Ken Kitano, Others From the Future

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by bookshop M (here). Softcover, red stitch binding, 290 × 200 mm, 68 pages, with 18 color reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist in English/Japanese, as well as a short biography and list of images. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The cover of Ken Kitano’s recent photobook Others From the Future features what at first glance looks like a soft pink wash of watercolor, with a darker area of red underneath a gathering of overlaid text. But a longer look reveals that this ephemeral form is actually the tiny leg and foot of a baby, seemingly floating in the enveloping whiteness that surrounds it, as though tossed in the air or falling from the sky. Flip over to the back cover and the mystery continues, with a nearly unidentifiable silhouette in monochrome red, which seems to have the faint echo of a head and ear near the top, again possibly of a baby. And then the red string that binds the book is discovered to be much too long, falling down almost a foot too far at the bottom, into a dangling afterthought, maybe like an umbilical cord. It’s a strange and elusive start to a photobook that deliberately steps into an uncharted void.

The backstory to Others From the Future (as explained by the artist in a short essay) provides some useful context. Kitano had a chance meeting with an obstetrician, who had seen his work in a museum and wondered whether he might be interested in producing a body of work with babies as his subject; the show she had seen featured Kitano’s large scale composite portraits (a handful of which were on view in New York in 2015, reviewed here.) He later visited her clinic, and began a project photographing newborns and young infants.

The images in Others From the Future are color photograms, each spread or half spread in the book filled with a cropped image at 1:1 scale (i.e. the baby is life sized) with a smaller full frame overlay at 1/10th scale. These are camera-less darkroom-based images, made in complete darkness, so the pose and position of the squirming baby is somewhat at the mercy of chance. And while the colors can to some extent be visualized and managed, these too are inherently at least partially serendipitous and improvisational. (For another example of how this kind of color photogram process can be used, see the more abstract work of Mariah Robertson, here.)

As Kitano recounts, the first few baby photograms he made were red forms against black backgrounds, which led him to a leap of mystical imagination – perhaps the before-birth world of babies is red, therefore making his negative images of babies in “this world” that recently came from “outside this world” red on black. And indeed, the first four photogram compositions in the photobook follow this idea, with babies moving on their backs and bellies, their colors shifting from red to electric magenta and back to flares of bright white, especially where the babies touch the hard surface. They seem to hover and swim in an ocean of complete darkness, their tiny fingers and the recognizable curves of a human infant the only separations from their environment.

The corollary of this line of logic would of course try to capture what a baby “outside this world” would look like from “this world”, and Kitano has simply reversed the tonalities, creating photograms where the baby appears red (or pink) on white. From there, the artist’s color experimentations veer off in less defined (or overtly explained) directions, bringing in shades of yellow that flare toward green (or orange) on their way to black, and multiple variations with blue (blue on white, white on blue, blue on black etc.).

Kitano’s eerie compositions have a more spiritual edge than Adam Fuss’ well-known photograms of babies in water (from the 1990s). Fuss’ infants splashed in the rippling water, turning that environment into a riff on amniotic fluid or the primordial soup from which humanity emerged. Kitano’s babies seem to hover in an undefined otherworldly space, where souls or ghosts might linger before crossing to the other side. This is especially true when Kitano reverses the tonalities and the shadowed parts of the infants flare to white – when this happens they seem to glow from the inside like angels. And when Kitano captures the same child three or four times in the same frame, the movements feel like stuttering impossible multiplications, or quantum states where the baby is in various places simultaneously. There is a comforting calmness to these photograms that piques our curiosity without giving away too many answers.

Because Kitano’s images are so saturated and dark, the only solution to avoiding bleed through between pages is to host each spread with nothing printed on the back sides. When collated and bound together, the result is a photobook with more white pages than images, and a sequencing that methodically alternates between spreads of white and glossy photograms. While this might sound odd, the effect is actually positive, in that the pacing of the page flips is controlled, and each numbered composition is given a chance to have its own presence.

The challenge faced by Kitano in this project was how to get beyond the cloying obviousness of baby pictures, and to introduce some resonant uncertainty to such a recognizable form. In these color photograms, he’s created a sense of mystical ambiguity and asked us to wrestle with unwieldy notions of creation and consciousness, while also allowing us to step back from those unknowns and simply enjoy the aesthetic aspects of his constructions. In the end, there is something elemental and universal in these pictures that taps into deep rooted human instincts, asking us to allow for the potential wonder of forgotten infant memories.

Collector’s POV: Ken Kitano is represented by IBASHO Gallery in Tokyo (here), MEM in Osaka (here), Priska Pasquer in Cologne (here), and ROSEGALLERY in Santa Monica (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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