Japanese whispers

A group exhibition of photography at the Fruitmarket Gallery includes eleven different perceptions of contemporary life in Japan. Beatrice Colin stole a glimpse of the real face of the Far East.

With the novelty of Nintendo wearing off, and small black boxes beginning to look like small black boxes, or minimalism just looking empty and hi-tech becoming hi-tack. we discover there is another side to Japan. It appears in the large black and white photographs of Tokihiro Satoh. Here, in a bombardment of rainbow-coloured liquid crystal display, flashes of light appear like blurred fireflies all over a view of the busiest crossroads in Tokyo. The marks are made by the artist running from spot to spot and flashing a mirror into the camera lens. Quiet and oddly beautiful. the image suggests a contemplative and charmed alternative to the ordered mayhem of one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

The Fruitmarket's latest exhibition. Liquid Crystal F utures, which has been organised in conjunction with the Japan Foundation, records a fundamental shift in Japanese culture in the 90s. As the youth rebel against the social conditioning foisted on them by their parents, unemployment and homelessness rise and the aspirational nature of rampant consumerism turns sour, Japan is undergoing an identity crisis. In response to the way in which the landscape is being perpetually torn down and rebuilt,

AM. (detail) by m Y

the desire for security has shifted from the object to the individual, and artists have been redefining and re-examining their relationship to their surroundings.

The exhibition was organised during three visits to Tokyo made by Fruitmarket Director Graeme Murray over the last three years. He saw the sharp clash between the futuristic vistas of the city and the plea last year by the then Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa for the ‘love of what is plain and good and simple and the hatred of useless luxury and extravagance in life'. Consequently an idea was hatched to bring together a selection of younger artists all having similar concerns but working with diverse approaches. Two curators, Shinji Kohmoto of the National Museum of Modern Art and Yuko Hasegawa of Setagaya Art Museum were chosen to select the work and the result is a show which reveals a new perception in contemporary Japanese photography. The search for a sense of spirituality is apparent amid the crumbling city-scapes where the natural world has been transformed and squandered by man.

‘We are trying to reflect the current situation in Japan after the 80s,’ says Shinji Kohomoto. ‘Then. we flourished economically but now we are suffering a very great recession. 1 think that materialism took over but we are returning to more spiritual things. Also in the post-modern era we had too many constructed illusions and now we have to try to return to our reality, our landscape. our mindscape. That's why we selected these eleven artists. They all have something in common: a clear view of their reality. They aren‘t influenced by the post-modern era or illusionistic expression.‘

Photography, however, continues to make technological advances and the camera, the hand- held video camera and the new disposable and panoramic camera are both accessible and a symbol of the boom culture. So what draws these individuals

Tokyo by Tokihiro Satoh

to celluloid? ‘Many artists and painters are starting to use photography as their medium.‘ points out Kohomoto. ‘There is a tradition of painting and craft but I think photography is especially suitable for the Japanese people. Technically it’s very easy. Do you know what a Haiku is? It‘s a short poem of 22 words in Japanese and, even though it's very brief. it can present a very deep and profound thought. I think the photograph is the same in character as the Haiku.‘

Like the underside of the glossy press photo. the images presented in the exhibition show tramps wrapped not in sack, but in plastic; moonscapes which are in reality factories at night; a half- undressed Geisha girl clutching a TV remote control, and concrete dams moulded to the shape of hillsides as if pretending to be rock.

Some of the artists’ work shown here has been considered shocking or disturbing to the Eastern sensibility. Akira Gomi‘s piece Yellows of lOO young women in close-up. full length, dressed and undressed, was originally published as a book. Japanese obscenity laws forbade the sight of pubic hair and all five tons of the publication were burned. Ironically. the artist transferred the whole piece to CD Rom, which isn't restricted, and now the viewer is invited to select a woman of their choice. A slice of austere nudity. this work comments on the commodifrcation of lust.

One theme the artists all have in common is an attempt to capture something solid in the accelerated world, and find their own truths in the unreality of the technological net. ‘Can you imagine what the thousands of commuters thought of Tokihiro Satoh standing in the middle of the street holding a little mirror?‘ says Shinji Kohomoto. ‘But maybe he was trying to delay this landscape in his mind while making this very urban place poetic.’

Liquid Crystal Futures is at the F ruitmarket until 16 Jul.

The List 3—16 June 1994 08