Academic journal article Afterimage

Reticence and Reverence

Academic journal article Afterimage

Reticence and Reverence

Article excerpt

"Photography and Beyond in Japan: Space, Time and Memory" presents intellectually engaging and often visually resplendent work by 12 postwar artists working with photographic media. It falters, however, on issues of interpretation and export of cultural identities within today's transnational artistic practice. Organized by independent curator Robert Stearns for the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art in Tokyo, the exhibition is currently touring North America, including four venues in the United States. It is accompanied by a handsome and informative catalog with several essays, documentation on the artists, bibliography and numerous illustrations, many in color.

In the major catalog essay, Stearns introduces the exhibitors individually and presents the exhibition's interpretive framework. Space, time and memory are his organizing principles, around which he assembles the exhibitors into three groups of four. Stearns has observed that in Japanese contemporary art, photography is "used differently than in the United States or Europe." Endeavoring to explain this difference in terms of Japanese culture - rather than Western constructs - he proposes that traditional attitudes toward space, time and memory give contemporary art photography in Japan its particular flavor.

Background on the history and aesthetics of Japanese art appears in "Japan's Persisting Traditions: A Premodern Context for Post-modern Art," an essay by Robert Singer, curator of Japanese art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. He corroborates Stearns's conceptual strategy by elucidating how "premodern Japanese pictorial strategies" contributed, consciously or unconsciously, to contemporary Japanese interpretations of space, time and memory. In "The Shock of the Real: Early Photography in Japan," Japanese critic and historian Kohtaro lizawa writes about the advent of this Western technology in his country, briefly tracing its uses and reception in the nineteenth century. He, too, suggests that earlier practices resonate in contemporary work.

Although it is the first large-scale American exhibition devoted exclusively to the subject since the Museum of Modern Art's "New Japanese Photography" in 1974, "Photography and Beyond in Japan" nevertheless relates to several later presentations of Japanese modern and contemporary art. The most recent and most ambitious of these, "Japanese Art since 1945: Scream against the Sky," appeared in New York and San Francisco in 1994-95, and its hefty catalog provides the single most important English text on postwar Japanese art.(1)

"Photography and Beyond in Japan" treats photography as a subdivision of art production. "This exhibition and its publication are more about art than about photography," Stearns writes. "Photography is the root of the works shown here, but it is only the means to an end." In fact, several among the 12 photographers were trained first as painters or sculptors and only as mature artists turned primarily to photography.

A brief review cannot do justice to the subtlety of the curator's informative interpretations of the specificities of space, time and memory in contemporary Japanese art. Nevertheless, his discussions are not completely satisfying. With respect to his first category especially, Japanese space, Stearns struggles with a resistant concept. He explains that traditional space is a quality derived from landscape but applicable to other subjects, and that it is a nearly tangible element "defined by what frames it." In the exhibition, the work of the "space" artists is both conceptually and emotionally discontinuous, and Stearns does not convincingly demonstrate why they are grouped together. In the end, because the works are so varied and the spatial concept remains elusive, the impressive works in this section seem to resist the insight that the curatorial association is intended to clarify.

The exhibition opens with the work of Nobuo Yamanaka, an experimentalist who died at the age of 34 in 1982. …

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