Ryu Ika, The Second Seeing

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Akaaka Art Publishing (here). Softcover (297×223 mm), 292 pages, with 182 color reproductions. Includes essays by the artist and Iioka Riku in English/Japanese. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The 21st century condition of living a life that is always on, always watching and in turn being watched, both in real life and in the virtual world, is the thorny central subject of Ryu Ika’s recent photobook The Second Seeing. Her snapshot-style photographs argue that we’re performing all the time in our everyday lives (even if we don’t know it or acknowledge it exactly), playing roles and putting on masks and identities, in both public and private, for cameras seen and unseen. And in such a world, fact and fiction, or reality and fantasy, start to become logically ambiguous, to the point that our daily routines are increasingly populated by the artificial.

In many ways, the images that make up The Second Seeing, and the conceptual framework they define, are a direct outgrowth of Ryu’s own personal story. Born and raised in Inner Mongolia, her early cultural life was heavily influenced by Japanese TV, particularly anime and the eclectic playful energy of Japanese variety shows. She was so taken with what she saw that she decided to move to Japan and follow a career in television.

But when she arrived, the reserved salarymen she found on the subway were a far cry from the society she had imagined, and so she came upon the inversion that since the TV characters were her version of reality, perhaps all the people out on the streets were actually actors performing on a stage. And since her local language skills were almost nonexistent, she soon embraced photography as her most successful mode of communication. Travels back to her homeland, and to destinations afar like France and Egypt, kept her thinking about the globalization of fakeness and performance, and The Second Seeing is the photographic result of her efforts to observe society in a different way, embracing the layers of reality and fiction around her and her position within them.

The Second Seeing is a large, thick photobook, overstuffed with full bleed images that sweep by in a dark enveloping parade, mixing several different types of work, from snapshots and street scenes to manipulated/collaged imagery and installation shots from Ryu’s shows. It has a shiny silver cover decorated with a layered image of a face that has been split in half and then reassembled, the offset layers covering the sitter’s eyes and creating an indistinct dissolving effect. This is then paired with the reader’s own reflected face when the book is looked at straight on, bringing us further into Ryu’s disorienting world of performative action.

When we start with the Shakespearean premise that all the world is a stage, so many commonplace events and activities start to look surprisingly strange. Ryu shows us various people obviously posing and mugging for the camera, but a protest march, a haircut, a woman playing an accordion, a TV interview in the street, a woman begging in the gutter, a group of police officers milling around, a choir, a group of nuns in purple habits, and a very awkward teenage dance wouldn’t normally feel like performances, but somehow all take on an edge of stylized oddness here that feels like a discovery. A few setups and pairings take this surreality further, placing a falling roller coaster into a woman’s mouth, or a standing woman matched by mannequins that echo her stilted pose, to the point that we start to see Ryu’s mystification everywhere, even in fireworks that decorate the night sky and the Devil-tinted red face of a smiling priest.

Ryu’s vision of fakeness similarly exposes the artificiality in inanimate objects and built environments. A pink castle with puffy clouds and flying pigs inhabits the open space of a shopping mall, taxidermy sheep and cows graze on fake grass in a diorama, and artificial golf holes (complete with fake sand traps and rivers) are pieced together behind safety netting, each scene testing the limits of our credulity.

Interleaved among this study of a performative world, Ryu has added in images that explore the nature of surveillance and the ubiquitous culture of watching. People point cameras in multiple directions (documenting both them seeing something and us seeing them) and anonymous surveillance cameras proliferate on poles (the cameras watching us) – there’s even one embedded in a fake sunflower. Other images capture people watching themselves in mirrors and taking selfies that are more interested in their own faces than the ancient pyramids in the background. Ryu balances these intrusions (even her shower nudes seem illicit in some way) with pictures of people hiding or covering their faces, variously using netting, pinwheels, a green tarp, a bronze horse statue, a gasmask, an umbrella on the bus, and a snappy combination of sunglasses and burqa to interrupt the process of seeing.

Throughout the flow of The Second Seeing, Ryu intermittently throws in an image of harsh reality, as if to jolt us out of our artificial reverie. Many of these images involve bloody animal carcasses, including flayed sheep, a severed pig’s foot, and a range of less identifiable slaughterhouse finds. Even a seemingly sedate sunset image can pack an unexpected punch when the beach in the foreground is covered in trash, as can a tray full of tasty-looking white pastries spotted by black flies. Another photograph of a woman looking at her bloodied hand seems to summarize the tension Ryu is after – as the blood drips down the woman’s fingers, her quietly curious expression seems to say she has just now realized the blood is actually real, which has been quietly mindblowing.

Seemingly throughout her travels and various projects, Ryu has been ready with her camera to take a blinding-flash portrait of whatever up close face might have been handy. She has consistently cropped, enlarged, and allowed these pictures to drift toward breakdown, and then used them as physical raw material for experiments with collage and installation. Back on the themes of seeing and being seen, the faces are folded and crumpled to prevent them from being entirely seen, piled in mountains of faces in empty gallery spaces (and thereby looking at visitors), and otherwise distorted by tonal reversals and digital manipulations (which represent the presence of the artist and her watchful intervention). The result is a repeated hall of mirrors effect, where we watch these faces, and they watch us, that is unless they are refracted into something else entirely.

Between the full bleed design and all the ideas bouncing around, The Second Seeing can feel densely packed, with plenty of interlocking knots, connections, and refrains to be uncovered. The best of Ryu’s photographs have a brash vitality, built on a solid foundation of serendipitous compositional structure. From page turn to page turn, unusual things keep happening in Ryu’s pictures, and once she pulls us down the rabbit hole of questionable authenticity and staged fakeness, her images get another twist of open-ended meaning. There’s a lot to process here and Ryu isn’t afraid of taking some unexpected risks, which leads to a photobook filled with a sneaky dose of bounce and sparkle.

Collector’s POV: Ryu Ika does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with this artist via her Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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