Toshiaki Mori, B, drawings of abstract forms

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Steidl (here). Softcover in printed cardboard box, 21×29.7 cm, 104 pages, with 98 color reproductions. With explanatory notes by Toshio Kuwabara and Monte Packham. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: With all of the image manipulation possibilities that have emerged out of the digital revolution in the past two decades, it has long seemed obvious that photographic collage as a genre was due for a period of radical reinvention and 21st century reshuffling. But contrary to all predictions, old school physical collage has stubbornly held on, and even flourished, especially given the rediscovery of troves of archival imagery that can now be used as raw material. There is something about the handmade cutting and pasting (and the meticulous high touch scissors and glue work that is required) that continues to seduce those wanting to experiment with image layering, juxtaposition, and recontextualization.

Toshiaki Mori’s recent collages fight this throwback urge and boldly step into the present, emphatically embracing a digitally-enabled aesthetic – it simply wouldn’t be possible to make collages like his by hand. The central difference between Mori’s collages and the old school variety is his liberal (and innovative) use of image merging and transparency, where multiple photographs (in both black-and-white and color) are essentially stacked on top of each other, blending into one collapsed visual expression that intermingles the component pieces. He then surrounds, bookends, overlaps, and relayers these composites with a variety of other images, diagrams, archival sources, and graphic elements (lines, letters, dots), extending and amplifying the overall mood.

B, drawings of abstract forms consists of 50 double page collages, but given the way the photobook is constructed, this isn’t immediately obvious. Each collage runs across the page turn of a French folded page, essentially splitting the collage into two halves on opposing sides of the paper. The inside of the fold is unexpectedly printed red, adding another striking graphic element (when it is discovered). Each of Mori’s collages uses the same mélange of photographic imagery twice, but with differing color tones – some black and white, some color, and some mixed – so the page turns create an echoing effect, where we are introduced to an image idea on the right side of a spread and when we turn the page over, that same image idea is repeated, albeit in a different way. This repetition creates a kind of refrain, where we watch Mori repeatedly iterate sets of visuals, like a jaunty two-step dance.

Another analogy for this flowing improvisational process of visual reuse would be “stream of consciousness”, and given Mori’s interest in Jack Kerouac and the Beat writers, it’s clearly an overt aesthetic decision. Text fragments of Kerouac’s books (including On the Road and several others) and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch pop up in the collages repeatedly, providing a connective link throughout the photobook. Mori primarily uses these snippets of text as graphic elements and homages, although key phrases relevant to Mori’s approach reappear here and there.

Most of the photographs in the collages come from Mori’s own “road” in both Japan and elsewhere (London, Paris, New York) – construction cranes, apartment blocks, subway trains, industrial piping, angled buildings, parking lots, and other urban views pile up in clumps and clusters, highlighting the sharp geometries of the “city”. Closer in shots of shoes, lips, light bulbs, a roller coaster and carnival rides, on/off switches, a metal fan, adding machine keys, and various advertisements break up the parade of cranes and buildings, changing the scale of Mori’s attentions. He then mixes in various ephemera – indexes from various books, air flow diagrams, ticket stubs, receipts, subway and city maps, exhibition announcements, ink stamps, printer maintenance diagrams – further personalizing the journey and adding a more physical component to the accumulated visual material.

While many traditional collages center our attention on the interplay of a small number of images, perhaps in a clever or even rebus puzzle like mode, Mori’s approach is much more open-ended and atmospheric. Many of the photographs have been pushed toward contrasty blacks, dampening their specificity, and Mori makes liberal use of illustration and graphic design techniques to augment the compositions. Machined lines slash across imagery, bars of color (both crisp and fuzzy like spray paint) lie atop photographs, and typography in different sizes is actively used as a design element. Mori also uses a consistent template style arrangement, with a large square of photography in the center and smaller blocks surrounding and overlapping, with ample white space on the periphery (which conveniently  becomes the gutter when wrapped around the page turn.) In a sense, he’s improvising within particular constraints, constantly reshuffling the components to make new combinations that evoke the propulsive flow of his moods.

The controlled frenzy that Mori creates hardly seems related to the collages of old – putting these next to Bauhaus collages, or Robert Rauschenberg’s silkscreens, or the works of Hannah Höch or John Stezaker, would highlight just how much has changed, both in aesthetics and the underlying artistic process. Mori’s collages feel resolutely contemporary, pushing toward and embracing the image overload of too much rather than the formal elegance and precision of less. Unidentified fragments continually flit by, like a firehose of imagery that refuses to be turned off. Mori’s works are busy and chaotic, but also extremely crisp and ordered in their own way, like a mind frantically trying to process (and make sense of) far too many inputs.

The fact that Mori’s collages don’t adhere to the conventional rules of photocollage is exactly why we should celebrate them. In B, drawings of abstract forms, he’s taken risks, redefined limits, and delivered something that doesn’t look like anything we’ve seen before, particularly because it doesn’t shrink from employing the available image manipulation tools. In channeling Kerouac, Mori is trying to find a path to a fresh kind of authenticity through looser, more spontaneous artistic thinking. His collages embody our cacophonous contemporary rhythms, with the kind of energy and freewheeling vitality Kerouac himself might have appreciated.

Collector’s POV: Toshiaki Mori does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should likely follow up via the artist’s Instagram page (linked in the sidebar).

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