different in every aspect, the installation of the two series ties them together nicely: the size of the Takanashi prints almost make it possible to walk into these city spaces, which have now all but faded away, while the labyrinthine installation of Watabe's small prints, which visitors look down on from above, echoes the detective's experience of searching for clues.

Yutaka Takanashi's Machi and Watabe Yukichi's criminal investigation series

With an artist talk by Kitajima tomorrow (Friday 20 May) evening, one by Takanashi on Sunday (22 May), a film programme and a bunch of other events to come, Tokyo-e comes complete with some terrific bonus features and is definitely worth the visit.

Tokyo-e (Yutaka Takanashi, Keizo Kitajima & Yukichi Watabe), Le Bal 20 May - 21 August 2011

Rating: Recommended

Eikoh Hosoe: Theatre of Memory @ AGNSW

The Butterfly Dream I've just come back from a ridiculously short trip to Australia for the opening of Eikoh Hosoe: Theatre of Memory at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This is Hosoe's first solo show in Australia and his first trip there. In addition to having the master himself present, he came accompanied by Yoshito Ohno, the butoh dancer and son of Kazuo Ohno, the co-founder of butoh who passed away last year at the age of 103. Here's a quick behind the scenes glimpse at the opening week of the show.

Eikoh Hosoe

Eikoh Hosoe with his portrait of Yukio Mishima from the Barakei series

Yoshito Ohno performed at the opening of the exhibition. You can see a video of one part of the performance here. There's also another video of Ohno's puppet performance at Zen Foto in Tokyo last year (note the Elvis Presley tune which is crucial to the tone of this performance). After the opening Hosoe and Ohno gave a fantastic artist talk in the exhibition space where they spoke about how butoh developed and how Ohno and Hijikata collaborated with Hosoe over the years.


Yoshito Ohno performing with a puppet of his father at the opening

Eikoh Hosoe and Yoshito Ohno artist talk

Second edition of Barakei, designed by Tadanori Yokoo.

Beg, borrow or steal.

Hosoe's next project? Butoh as embodied in Australia's native trees.
Hosoe's next project? Butoh as embodied in Australia's native trees.

A Japanese season starts in Paris

Opening night at Japanese Photobooks Now Last night was the opening of Japanese Photobooks Now, the first in a summer series of events on Japanese photography and film at Le Bal, which, as regular readers will know, should be right up my street. I've written about Le Bal before on eyecurious and since their first show Anonymes last autumn they have maintained a consistently interesting and diverse programme. For the next couple of weeks, the upstairs space has been taken over by Ivan Vartanian, a Tokyo-based New Yorker and the author of Japanese photobooks of the 1960s and 1970s and Setting Sun amongst others. For Japanese Photobooks Now Vartanian has put together a selection of around 80 photobooks which provide an overview of contemporary Japanese photobook publishing. Opportunities to pick up Japanese photobooks outside of Japan are pretty limited and so this is a rare chance not only to see some of the best current books but also to get a broader overview of the contemporary Japanese photo scene and the current trends in photobook publishing. The show is up until 8 May, but if you hurry Vartanian is in Paris until the end of the week and you just might be able to convince him to give you a private tour. With a Kitajima/Takanashi/Watabe exhibition, a month of Japanese film, two books and several events to come (full programme on Le Bal's website), this promises to be a good summer.


Ivan Vartanian



Okinawa soul

Books by Mao Ishikawa and Yasuo Higa (with a little bonus: Nantiti, sugar and coconut milk-coated macadamia nuts with package art by Shomei Tomatsu!) Since the earthquake of 11 March, Japan has slowly faded out of the international news, barring the occasional update on the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant. However things remain critical in the northeast of the country and disrupted as far south as Tokyo as a result of the lingering problems at Fukushima and the associated disruptions to the power supply in the region. I had originally planned a 2-week trip to Japan, but in view of the disastrous events of last month and the very unclear portrayal of the situation in the international media, I decided to shorten my trip to 5 days. This is the first of a few posts from my recent visit, which will hopefully offer a slightly different view of Japan to the news coverage of recent weeks.

