Yoshinori Mizutani, Sakura

JTF (just the facts): Co-published in 2021 by the(M) éditions (here) and IBASHO (here). Softcover, 21 x 30 cm, 96 pages with 16 foldouts, with 53 color reproductions. Includes a short text by the artist (in English/Japanese.) Design by Akiko Wakabayashi. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

A special edition is also available with a signed inkjet print (in an edition of 45 copies).

Comments/Context: It takes a decent amount of artistic confidence to think that it’s still possible to find new ways into a subject like the Japanese cherry blossom. The sakura is not only a beloved national symbol, but its ephemeral presence each spring marks the end of winter and the beginning of optimistic new growth, connecting it to the natural cycle of the seasons. Countless artists, from both Japan and elsewhere, across the centuries, have tried to capture the essence of its elegant transience, with varying degrees of success. With so few compositional options, artists often isolate a single branch of delicate light pink blossoms, look up into trees overflowing with dense boughs of flowers, or later, as the short cherry blossom season ends, look down at the many fallen petals strewn on the ground.

In the short introduction to his photobook SAKURA, Yoshinori Mizutani explains that his images are an attempt to visualize the experience of looking at the cherry blossoms, following back and forth as his eyes shift from one individual flower to another. And since the trees aren’t generally moving (except perhaps from a small ruffle of breeze), what he captures is the motion of his vision, and the light coming through the branches as his glance bounces and moves. Like the classic figure/ground artistic exercise, his photographs show us both the cherry blossoms themselves and the space in between in seemingly equal measure, deliberately oscillating back and forth to generate a meditative and atmospheric visual experience.

One of the reasons SAKURA succeeds is that within the very constrained options offered by the cherry blossoms, Mizutani has created an explosion of visual inventiveness. In a sense, he starts by doing everything we expect him to. He steps back; he gets in close; he looks up; he sees the thick branches and trunks; he sees the flowers; he sees the washes of light pink and white color; he notices the light of different times of day and its changing moods. And described in this way, Mizutani’s SAKURA would seem altogether obvious. But one flip through this photobook makes it clear that these images are anything but predictable flower pictures.

Nearly every image in SAKURA starts with one of these relatively straightforward cherry blossom views and then adds a heightened sense of motion or movement. In the simplest cases, this appears to be deliberate or controlled blur; in others, Mizutani appears to be using long exposures, multiple exposures, image layering, and likely some digital processing to create his atmospheric effects. Cast shadows and silhouettes as well as composite images with buildings, city buses, and other faintly visible architectural details become additional compositional tools in Mizutani’s expressive artistic toolbox.

Light is the energetic activator in Mizutani’s pictures. It amplifies his color palette, brightening the whites and pinks and introducing blues, greens, yellows, and other filtered tones that add visual interest to his experiments. His light flutters through the branches, dappling the petals, and builds up into misty flares that create squint-inducing washouts. It also accents the textures and patterns of the blossoms, from flash-lit intensity to more ethereal echoes, elongations, and repetitions. All of this comes together as implied movement, where the boughs shift, shuffle, and dissolve into variations of blur right before our eyes.

Mizutani then pushes much further, into even more expressively imaginative territory. Blossoms move from hanging to melting, turning into elongated waves of faint color that rain down or shimmer to the sides like blasts of energy. In other images, the light variously twists, swirls, scratches, and runs off at an angle, and in a few works, Mizutani recreates the feeling of looking up and spinning around and around, the light churned like a vortex until we become dizzy and disoriented. And still other pictures use these same techniques to create blossoms that become ghosts, fogs, and drifts of light, almost like the spirit of the flowers is being released into fleetingly visible vagueness.

The design and construction of SAKURA is similarly innovative. The photographs are presented in two separate ways, in sections that alternate back and forth through the photobook. Some are printed on uncoated matte paper and displayed on foldouts, with the images running across both exterior and interior folds, depending on the circumstances. This creates a folding and unfolding rhythm to the page turns, as images reveal themselves, continue around or under a fold (for the horizontally oriented compositions), and are then replaced by the next image in the pairing or sequence. The other sections are printed on glossy stock, and this shinier surface makes the colors pop a bit more than on the muted matte pages. Only vertical images are presented on the glossy paper, alternating with blank white pages, and as the book moves from one section to another, our seeing seems to change, the physical characteristics of the photobook adding a sense of shifting flow that matches well the various approaches Mizutani has employed in his picture making. Even the cover of SAKURA fits into the framework, with an embossed image of a hanging blossom reduced to its essential outline.

In the end, Mizutani’s SAKURA is smartly improvisational, starting with the familiar and extending that expected motif into something altogether more expansive. It uses multiple approaches to riff on the viewing of cherry blossoms, turning each separate experience into its own reimagining of sight. The visual outcomes are consistently elegant and ethereal, finding room for both reverent respect and impressive innovation within each moment.

Collector’s POV: Yoshinori Mizutani is represented by IMA Gallery in Tokyo (here), IBASHO Gallery in Antwerp (here), and Christophe Guye in Zurich (here). His work has little secondary maret history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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Read more about: Yoshinori Mizutani, IBASHO Gallery, The(M) éditions

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