Shigeru Onishi, A Metamathematical Proposition

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Steidl (here). Hardcover, 23×28 cm, 192 pages, with 195 image reproductions. Includes a 1957 essay by the artist, an essay by Ryuichi Kaneko, a selected bibliography, a chronology (research by Katsuya Ishida, Mizuho Yakahashi, and Yasumasa Kawata), and a list of thumbnail works. All texts are in English/Japanese. Design and edit by Manfred Heiting. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given the instantaneous shutter click at the heart of the photographic process, the medium’s relationship to time has always been rather literal. Most photographs document a very particular and specific moment, without much ability to tell us about what happened in the unseen moments either before or after. To get around these inherent limitations, some photographers have experimented with sequences, series, and cinematic strips, in an effort to create step-wise progressions through time; others have tried multiple exposures within a single frame, hoping to capture a Cubist-style simultaneity of perspectives or multiplicity of vantage points.

Shigeru Onishi’s photographs from the mid 1950s dig into the problem of photographic time with innovative intellectual obsessiveness. Until recently, Onishi’s photographic works were essentially forgotten; he only worked in photography for a handful of years, before artistically moving on to the abstract ink paintings called bokusho in 1957; if Onishi is known at all, it is likely as a participant in the Gutai movement.

What’s intriguing about Onishi’s abbreviated history in photography is that he wasn’t an artist, at least primarily – he was a mathematician. He studied mathematics at Hokkaido University, graduated with a degree in 1953, and then stayed on to do graduate research in topology. He took up photography as an attempt to visualize some of his topological theories, where space and time deform under certain conditions, and surfaces and dimensions become disconnected and discontinuous. In a short manifesto-style text, he explained that the purpose of his image making was “a desire to pursue such metamathematical propositions as “the possibility of existence” or “the possibility of arbitrary choice”.”

While such a statement might sound hopelessly abstract and arcane, Onishi the mathematician was essentially right in step with the avant-garde artistic thinking of the times, even if he was working in relative isolation. Many artists of the mid 1950s were playing around with the ideas in the I Ching, exploring how random numbers and chance could be incorporated into the decision making of the artistic process. Two notable converts in the United States were John Cage and Merce Cunningham – Cage was picking sounds and notes at random to create musical compositions, while Cunningham was rolling dice to arrange dance movements.

Coming out of the devastations of World War II, early 1950s Japanese photography was initially rooted in realism. But the combination of the simmering traumas of the recent past, the arrival of the Korean War, and the ongoing U.S. occupation led to a turn away from realism and an embrace of more avant-garde and Surrealist artistic moods during the second half of the 1950s and into the 1960s. A new form of expression needed to be invented to represent all of these tangled personal emotions and amplified political views, and the VIVO and PROVOKE photographers (Tomatsu, Hosoe, Kawada, Narahara, Moriyama, and others) quickly gained prominence for their collective artistic response to the changing moment. In many ways, the Subjektive Fotografie movement in Germany (at roughly the same time) wrestled with a related set of representational issues, searching for new ways to express layers of buried psychological conflict leftover from the war years.

This handsome monograph, with its superlative production values and comprehensive background detail, makes a strong case for weaving Shigeru Onishi and his photography more prominently back into the art historical arc of mid 1950s Japanese photography. As seen here, Onishi’s work offers a highly original aesthetic mix – it builds on some of Moholy-Nagy’s ideas about upending the traditional geometries of the medium and using photogram and collage techniques to extend its range, incorporates the emotional trauma and anguish of the Japanese psyche at that time, and then boldly recharacterizes these elements using Onishi’s own analytical ideas and intellectual frameworks, leading to photographs that feel wholly innovative and unexpected.

Onishi was trying to make images that intentionally intermingled concrete and abstract elements (or “mutually contradictory forms” as he put it in his own words), and he wasn’t afraid of using brash process-based experimentation to try to find what he was looking for. It’s clear that a process of trial and error, or iterative tinkering, was central to his approach, as Onishi assembled and reworked compositions again and again, leading to variant works that never quite resolve to a place of stability.

While it isn’t entirely straightforward to unpack exactly what he was doing in any one work, it’s clear that Onishi was comfortable with making multiple exposures in camera, and then layering, superimposing, and montaging with various negatives once in the darkroom, where he introduced additional rotations, inversions, and overlaps. He used solarization, flaring, fogging, and other exposure techniques, and then continued to upend and distort the images during development and processing, by deliberately making the development uneven, by allowing inadvertent drips and washes to remain, and by tweaking the temperature during development to skew the colors. Sometimes he even prepared the papers with brush strokes or sponge marks, or used acetic acid baths to further discolor the surface of the prints. By the time the works have reached a finished state, with all the nested layers of chance intervention at every step along the way, Onishi has essentially broken down the medium into an intermediate state, his unorthodox methods opening up unexpected areas of aesthetic possibility.

Many of Onishi’s strongest compositions use faces or women as his ostensible subject. Some gather multiple exposures into one layered whole, with turned, inverted, and reversed versions adding to the confusion. Several feature a woman seated on a couch with a drink in her hand, a seemingly innocuous picture that quickly gets puzzling as layers are added, almost turning into a depiction of quantum simultaneity; her hand twists and multiplies, as though in two (or more) places at once. Still other images add reflections, doublings, repetitions, and stutterings, as though a single instance just isn’t enough to document the in-between complexity of a person.

Onishi’s interior scenes use many of the same techniques to disrupt reality. A kitchen table is covered with faint echoes of circular dishes, various bookshelves seem to dissolve into shadows or flares of light, and one chalkboard seems to overflow with mystifying mathematical drawings and diagrams, the whole mass disappearing into a fog of thought. Windows and door frames multiply, and night views of gridded warehouse windows tumble and shift, veiling the misted interiors, only to have some semblance of reality then interrupted by the hint of a floating face. Outside, the city is no less frenetic and inconclusive, with wide views layered atop one another, making the dense city even more impossibly overlapped. Cars repeat, streets dissolve, flared lights blast out into the darkness, and signage tries to communicate through the visual noise, only half succeeding.

When Onishi turns his attention to nature, textures come to the forefront. Silhouetted trees are layered and doubled, creating impossible networks of tiny black lines. Puddles, mud, grass, and snow seem almost interchangeable, and when further interrupted by Onishi’s process interventions, they become less and less recognizable. Things that look like masses of clouds, or perhaps waves, gather and intermingle, and sparkles on water seem to change the surface properties of the substance. Only hints of legibility come through in these pictures, forcing us to let them expand into less defined expressiveness. The same can be said for Onishi’s experiments with the female nude, where solarization, dark shadowing, and other techniques turn curves into indistinct forms, with blurs, drips, and washes further distracting us from straightforward viewing.

Still other works more overtly play with chemical brushstrokes and sponge marks, using them as framing effects, interrupters, and gestural movements. While some are likely the result of pure chance, many seem to point toward Onishi’s later interest in ink painting, with controlled marks that have rhythm, force, and personality. These intriguingly link him to the energy of the Abstract Expressionist painters – when Onishi’s marks get bold and dark, there’s a bit of Franz Kline lurking in his sweeping chemical swishes.

What is so unusual about Onishi’s approach is how overtly he is trying to break photography, to make it messy and unruly, to the point of negation. All of his different subjects are jumbled together, like fleeting memories that emerge from darkness only to quickly dissolve again – Onishi’s pictures seem to capture elusive moments of transition, where we are in between states, and time and space seemingly have more malleable definitions. His pictures ask us to think about photography and its functioning in ways that feel new, even though the pictures were made some seventy years ago. Very few of the monographs of largely unknown or rediscovered photographers that have come out in the past few years have felt as radical and disruptive as this one. Onishi was trying his best to use photography to tear the fabric of time, and perhaps that task was ultimately too dauntingly difficult to continue. Thankfully his short spurt of untethered experimentation has survived, and been painstakingly documented here, if only so we can appreciate where extremes of determined obsession can lead.

Collector’s POV: Shigeru Onishi is represented by MEM in Toyko (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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