Osamu Kanemura, God Only Speed Knows

JTF (just the facts): Self-published by Killer Agent in 2022 (here). Softcover, 12.8 x 18.2 cm, 32 pages, with 32 color collages. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: For many contemporary photographers, the constant flow of visual information that now surrounds us turns out to be a challenging subject to successfully engage. A single digital photograph feels somehow ill-equipped to represent our current cacophony of stimuli, and so artists have been variously experimenting with digital manipulation, deliberate glitching, montage and collage forms, and other methods for creating a new vocabulary for representing our 21st century visual reality. Somehow the results must approximate the effects of a complex stream of pictures and text (seemingly set on an endless loop), and hit us with an overload that floods our human processing systems both visually and psychologically.

The Japanese photographer Osamu Kanemura has actually been thinking about and wrestling with this kind of visual intensity for much of his artistic career. Kanemura was included in MoMA’s New Photography series in 1996, and is likely best known for a darkly foreboding body of work (from 2001) titled “Spider’s Strategy” that took as its subject the hopelessly dense tangle of electrical wires that weaves Tokyo’s streets and buildings together. In the years since, he has continued to explore the claustrophobic construction of Japanese cities (as seen in his 2018 photobook “Concrete Octopus”, reviewed here, among other projects and photobooks), filling his black-and-white frames to the bursting point with a crowded whirlwind of storefront reflections, construction scaffolding, neon signage, and the ever present nest of pipes and wires he has made his signature.

In some ways, Kanemura has taken that line of aesthetic thinking almost as far as he can, and in recent years, he has been experimenting with digital imagery in color, both still frames and moving images, trying to recreate (and amplify) the intensity of the visual experience by layering images on top of each other, flaring them into sweeps of light, and intermingling them with video, creating an installed effect not unlike watching the distorted world zoom by from the window of a swiftly passing train. He’s also taken his color photographs (which he seems to have been generally underwhelmed by as single still frames) and used them as the basis for an ongoing parade of collages and handmade artist’s books (via his own self-published label Killer Agent) that has kept him busy since roughly 2018. In a sense, he’s evolved forward from the aesthetic learnings of his earlier black-and-white efforts, and now expanded out in a variety of directions in search of a re-invented photographic vocabulary that better matches our current world.

“God Only Speed Knows” is a small thin photobook object, which takes discrete fragments of Kanemura’s recent collages and presents them as a scanned and then shuffled remix. The title of the photobook is drawn from the Beach Boys song “God Only Knows”, and an artist statement Kanemura wrote for a recent gallery show explains the reference, digging deeper into the idea of musical chords and the ways their structure can be limiting. It then goes further and explores how various musicians (from the Beach Boys to Thelonious Monk and Jimi Hendrix) subtracted and added notes to chords to break their bonds and frameworks, piling up the sounds in unexpected ways. For Kanemura, this uneasy layering, and the resulting break down of established hierarchies, feels similar to what he is trying to do with his collages – the visuals become one dissonant flowing mass that “floats”.

Kanemura begins each collage with a single color photograph, which forms the underlying foundation of the work, at least initially. On top of the image, he adds fragments of other scavenged pictures, as well as snippets of newspaper text and advertising (in both English and Japanese), which he affixes to the surface with cellophane tape. The resulting collages have then been rescanned for the photobook, smoothing out any physicality and flattening all the imagery into one uniform plane; the original photograph is no longer dominant or even recognizable in many cases, leading to a fragmented cancelling effect, where the images and text (now completely out of context) tussle for relevance and legibility. The works are remarkably fluid, not puzzles to be figured out or “answered” but flows of changing references and relationships that slip in and out of dissolving visibility.

In some ways, Kanemura will always be a street photographer, and most of the images that form the base layer of his collages probe the rhythms of urban life, from fragmented buildings and storefronts to flared patterns, mesh screening, and late night parking lots. Unexpected cropping and rotation make the subject matter even more unrecognizable, with wet golf balls, a hockey helmet, and a Nissan sports car in a Ginza window making fleeting appearances. Other pictures get so close to various foods, including fried breaded cutlets, spicy noodles, and seared steak, that they are hardly identifiable, their colors, surfaces, and textures becoming dominant, just like the now anonymous details in the rest of the city moments Kanemura has discovered and isolated.

To these photographic scenes, Kanemura has added a dizzying flurry of text and advertising scraps, the fragments wandering around, twisting and turning across the imagery. In some ways, these words and phrases approximate a hopelessly distracted news feed, where world events, including politics, financial news, natural disasters, diseases, refugees, and other topics of the moment flit in and out of focus, seemingly talking at us (however briefly) and then disappearing before something approaching knowledge can be gleaned from the communication; it’s visual noise rather than information, and Kanemura has dumped it on us in heaps and piles, with North Korea, Santa Claus, and rescue workers incomprehensibly mixed with protestors, baseball, weather reports, and a repeated motif of watching eyes. When we step back to catch our breath, the collages seem to resolve into just a few noticeable words and phrases, that we seem to inevitably pull out of the visual complexity: “whiplash”, “oishii” (delicious in Japanese), “caught”, “wasting time”, “never true”, ” we will kill you”, “anonymity”, “war”, “console”, “outbreak”, “sex drive”, “you’re stupid”, “favorite villain”, “hug?”, “short-handed”, “vulgar”, and finally, “collapse”. So Kanemura is communicating with us in a kind of abbreviated code, his stream of consciousness visual feed interrupted and interwoven until the signal underneath is reduced to instinctive impulses and incomplete reactions.

It isn’t at all easy to find compositional coherence in photocollages as complex as these, but Kanemura consistently creates surprising harmonies in these aggregations. His results are lushly bleak, our contemporary distractions layered atop one another until we seem lost in the details; the fog then lifts momentarily, only until we are once again inundated by more fragments of questionable importance and relevance. While this small photobook may only give us a quick look at where Kanemura is artistically heading these days, there is enough promising evidence here to hope that he keeps pushing down this difficult pathway. His collages do an admirable job of taking the pulse of the moment, dropping us into a distracted quivering mass of imagery that feels remarkably familiar.

Collector’s POV: Osamu Kanemura has had shows of his recent collages and handmade books at IG Gallery in Tokyo (here) and dieFirma in New York (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail, or connection with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar), are likely the best options for those collectors interested in following up.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Skinnerboox (here). Softcover with Swiss binding, 24 x 28 cm, 108 pages, with 40 black-and-white reproductions and 14 contact sheet pages. Includes ... Read on.

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