I started my trip by flying directly to Okinawa, approximately 1,000 miles to the south-west of Tokyo. From the moment you arrive it is clear that Okinawa is a far cry from Tokyo's urban super-futurism or the refined minimalism of Kyoto's temples. A chain of lush tropical islands, Okinawa's relationship with Japan is a historically complicated one, made even more so by the prolonged and powerful influence of the United States since World War II. Even today, American military bases occupy nearly 20% of land on the main island of Okinawa, while 85% of Okinawans oppose their presence.

Shomei Tomatsu. Hateruma Island, Okinawa, 1971

This combination of natural beauty and rich folklore with a pretty tense political context have made Okinawa a popular subject for Japanese photographers over the years. Shomei Tomatsu, Takuma Nakahira, Daido Moriyama, Araki... the list of mainlanders to have photographed there is long. Tomatsu, probably the best known photographer to have worked extensively in Okinawa, has made the island his home in recent years. More than any other mainlander's, his work goes beyond the surface of the island's beauty and mystery (I would highly recommend getting your hands on his 1972 book, Okinawa, Okinawa, Okinawa, although it is likely to set you back a pretty penny). And yet, even after shooting in Okinawa on and off for close to 40 years, Tomatsu is the first to point out that work by native Okinawans is not getting the recognition it deserves outside of the island.

I came to Okinawa to visit Mao Ishikawa (regular readers might recognize her name from a few previous posts), a proud native Okinawan and a pint-sized force of nature. Before making this trip, I had just spent one hour with her at Paris Photo last November, which was more than enough to convince me that I needed to see more of her work.

Spread from Ishikawa's book on Sachiko Nakada's Theater Company

To say that Mao's story is extraordinary is a bit of an understatement. In the early 70s, after a few months at photography school in Tokyo (where she had picked out Tomatsu as her professor after seeing his pictures) she dropped out and headed back to her home town. Fascinated by the American military presence in Okinawa, Mao decided to become a hostess in a bar for African American soldiers (the US military actually enforced segregation on the bars that sprung up around the military bases) and to photograph her life there. The bar became her home for over 2 years and she photographed everything there with total freedom and openness… the other girls, the soldiers, the drinking, the smoking, the sex. While still in her early 20s, at a time when photography was a totally male-dominated world, she was one of the few women to get her pictures noticed, even managing to find a publisher for a book, which ended up causing quite a stir. During this time, one of the customers of the bar, a soldier named Myron Carr, became Mao's closest friend and after he returned to Philadelphia they remained in touch. In the 1980s she went to visit Carr and his twin brother, Byron, in their neighborhood in Philly and spent 2 months shooting there (recently published as Life in Philly, which I reviewed on the blog last year). She has successfully beaten cancer twice and is a fierce and longstanding critic of the continued US military presence in Okinawa. For her series Fences, Okinawa she walked around the perimeter of the fences surrounding the US military bases in Okinawa for an entire year, a project that her knees have yet to recover from.


Spread from Mao Ishikawa's Minatomachi Eregii (A Port Town Elegy)

After almost 12 hours going through her archive (and barely scratching the surface), the thing that stood out most for me is that her images are always those of an insider, whether she is shooting a family theater company, a group of heavy-drinking dock workers, or life in one of Philadelphia's rougher areas. Documentary photographs can often be a collection of stolen moments, but it is clear that Mao's images involve a deep and genuine exchange. She isn't just observing the people that she photographs, she immerses herself in their world and makes it her own.

Mao's first solo exhibition in Europe, (from which I stole the title of this post) was organized last year in London by Naoko Uchima, a young Okinawan who recently relocated from London to her native island to promote its culture and photography. During the handful of hours I spent on the island Naoko also introduced me to the work of Yasuo Higa, an Okinawan photographer who passed away in 2000. Although I haven't yet had much time to properly explore his work, Higa's photographs focus on the disappearing rituals and folklore of Okinawa. His work is more lyrical than Ishikawa's and is imbued with a strong sense of spirituality. A Higa retrospective is on show at the Izu Photo Museum until 31 May 2011.

Yasuo Higa. Kudaka Island, Fubo Utaki, Fubawaku, 1975

Spending 24 hours in Okinawa was never going to give me more than a glimpse into the life of this island, but a glimpse was more than enough to convince me that I need to go back.