Kensuke Koike and Thomas Sauvin, No More, No Less

JTF (just the facts): Three photobooks, simultaneously released by three different publishers:

Published in November 2018 by the(M) éditions (here). Hardcover with 26 black and white photographs. Includes text by the artists (in French and English). In an edition of 400 copies. Design by Les Graphiquants.

Published in November 2018 by Skinnerboox (here). Softcover in a slipcase, with one folded sheet and 2 booklets, 76 pages, with 26 black and white photographs. Includes text by the artists (in French and English). In an edition of 400 copies. Design by Federico Carpani.

Published in November 2018 by Jiazazhi Press (here). Softcover in a slipcase, 48 pages, with 26 black and white photographs. Includes text by the artists (in Chinese and English). In an edition of 400 copies. Design by Yinhe Cheng.

(Cover and spread shots of each below.)

Comments/Context: Thomas Sauvin is a French photography collector and curator, who during the time he lived in China salvaged a massive trove of discarded 35mm negatives from a chemical recycling plant located on the edge of Beijing. His archive, known as Beijing Silvermine (here), has now grown to half a million found images spanning the period from 1985 to 2005. Sauvin groups and categorizes the images by various themes and motifs, uncovering unexpected angles into daily life in China, and he has released some of the resulting projects as photobooks, finding creative and exciting ways to present the material.

It only seems natural that Sauvin would eventually stumble upon, and become fascinated by, the work of Kensuke Koike, a Japanese artist based in Venice, Italy, who is also interested in the artistic potential of found images. Koike’s practice focuses on physical intervention with imagery, and his works unwaveringly follow one single formal rule: nothing is removed, nothing is added. He tears, cuts, and rearranges photographs and postcards, creating impressively reimagined compositions. In a video documenting his work, he takes a photograph of a woman holding a cigarette, and starting in the upper left hand side slowly tears it down all the way to the cigarette: the result is the magical appearance of smoke floating in space. In another work, a little girl holds a birthday cake, and via Koike’s cut and folds, she throws the cake over her face. His interventions are often very simple, yet the results are transformative. Cutting and making collages with photographic material is obviously not new, yet Koike’s mathematical accuracy, his meticulous precision, and his ability to see and unlock the overlooked in found imagery doesn’t fail to surprise and excite.

Sauvin started collecting Koike’s work few years ago, and recently the two collaborated on their first project together. Koike visited Sauvin’s studio and spent some time going through the archives. He found an album from early 1980s by an unknown Shanghai University photography student, containing original negatives, silver prints, and notes. The portraits were rather monotone and dull, but that was exactly what grabbed Koike’s attention, and after few tests, they agreed it was suitable material for the project.

Koike uses geometric forms and cut patterns to give the black and white portraits new life. One head is cut into multiple spirals which are then slightly misaligned and rotated, creating a swirling vortex effect. In another work, individual eyes are cut in triangle shapes, and then switched with the shape from the other side of the face. In a third, the portrait of a man is deconstructed by cutting it in even triangles that are then rearranged into a new composition. In the different images, Koike alternately starts with diamonds, cubes, circles, and interlocked angles to interrupt the imagery, and then these forms are cleverly reversed, misaligned, and rearranged. There is even one work where Koike has cut evenly spread dots across the surface of the image, using the cut out pieces to make another small collage.

Both Koike and Sauvin agreed that a publication would be a fitting way to show the work, yet they also wanted to create something different, to find a way to approach the photobook form from a new direction. So they conceived of an original plan and contacted three publishers: Skinnerboox from Italy and The(M) éditions from France (based on the countries where Koike and Sauvin live), and the Chinese publisher Jiazazhi Press, because the original album came from China. Each publisher received scans of Koike’s works (front and back) and some text describing the project, and they had to follow two simple rules: editions of 400 had to be released by early November and the publishers couldn’t contact either Koike or Sauvin during the process or show them any stages of their production. This meant that each publisher had complete creative freedom in their approach to the project – in interpreting the material, in the design of the photobook object, and for instance, in the addition of other elements. Having three well-regarded publishers simultaneously solving the same artistic puzzle made the process exciting, and obviously more demanding for those involved.  

The triple edition of No More, No Less is as intriguing as it sounds, and the three resulting photobooks diverge in surprising ways. The version by The(M) éditions is the largest one in physical size. The scans of the original source workbook were used to create the double-sided dust jacket, which is printed on newsprint-style paper: it shows the faded pages with photographs and texts in Chinese characters. Inside, the book is divided into two parts, and the images are placed inside a cardboard base. The photographs on both sides can be flipped simultaneously, and the arrangement of Koike’s cuts and taping are marked with gloss on the back side of each image. This edition stands out for its high quality of printing. 

Skinnerboox printed all of Koike’s images on a single continuous sheet, which was then cut, folded, and inserted into a slipcase. The typography on a slipcase playfully mimics Koike’s technique, with the words cut horizontally and rearranged. One booklet contains the workbook of the album, and another inverts several images as negatives printed on black paper, one of which appears on the slipcase cover.

The Jiazazhi Press Chinese edition is a softcover book in a slipcase. Each work is printed separately and is hidden between thin, semi-transparent page pockets, allowing the loose individual prints to be taken out. The front side of each pocket traces in Koike’s geometric interventions in light red ink, isolating the shapes and making them more abstract; they are also carefully marked on the backside of each photograph.

Seeing these three versions together brings the role of the designer in a photobook publishing project into clearer view. Each book wrestles with the same themes – how to bring the physicality of Koike’s work (and of the original found images) into the design, how to highlight the geometries of Koike’s interventions, and how to use the repetitions of the portraits to create a sense of comparison between the individual works – while still trying to find a unique (and perhaps innovative or risk taking) way to present the material that matches the artist’s intent and aesthetic style. While the collaborative nature of the book-making process has been isolated in the three editions of No More, No Less, it’s clear that each volume was made with care and sensitivity.

In the end, No More, No Less is a thoughtful exercise in the power of creative possibilities – in what can be imagined (and made) from vernacular imagery, and in how a photobook can be envisioned (and constructed) to match or complement an artist’s creations. When the combination of artwork and design comes together effectively, the resulting “solution” is something additive, the component parts becoming an integrated artistic expression.

Collector’s POV: Kensuke Koike is represented by Postmasters in New York (here). Koike’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up. 

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Read more about: Kensuke Koike, Thomas Sauvin, Jiazazhi Press, Skinnerboox, The(M) éditions

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