Motoyuki Daifu, Holy Onion

JTF (just the facts): Published by Osiris in 2019 (publisher site here, no book link available). Hardcover, accordion fold with 164 pages, with 35 color photographs. Includes an essay by Chris Fujiwara (in Japanese/English). Design by Kazunari Hattori. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Japanese photographer Motoyuki Daifu is best known for his images documenting the domestic life of his family in their overstuffed apartment – seven family members and a cat are all squeezed in a tiny five-room flat. His photographs of the messy space crowded with things, the sink packed with dishes, the kitchen table overflowing with mugs, bowls, bags, and food containers, and the other clutter of daily life are a warm portrait of the loving bonds and collisions that shape family relationships. With a healthy sense of visual humor, Daifu is also debunking western stereotypes of a refined and organized Japanese lifestyle. He masterfully translates the chaos of home life into layered scenes and dense still life compositions, and he has published several photobooks introducing us to the quirks of his family members. 

Daifu’s new photobook was just released by the Japanese publisher Osiris, with an intriguing title combining the sacred and the mundane, Holy Onion. The book has a remarkably expressive cover design, featuring an abstract illustration that looks like gestural squiggles and scratches of pens in various colors and sizes; the title appears in all caps at the very top in black with the artist’s name underneath. The accompanying text, in Japanese and English, is elegantly printed on thin paper in a loose leaf booklet.   

The concept behind Daifu’s new book is both simple and exciting. Holy Onion is a continuous portrait of 35 photographs of the artist’s mother caught in the act of peeling onions in the kitchen. Those familiar with Daifu’s work will immediately recognize both her and the kitchen setting. The cover of Daifu’s 2013 zine Project Family (reviewed here) features his mother standing in this very same kitchen as she slices an onion. She has dark hair, wears glasses, and is always elegantly dressed.

Holy Onion opens with an image of her sitting at the table with a big knife and an onion, looking down as she is focused on her task. There is a plate with brown onion skins, and some onions, both peeled and unpeeled, sitting in front of her, and she wears a blouse with swirling patterned decorations that echo the onion peels. Behind her lies the refrigerator, a roll of paper towels, and a microwave, all nestled into the tight space. 

The sequence of images slowly progresses, each flash-lit frame just a few moments apart. She begins to work, she looks up, continues to peel the onion, scratches her nose and wipes her eyes, looks at the camera, and gets back to peeling. The book is designed as an accordion, emphasizing the continuous nature of the portrait. All of the photographs are the same size, and added white spreads between the pictures set the repetitive visual flow, allowing pauses and some playfulness. 

Along the way, the mother’s eyes tear up from the onion juices, and she alternately squints, scowls, and closes her eyes to avoid the burning. Daifu also moves the camera back slightly, allowing us to see more of the table stuffed with jars, cups, bottles, and onions, the fridge with some notes and magnets, and the shelves packed with kitchen amenities behind her. Other images capture glints of light off her glasses and the blade of the knife, but as she keeps peeling onions, the position of the knife, cutting into its flesh, always seems roughly the same, making the time series seem never ending. As we get used to the repetition, slight variations start to be more noticeable – closer to the end, the plate with onion peels has been emptied and starts to be filled up again, making the process a cycle and reaffirming its continuity. The book ends where it began, as she once again stabs the knife into an onion.

The woman, the knife, the onion, and the kitchen appear in every image again and again, and this repetition turns the process into a kind of motherly penance. As Daifu pays close attention to the mundane, and rather unsexy realities of domestic routine, he also reveals the essence and comfort of ordinary life, and it is the elemental simplicity of this idea that makes this book so unexpected and remarkable. As a photobook, Holy Onion discovers complexity and nuance in the overlooked, turning dull kitchen prep into a rich and meditative ritual.  

Collector’s POV: Motoyuki Daifu is represented by Miyako & Rosen Gallery in Tokyo (here) and Little Big Man Gallery in Los Angeles (here). His 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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