Takehiko Nakafuji, White Noise

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2018 by Zen Foto Gallery (here). Softcover, 244 pages, with 159 black and white and color images. Includes a short text by the artist. In an edition of 1000 copies. In English/Japanese. Design by Amanda Ling-Ning Lo. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Just a few years ago (in 2016), the Japan Society hosted a thoughtful survey of Japanese photography made in the aftermath of the 3/11 disaster (reviewed here). Most of the work in that show felt raw, jangly, and immediate – it was clear that the reactions and emotions that came in the direct aftermath of the triple trauma of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear contamination were still very much being processed by the various artists who were included. It also seemed obvious at the time that this event was not “over” (almost regardless of how much progress was being made in the recovery process), and that the societal (and artistic) reverberations of the disaster would continue to ripple out in wider and wider circles in the subsequent years.

Takehiko Nakafuji’s White Noise doesn’t overtly announce itself as a photobook concerned with 3/11. There are no photographs taken in Fukushima or its nearby devastated or radioactive zones, nor are there any images of the power down of Tokyo or the face masks residents wore in the immediate aftermath given the uncertainty about what might happen. A reference in the artist’s essay is the only real clue that Nakafuji’s pictures of Tokyo are infused with and informed by the national traumas of 3/11. In that sense, it is something new – a second wave body of work that assumes the wounds and injuries of 3/11 are invisible but still real, seeing its echoes and resonances not in specific documentary examples from the affected areas but in the underlying mood that continues to flow through life in the city.

To say that White Noise is a pessimistic portrait of Tokyo is perhaps an overstatement, but Nakafuji is clearly carrying some deep seated negativity toward the ways in which the city continues to change. Given this aesthetic temperament, we might have assumed that his pictures would be a taxonomy of the persistent ills found in a sprawling metropolis like Tokyo – organized crime, violence, prostitution, drugs, homelessness, pollution, trash, in short the usual suspects, all of which might have been visually captured with relative ease – but Nakafuji smartly evades that overly easy approach. None of these urban problems find their way into White Noise, at least not directly; instead Nakafuji tints more everyday sights and sounds with the simmering gloom he feels post-3/11.

What Nakafuji observes is a chaotic city that continues to transform itself – traditional old buildings giving way to faceless towers, commercialism and advertising covering more surfaces, and crowding leading to densely packed streets, narrowing alleyways, and uglier transitional spaces under constant construction. Tangled electrical wires and craggy winter trees ominously loom overhead, tunnels lead down into darkness, and individuals are increasingly alone in the crowds, becoming isolated black silhouettes that numbly trudge through daily routines. When faces do appear, they mostly grimace with sour, skeptical expressions, or hide behind blank stares and sunglasses, and when color flashes into view, it is mostly a garish, seething variety, the kind that feels almost distressingly intrusive and uncomfortable. In Nakafuji’s hands, even cherry blossoms, twinkling lights, celebratory decorations, and winter snowfalls have a darker, dirtier, and more despondent side.

White Noise uses an innovative construction technique to deliver its jumbled, stream of consciousness atmosphere. Each page is folded over, the right side of the spread cut vertically about an inch from the gutter, revealing a fold out spread underneath. The effect is that after each page turn reveals a new full bleed spread, we are forced to unfold the associated flap, which offers us something more which is partially hidden. This design forces us to slow down, and it interleaves and mixes pictures together more fully (a few even wrap around the page turn), creating additional layers of contrasts, associations, and harsh juxtapositions. The consistent palette of darkness and shadow connects the pictures into one integrated flow, where the patterns and geometries of the city build on each other. The typography on the cover alludes to the flipped effect, with the title and the artist’s name reversed on the front and back.

Nakafuji’s dissatisfaction with contemporary Tokyo isn’t rooted in politics, anti-Westernism, or post-WWII traumas like many of his predecessors in the history of Japanese photography. It feels instead like a more subtle aggregation of frustrations that come together as a sense of losing control, of being exposed and at risk, or of going in the wrong direction. Everywhere Nakafuji looks, there are robots, skulls, monsters, looming buildings, strange hoses, bright lights, and surreal faces, life in the modern city becoming a daily battle against these quietly apocalyptic forces.

Perhaps the psychological legacy of 3/11 is a lingering reminder of how fragile humanity is and how quickly the world we have so carefully built can come crashing down around our ears. That perspective makes all the tiny details in life around us feel a bit more hostile, exhausting, unforgiving, and even delusional. Nakafuji’s White Noise taps into the anger and futility that make up this trapped, overwhelmed feeling, the grit and static of the everyday never quite fading away.

Collector’s POV: Takehiko Nakafuji is represented by Zen Foto Gallery in Tokyo (here). His work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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