Sohei Nishino: Tokyo

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2015 by Amana/IMA (here). Hardcover, with 496 black and white enlargements, enclosed in a printed paper wrapper. Includes an insert depicting the entire Diorama Map Tokyo (2014) and a small introductory text. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sohei Nishino’s photographic maps of major world cities aren’t really maps in the traditional sense of the word. At first glance, they seem to mimic an omniscient bird’s eye view of a major metropolis, with the key landmarks given prominent position and important highways and roads snaking through the buildings. But as you look closer, it becomes clear that his works are composites of hundreds of individual images, not just one single panorama. In theory, you could use one of his maps to get from one place to another, but it isn’t entirely likely that you’d find your way to your destination.

The problem is of course that photography and maps aren’t generally happy bedfellows, given their clashes of scale and purpose. Photography by its very nature is a one-to-one representational reproducer – it (most often) captures what is placed before the lens with fidelity to the original. A map on the other hand is a careful and intentional abstraction of the reality in depicts, a simplification that removes unnecessary details and provides a streamlined (or magnified) picture of the critical components of a place. Making a “photographic map” is almost an oxymoron, unless or course your map isn’t exactly a map, but something akin to a source book (like Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip) or a very-high-in-the-sky patchwork (like aerial/satellite surveillance and reconnaissance images or Google Earth).

Nishino’s maps are essentially experiential slices of the cities he has visited, organized via the underlying geographical frameworks of the places themselves. He starts out on foot, wandering the streets, climbing up into buildings for looks down, and even getting out into rivers and waterways via ferries and canoes. Armed with countless rolls of these impressions, Nishino then collages the individual black and white images together into one giant composite “diorama map” that follows his pathways through the urban landscape. Like a conceptual framework, the geography provides a structural filter for the images, controlling their placement and relationships to one another. Ultimately, these collages are then rephotographed, creating works that have a uniformly flattened surface.

Like David Hockney’s photographic composites, Nishino’s maps break the overall composition down into component parts, allowing the vantage point to shift and turn. The multiple perspectives and active time dilations of Cubism are replayed here, Nishino’s impressions telescoping in to look at tiny details and single faces, and then spanning outward to take in the sweep of dense construction and far away vistas. In this way, his maps are like a recreation of attentive vision, where our eyes jump from one subject to another, the smooth stream of consciousness broken into discrete frames, like the stuttering steps of stop motion animation. It’s as if he’s fashioned a robust multi-dimensional model of a city (or perhaps a memory of a city), but tried to do so within the constraints of a single plane.

This photobook digs deeply into a single Nishino work, a recent map of Tokyo made in 2014. Obvious landmarks like the Tokyo Tower, the Imperial Palace, the Meiji Shrine, and Mount Fuji in the distance provide some level of cardinal point orientation, and major thoroughfares and train lines criss-cross the city like arteries. Most of the images document the seemingly endless sea of buildings and apartment blocks, tilting and bending, from street level views to top down perspectives from the rooftops. As we get down to the sidewalks, we start to see the details and surfaces of the city emerge (bold signs, crosswalks, construction cranes, train tracks) and the faces of pedestrians take shape (dark-suited salarymen, seniors, Lolita girls, joggers). And if you’re willing to play the Where’s Waldo game of finding specific cultural fragments, keep on the lookout for parades of drummers and samurai in traditional dress, the animals in the zoo, the temple rooftops, the swan-shaped paddleboats, and even a few cranes (and helicopters) in the sky and cats on the doorstep. Nishino’s map is the kind of work to get lost in, recreating and reimagining the ever-changing city block by block.

Given the immense scale of Nishino’s work, this photobook does a smart job of breaking down a huge picture into smaller pieces, adding yet another layer of fragmentation to the artistic process. The original completed map has been split into 496 rectangular tiles, each one sized to fit across the spread of the book, beginning in the upper left hand corner of the original map and finishing in the lower right. The result is a sequential set of page flips that connect to each other, creating a flaneur-like rhythm of walking through the various Tokyo neighborhoods at a leisurely pace. The small overall size of the thick volume encourages deep in-your-hands investigation, each spread offering dozens of fragments stitched together, ready to be investigated. It faithfully recreates the nose-to-the-frame looking that would occur if we were to encounter one of Nishino’s maps in a gallery, allowing for even more patient scanning and (re)discovery over time.

While the individual frames of Nishino’s works have some conceptual kinship to Taiji Matsue’s repeated fragments of cities, there is something much more improvisational and personal about the way he has constructed the larger maps. There is a playfulness to his choices, and an embodiment of the frenzied energy of the city in the twisting angles and viewpoints; the swirling chaos of the Japanese urban environment rings true, from the tops of the skyscrapers to the rails of the train tracks. Nishino’s Tokyo is both vast and intimate, almost incomprehensible at one scale and richly and engrossingly personal and detailed at another. By combining multiple images that often provide contradictory visual evidence, he’s pushed photography out of its normal bounds, along the way redefining the idea that a map can encompass not only the durable and the literal, but the fleeting and the symbolic. His photobook is a thoughtful exercise in instability, just like the city itself.

Collector’s POV: Sohei Nishino is represented by Michael Hoppen Gallery in London (here). Nishino’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option or those collectors interested in following up.

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