Eikoh Hosoe, Theatre of Memory 

Japanisches Kulturinstitut, Cologne, 2010 / Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2011

Eikoh Hosoe: Theatre of Memory was held at the Japanisches Kulturinstitut in Cologne (2010) and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney (2011). The exhibition was curated around Hosoe's longstanding relationship with Butoh dance and it brings together photographs of the two giants of Butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata in the series Kamaitachi and Kazuo Ohno in the series Butterfly Dream, with Hosoe's recent Ukiyo-e Projections series. Inspired by Hosoe's notion that Butoh is a modern form of ukiyo-e, this exhibition highlights his ability to borrow from different art forms to manipulate time and place in order to bring memory to life.

Eikoh Hosoe: Theatre of Memory highlights not only Hosoe’s mastery of photography, but also his creativity with the use of the latest printing techniques. Hosoe has begun using pigment inks and Japanese washi paper to present his work on traditionally made silk screens and scrolls. These beautiful objects were born out of Hosoe’s experiments with traditional Japanese papers using the latest digital technology and pigment inks, which, in Hosoe’s words, have “enlarged the field of photographic expression.”

Kamaitachi  #37, 1965

Kamaitachi #37, 1965

Kazuo Ohno, 1994

Kazuo Ohno, 1994

Eikoh Hosoe's Photographic Theatre is a short essay I wrote for the catalogue to the exhibition. Here is an extract of the essay:

From the beginning of his career, Eikoh Hosoe has been linked to and inspired by Butoh. This revolutionary performance movement formed in the post-war years, integrating elements of German expressionism and Japanese dance to search for a new social identity in the wake of defeat. Hosoe began photographing in the 1950s, when realist documentary photography was de rigueur. However, after seeing the first Butoh performance, Kinjiki (Forbidden Colours) by Tatsumi Hijikata, he was inspired to embark in a radical new direction and began collaborating with Hijikata on Kamaitachi, an intense dramatisation of Hosoe’s childhood memories in the rural Tohoku region where he spent the wartime years. Hijikata embodied the kamaitachi, a legendary weasel-like demon said to haunt the rice fields. Kamaitachi is perhaps the finest illustration of Hosoe’s hybrid photographic style, combining performance and documentary with a dramatic, baroque visual aesthetic embodying the founding principles of ankoku butoh, or dance of darkness. Whereas the prevailing photography of the period sought to document the real world, with Kamaitachi Hosoe used photographs to recreate memory, exploring not only his personal childhood memories but also the nation’s collective memory of the trauma of wartime and of the atomic bombings.

Through his relationship with Hijikata, Hosoe also began to photograph Butoh’s other leading figure, Kazuo Ohno, culminating in the collection, The Butterfly Dream. These two series provide a fascinating insight into the evolution of Butoh, while illustrating Hosoe’s ability to develop unique visual universes from these two performers’ contrasting styles. While they retain the drama intrinsic to Butoh, Hosoe’s photographs of Ohno are far less explosive than those of Hijikata, often focusing in on details of Ohno’s body, the curve of a wrist or a facial expression caught between agony and ecstasy.

In the 1990s, Hosoe photographed a performance in which ukiyo-e (“pictures of the floating world”) images were projected onto Ohno’s body, a technique that he used again ten years later for Ukiyo-e projections. Hosoe perceives Butoh as a modern form of ukiyo-e and for this series he created a “photographic theatre”, projecting a mixture of his own photographs and erotic ukiyo-e images on to a group of Butoh dancers. This term “photographic theatre” could be applied to Hosoe’s oeuvre as a whole: by photographing at the crossroads of different art forms including theatre, dance, documentary and traditional wood-block prints, he has created a theatre in which he manipulates time and space to bring memory to life.

Hosoe is a unique figure in the Japanese photographic landscape. A master printer, he has experimented with both film-based and digital techniques to develop new methods of photographic expression. He has exhibited and taught widely in both Japan and the West, and his ability to bridge this divide has contributed to establishing a mutual understanding between these different photographic cultures. Over the past fifty years, his openness and his innovation have greatly enriched the global language of photography. 

By Marc Feustel

(Photographs by Eikoh Hosoe)

Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Yoshito Ohno performing at the opening of the exhibition,  Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Yoshito Ohno performing at the opening of the exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Yoshito Ohno performing at the opening of the exhibition,   Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Yoshito Ohno performing at the opening of the exhibition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney