For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979 @Japan Society

JTF (just the facts): A broad group show containing some 250 works from 29 photographers/artists, variously framed and matted, and hung against white and grey walls in a series of 6 rooms and the entry area at the Japan Society and a series of 4 rooms and the entry area at the Grey Art Gallery (NYU). The exhibit was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and curated by Yasufumi Nakamori. A catalog of the exhibition was published by the MFAH (here) and is now sold out.

The following photographers/artists have been included in the exhibit at the Japan Society. In the list below, the names of the artists are followed by the number of works on view, their processes, and their dates as background:

  • Toshio Matsumoto: 3 16mm films transferred to single channel video, 12:09, 1968
  • Kiyoji Otsuji: 1 gelatin silver print, 1968, 5 gelatin silver prints, 1977
  • Daido Moriyama: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1970, 6 gelatin silver prints, 1969, 1 book, 1972, 5 magazines, 1972-1973, 4 magazines, 1969, 1 book, 1972
  • Koji Taki: 3 spreads from Provoke 1, 1968-1969
  • Takuma Nakahira: 1 digital reproduction of photobook, 1970, 4 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1973/2014, 1 book, 1970,
  • Shomei Tomatsu: 1 inkjet print, 1970/2014, 7 gelatin silver prints, 1969/1980, 4 books (covers, open), 1969, 1975, 3 magazines, 1970-1971
  • Yutaka Takanashi: 5 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1973
  • Takuma Nakahira/Takahiko Okada/Yutaka Takanashi/Koji Taki/Daido Moriyama: 3 magazines (Provoke 1, 2, and 3), 1968-1969, 1 book, 1970
  • Daido Moriyama/Shuji Terayama: 1 book, 1968
  • Group of Five’s Photobook Revolution Editorial Committee: 2 books, 1972
  • Shunji Dodo/Koichi Kuronuma: 4 books, 1972-1977
  • Keiji Uematsu: 3 gelatin silver print diptychs, 1973/2002, 1 sculpture of wood blocks and steel jack, 1971/2015
  • Tatsuo Kawaguchi: 1 set of 10 gelatin silver prints, 1970
  • Keiji Uematsu/Tatsuo Kawaguchi: 1 video, 12:29, 1973
  • Yusuke Nakahara: 2 books, 1970
  • Harald Szeemann: 1 catalog, 1969
  • Kynaston McShine: 1 catalog, 1970
  • Lucy Lippard: 1 book, 1973
  • Hitoshi Nomura: 1 set of 8 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1969, 1 16mm film transferred to DVD, 6:00, 1969
  • Nobuo Yamanaka: 1 35mm slide projected through 15 acetate film screens, 1972, 7 chromogenic prints, 1980
  • Koji Enokura: 1 silkscreen on felt and cloth, 1972, 7 gelatin silver prints, 1970, 1972, 1974
  • Jiro Takamatsu: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1972-1973, 1 acrylicon canvas, 1969, 1 installation of lightbulb and stainless steel board, 1973
  • Kazuyo Kinoshita: 3 gelatin silver prints with applied acrylic, 1979
  • Nobuyoshi Araki: 8 gelatin silver prints, 1971/2012, 5 xerox books, 1970, 6 books 1970-1971
  • Shigeo Gocho: 3 chromogenic prints, 1978-1980/1981, 5 gelatin silver prints, 1975-1977, 3 books, 1971, 1977-1981
  • Nobuyoshi Araki/Takashi Fujisawa: 1 book, 1971
  • Kenshichi Heshiki: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1971-1972
  • Kiyoshi Suzuki: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1972, 1 gelatin silver print, 1981, 2 books, 1972
  • Miyako Ishiuchi: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1977-1978, 3 books, 1978-1981
  • Nathan Lyons: 1 book, 1966

The following photographers/artists have been included in the secondary exhibit at the Grey Art Gallery (this potion of the show closed on December 5, 2015). In the list below, the names of the artists are followed by the number of works on view, their processes, and their dates as background:

  • Toshio Matsumoto: 3 16mm films transferred to single channel video, 12:09, 1968
  • Shunji Dodo: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1969
  • Takuma Nakahira: 6 gelatin silver prints, 1968-1973/2014, 1 set of 54 gelatin silver prints, 1971/2015
  • Kazuo Kitai: 4 gelatin silver prints, 1968
  • Kunié Sugiura: 1 photo emulsion on canvas and wood, 1978, 1 photo emulsion and graphite on canvas, 1970, 1 c-print and colored paper mounted on paper, 1981, 1 photo emulsion and acrylic on canvas, 1971
  • Hitoshi Nomura: 1 gelatin silver prints, 1975/1995, 6 binders, 1975-1979, 1 audio recording, 20:40, 1 album cover, 1 set of 10 gelatin silver prints, 1969, 1 16mm film converted to two channel video, 11:00, 1972, 1 set of 12 gelatin silver prints, 1970
  • Keiji Uematsu: 1 8mm film converted to digital video, 14:14,1971, 3 gelatin silver print diptychs, 1973, 1976
  • Akihide Tamura: 1 set of 12 gelatin silver prints, 1976-1981
  • Kanji Wakae: 1 set of 12 gelatin silver prints on panel, 1974/later, 1 gelatin silver print with applied color, 1971, 1 silkscreen on gelatin silver print, 1972
  • Masafumi Maita: 1 set of 12 gelatin silver prints on panel, 1977, 1 photomural with light bulb and applied paint, 1977
  • Takuma Nakahira/Takahiko Okada/Yutaka Takanashi/Koji Taki/Daido Moriyama: 3 magazines (Provoke 1, 2, and 3, with 3 spreads), 1968-1969, Takuma Nakahira, 4 books, 1970, 1970/2010, 1973, 1983, Takuma Nakahira/Koji Taki: 1 book, 1970, Takuma Nakahira/Kishin Shinoyama: 1 book, 1977
  • Kiya Takaemae, Kyoko Ureshino, Kenzaburo Oe, Nihon University All Campus Joint Struggle Group, Kazuo Kitai, Shinzo Hanabusa, Tatsuo Mitoji, Takashi Hamaguchi, All Japan Student Photographer’s Federation, Unknown, 11 books, 1968-1978

(Installation shots below. The images from the Japan Society exhibit (the first 14 in the array below) were provided courtesy of the Japan Society and taken by Richard P. Goodbody.)

Comments/Context: One of the things that often gets lost when we focus in on the photography of a single artist or a group of artists all working in the same style is a sense of the larger historical moment – we dive deeply into details of composition, aesthetics, and process, momentarily losing sight of the larger social context surrounding that art making activity. But some of our greatest museum exhibits consciously step back and take a look at the larger sweep of art within the specific environmental circumstances of place and time, showing us the straightforward “what” of the art, but also delving into the more nuanced and sometimes overlooked and misunderstood questions of “why” this art was being made in the manner that it was. For a New World to Come, the sprawling two-venue study of Japanese photography from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, takes on this complex analytical task of outlining both the what and the why of a particularly tumultuous and influential art historical period. The result is an effective survey enabled by a crisp curatorial framework, and one of the best photography shows of the year.

The story begins with the politically-charged protest photography of the late 1960s, but actually has its roots going back several decades to the end of World War II. By its very nature, protest comes out of dissatisfaction, and late 1960s Japan was teeming with anxiety and disquiet. Part of this simmering unrest came from the stalling of the so-called economic miracle, where the transformations (and Westernizations) brought on by the rapid industrialization of the country’s economy over the previous twenty years started to falter, ultimately sliding into recession. The other half of the tension arose from the ongoing presence of the American military within Japan’s borders, enabled by the US-Japan Security Agreement (“Anpo”), and the beginnings of the war in Vietnam. Together, these two forces produced a new strain of pent-up radicalism, especially in the universities and among the younger generation, fired by a dark sense of unease and bottled-up anger. In retrospect, the mass protests and more urgent political activism that soon erupted wasn’t particularly surprising.

What’s important about the protest photography of Shunji Dodo, Takuma Nakahira, Shomei Tomatsu, Kazuo Kitai and others isn’t so much that they were particularly adept at capturing the protest posters flying from the rooftops, the flares of light off police in riot gear, the nighttime faces of energetic young people, or even the kinetic violence of a punching bag or rock throwing, although these pictures are certainly compelling. It’s that these photographers audaciously tried to invent a new visual language for capturing that pervasively dark underground mood, the now famous are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, out-of-focus), specifically as published in the short lived Provoke magazine. It was the creation of an aesthetic style as a collective contrarian reaction, a conscious effort to undermine what a picture used to mean and represent, and transform it into a more abstract experience.

As seen in this exhibit, 1970 ends up being a watershed year for Japanese photography. In two landmark bodies of work produced that year (Takuma Nakahira’s For a Language to Come and Daido Moriyama’s Farewell Photography), we find both an apex of aesthetic productivity and an utter collapse in confidence in the medium. The pictures indelibly capture the atmospheric pace of urban life, pushing the energy of the city toward something menacing and disjointed, where faces intermingle with mannequins and everyday patterns reveal their formlessness. And yet, at some level, this expressive extension extended to a place of near bankruptcy, where the artists were in a sense boxed in and forced to rethink how to move forward.

By 1971, Nakahira was in Paris, making pictures of French street life and printing them on the sidewalk, creating an ever evolving installation of cars, shop windows, and advertisements, building and rebuilding the work each day. While the general aesthetics of the photographs were still darkly familiar, the underlying conceptual framework had significantly changed – he had moved on to considering aspects of performance, iteration, and time. This line of thinking was also being taken up by a handful of other Japanese photographers, stripping away the sweaty stylistic expressionism and returning to cool camera-as-document formalism. Hitoshi Nomura watched dry ice melt, took pictures of the moon (turning them into a haunting musical score), stood still while whirling a camera around and around, and constructed a huge cardboard box simply to watch it collapse under its own weight. Kenji Uematsu used his body to create lines and geometries within a door frame, squashed rocks in technical machinery, and hung himself from a tree with a rope. And Tatsuo Kawaguchi placed 4 wooden planks on the beach, watching the ebb and flow of the waves. This vector of photographers embraced a deeper sense of performative conceptualism, pushing away from expression and toward more minimal ideas.

Another group of photographers struck out in an alternate conceptual direction, extending the grainy textures of the late 1960s work toward a more systematic interest in the physicality of photography. Jiro Takamatsu made pictures of pictures, Kazuyo Kinoshita overpainted photographs with folds, adding rephotographed misalignments and illusions, and Koji Enokura photographed a stain, converted it to silkscreen, and printed on canvas near the original, creating a disorienting doppelganger effect. Kanji Wakae drove nails through photographs of objects and rephotographed the results, generating relative confusion with everyday irons, magnets, and hammers. And Masafumi Maita introduced a glowing fluorescent light bulb into a mural-sized seascape, producing a visual echo between the horizontal light and the horizon line. In each case, the artist was consciously upending our photographic expectations (especially in the image/object category), asking if we can trust what we think we see.

A third path at the 1970 fork in the road led inward, toward a more introspective and personal use of photography. Nobuyoshi Araki turned his camera on his new wife, Yoko, affectionately capturing her on the train, brushing her teeth, and in bed. Shigeo Gocho re-embraced the streets of the city, but did so in warm saturated color or with a snapshot eye for kids. And Miyako Ishiuchi went back to the small port town of Yokosuka where she grew up, making crumbling, textural pictures evocative of uncertainty and struggle. For these photographers, the way forward was a more private one, where stronger personal emotions redirected the energy of the wider cultural angst.

One of the reason this exhibit is so successful is that it isn’t afraid of the photobooks. While books in vitrines are often underwhelming (and quickly passed over by visitors), the sheer variety of rare books, magazines, self-published zines and Xeroxes, and other hand-to-hand ephemera on view here is a testament to how important these forms of communication were to these photographers. In many cases, the photobooks are more compelling than the framed prints, reinforcing the idea of a guerilla aesthetic movement taking place underground and away from the main cultural transit zones. We can almost feel just how radical and confrontational a copy of Provoke must have felt at that time, its brashness undiluted by age.

Curator Yasufumi Nakamori has done an admirable job here of creating a logical progression through the rooms, which gently holds our hands through some tumultuous photographic transitions. For me, the result was a clear conceptual structure that I could easily follow and understand, putting a previously confusing and chaotic period into a semblance of order. His implied argument backed up his assertions with superlative examples at every turn, and I had many “aha” moments where his smart editing and sequencing educated me in some meaningful way.

In the end, this exhibit has everything we could reasonably want from such an undertaking – an important and influential artistic period, a thoughtful mix of known and unknown photographers (leading to both reacquaintance and discovery), a consistent array of rarities not often seen in New York, and a compelling curatorial framework that boils the complexity down into a manageable line of thinking. It’s undeniably one of the smartest shows of the year, and certainly one worth making a detour to see before it closes in January.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices. With so many artists/photographers included, our usual discussion of gallery relationships and secondary market histories becomes unmanageable, so we have omitted this portion of the analysis for this specific review.

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Read more about: Akihide Tamura, Daido Moriyama, Hitoshi Nomura, Jiro Takamatsu, Kanji Wakae, Kazuo Kitai, Kazuyo Kinoshita, Keiji Uematsu, Kenshichi Heshiki, Kiyoji Otsuji, Kiyoshi Suzuki, Koji Enokura, Koji Taki, Kunié Sugiura, Masafumi Maita, Miyako Ishiuchi, Nobuo Yamanaka, Nobuyoshi Araki, Shigeo Gocho, Shomei Tomatsu, Shunji Dodo, Takuma Nakahira, Tatsuo Kawaguchi, Toshio Matsumoto, Yutaka Takanashi, Grey Art Gallery (NYU), Japan Society

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