Daido Moriyama, Plastic Love

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Akio Nagasawa (here). Softcover with silkscreened canvas jacket (297×210 mm), unpaginated, with 51 black and white and color reproductions, some on double page foldouts. There are no texts or essays included. In an edition of 350 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Shop window mannequins have long been a favorite subject of street photographers. Their eerie almost-humanity was a good match for the Surrealist artists of the 1920s (particularly Man Ray), who took the sleek heads, hands, and bodies and infused them with an unsettling dose of modern strangeness. These photographers also found aesthetic kinship with Eugène Atget, and his turn-of-the-century images of peculiar mannequins in Parisian shops. New York streets and their mannequins have similarly inspired a range of photographic masters, from Lisette Model to Lee Friedlander (reviewed here), who have often used the shifting duality of transparency and reflection in the nearby glass to animate their studies of fanciful storefront setups.

Plastic Love brings together Daido Moriyama’s many images of mannequins from Tokyo (and elsewhere), clarifying the Japanese photographer’s dark, sensual contributions to the genre. Moriyama’s approach to the subject has a faint echo of the found oddity and modern dissonance of Surrealism, but his eye has made contemporary mannequins much more intimate and sensual. In many ways, he has turned the exercise into a mannered kind of portraiture, where life-like plastic faces and bodies are seen in ways that give them an elusive set of apparent emotions, personalities, and desires.

Most mannequins stand and face the street in straightforward poses that highlight the clothes they are wearing, but Moriyama gets in close, framing the blank faces from unusual angles that discreetly minimize their inhumanity or at least confuse us for just a moment. His pictures encourage us to project feelings and moods onto these faces – shyness, boredom, confidence, curiosity, wariness, even aloof superiority. Some of the child mannequins in Moriyama’s world are especially real looking, their big eyes with feathery eyelashes staring at us with a splash of creepy horror movie (or maybe possessed) niceness. Other young women seem alternately prim but quietly sad, gloomily exhausted (despite wearing jaunty PARTY tights), standoffishly cool in white lace, and stylishly blurred and grainy like a Lillian Bassman fashion shoot. In making these mannequins seem more real, Moriyama subtly amplifies their hardened fakeness, their tiny imperfect details giving them away and upending our assumptions about how pictures of people typically function.

Moriyama performs a similar trick with gestures, centering our attention on the nuanced position of hands or the apparent shift of weight. His photographs look up at necks turned away, watch hands on hips, and notice turned shoulders and bent hands. Moriyama uses these movements to imply a flicker of thought, or to animate seemingly empty bodies. And when the mannequins are bald, androgynous, armless, or similarly futuristic, Moriyama often pulls back to find unexpectedly graceful studies of isolated curve and form amid the chaos of commercialism.

It’s hard to know whether Moriyama’s interest in mannequins drew him to a lengthy parade of lingerie and women’s underwear shops, or whether his sensual interest in women drew him there, only to be seduced by the preponderance of mannequins – either way, there are plenty of female mannequins in skimpy panties in this photobook. Many edge toward fantasy and provocative costume, and more than a few cross into the realm of fetish, with tied ropes, studded leather, plastic wrapped bodies, and mummified faces. Moriyama takes it all in, from shimmery glittered masks to lacy nightgowns, overtly playing with the aesthetics of public sexiness and commoditized desire.

For the most part, Moriyama is interested in what’s inside a shop display, not what’s outside. In a few cases though, the window’s reflectiveness provides the artist with an opportunity for an interrupted self-portrait, but Moriyama doesn’t do much with this potential. Again and again, he turns back to the everyday strangeness he sees inside – a mannequin with only half a face, another in overtanned blackface, and groups of mannequins alternately in black hoodies (like a dark army) and camouflage paint (like dappled sunlight).

The design of Plastic Love is quite wispy and flexible, almost like a magazine. The main feature is the thick canvas cover, silkscreened with a darkly gritty image that wraps around the front and back. Inside, the vertical images (with thin white borders) are surprisingly expansive, and the horizontal images are even larger, shown on wider two page foldouts. The pages themselves feel rather thin, and all the folding in and out inevitably leads to some jamming (the two staple binding isn’t particularly effective, but it gets the job done), creating an overall feel for the photobook that is somewhat casual. Akio Nagasawa has done a number of recent Moriyama books using this same format, like a series template.

Given Moriyama’s prolificness, more subject matter-themed groupings like this one can likely be successfully drawn out of his career-spanning archive. Like his flowers, nudes, or city signage, the mannequins offer us an opportunity to see the artist wrestling with alternate approaches to the same genre over time – testing, experimenting, and refining his voracious eye along the way.

Collector’s POV: Daido Moriyama is represented by Bruce Silverstein Gallery in New York (here), among others. Morimaya’s photographs are generally available at auction, with recent prices generally ranging between roughly $2000 and $70000.

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