Lieko Shiga, Blind Date

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by T&M Projects (here). Japanese bound softcover in a special printed box, 100 pages, with 98 black and white reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. With a signed postcard. This body of work is currently on view at the Marugame Genichiro-Inokuma Museum of Contemporary Art (here). (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Whether earned, gifted, or won as a prize, an artist residency is a special kind of out-of-the-box creative opportunity. With a distant echo to the patronage system of the Renaissance, an artist is typically given a cash award or a stipend in conjunction with a visit to a school or other institution, in the hopes of both generating lively artistic interchange (often via lectures/talks) and providing a catalyst for the making of new work. For many, an artist residency is a rare chance to get away from one’s home environment and find a new flash of inspiration, and most importantly for the cash strapped artist, to do so at someone else’s generous expense.

Coming off the success of her intensely surreal Canary series (particularly in its photobook form) and several years before her Rasen Kaigen work would catapult her to much broader international recognition, the Japanese photographer Lieko Shiga spent several weeks in Bangkok on just such an artist residency. And while Thailand’s largest city could clearly have offered her plenty of mysterious fantasies and eerie colors that might have paralleled her other work, Shiga became interested in something more fleetingly mundane – the wave of passing people on motorbikes, and in particular, her exchanged glances with couples sharing a ride. Over the course of her time in Bangkok, and with the help of a translator, she chased down and photographed nearly 100 couples, and the results of her unlikely project have been gathered into the recently released photobook Blind Date. It’s an intriguing example of an artist using a residency to get outside her comfort zone, as the formal social customs of Japan would never have encouraged Shiga to engage strangers with such frankness – in Bangkok, she was an obvious outsider, and it allowed her to interact with much more freedom and openness than she would have ever attempted at home.

All of the photographs in Blind Date have the same general composition – the riders move from left to right across the frame, with the man driving and the woman seated behind, her arms around his waist to hold on. Shiga’s black and white images narrow in on their two heads, the man’s face looking forward or obscured (to take care of the job of steering) and the woman often peering to the side or generally looking around (where she finds Shiga’s gaze). Without any direct control of the motorbike, the woman is at the mercy of her partner, her easygoing trust exemplified by a cheek resting on her man’s back.

Single subject photographic projects like this one can sometimes feel hemmed in and constrained, given a limited number of available variations to explore. But by shooting at both day and night and by paying close attention to the nearly infinite nuances of human expression, Shiga has found plenty of richness to investigate in this one view. Tenderness comes in many shapes and sizes – muted curiosity, quiet protectiveness, wispy sensuality, soft contentment, comfortable coziness, energetic squeezing, and even playful one-eyed seduction. And the physical closeness of the setup generates subtleties of gesture and body language that reinforce this overlooked landscape of emotion, a dash of blur creating frozen moments of cinematic style.

Construction-wise, I was initially put off by the unwieldiness of Blind Date. After the external box is unpacked and removed, the photobook itself is large and squishy, the pages bending and undulating without the support of hard covers. Most of the images are full bleed, the photographs (especially the night views) pulling us into direct and intimate eye-to-eye interaction with the riders. After I got used to the wiggliness of the pages, their flimsiness and uncertainty started to feel intentional, like a physical manifestation of the feeling of being on the back of a motorcycle – there’s a lot of leaning and readjusting necessary to have a comfortable ride. The largeness of the faces is the key here – by printing the photographs at such scale, we are forced into a closer and more personal dialogue than a smaller book would encourage.

Blind Date ends with a single image that makes the clever title literal – while the women here have been riding blind the whole time, in this final photograph, our heroine reaches up and gently places her hands over the driver’s eyes, blinding him for just a moment. While it’s clearly a great way to cause an accident, for that single fleeting instant (I hope she playfully pulled her hands away quickly), it rebalances the power in the relationship, reminding her partner of her ability to unilaterally change the rules and take charge.

While passing cars and traffic aren’t particularly original photographic subjects (Wiktoria Wojciechowska’s Short Flashes recently explored another subgenre of this topic, reviewed here), Shiga has found a way to draw a memorable perspective out of the everyday back and forth. Her pictures replicate the stream of ephemeral visual connections we make as life rushes past, and enlarges them so we feel those encounters with more depth and resonance. Suddenly, a noisy motorbike swooshing past we would deliberately turn away from is transformed into the intimate dance of a young couple, their functional embrace more universally personal and quietly poignant than we might have ever imagined.

Collector’s POV: Works by Lieko Shiga can be found with Rose Gallery in Santa Monica (here) and Christophe Guye Galerie in Paris (here). Her work has not yet reached the secondary markets with any regularity, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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