Japanese photography has held a unique place in the realms of both international contemporary photography and postwar Japanese art ever since Anne Wilkes Tucker’s landmark 2003 exhibition “The History of Japanese Photography,” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH). Staged 12 years later at the same venue and now on view in New York (at the Grey Art Gallery and the Japan Society Gallery), “For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979” presents a more specific set of concerns. While Tucker’s survey telescoped a photographic evolution spanning 1850 to 2000, “For a New World to Come” centers on conceptual and process-based practices that arose at the tail end of an intense period of political protests and continued over the course of a decade characterized by a seemingly more passive aesthetic of introspection and disillusionment.
Encompassing 250 photographs, photo books, sculptural works and film installations by 29 artists, “For a New World to Come” was divided roughly chronologically into five sections at the MFAH, and opened with Matsumoto Toshio’s For the Damaged Right Eye (1968). This split-screen installation juxtaposes a wide range of imagery: dancers in a nightclub, the Tokyo metro, a transvestite, riots and protests. The work, which the artist described at its premiere as a “sensorial pursuit of chaos,” was a fitting introduction to a gallery overloaded with black-and-white photojournalism documenting the 1968-69 nationwide protests against the second renewal of the U.S.-Japan security treaty (which extended the U.S. military presence in Japan) and against the Osaka world’s fair, Expo ’70 (which, to the demonstrators, represented a distraction from political issues, a glorification of commercialism and technology, and a return of nationalist sentiment).
In the same section, the radical aesthetic of the Provoke collective, whose members popularized a deliberately de-skilled camera technique known as are, bure, boke (grainy, blurry, out of focus), was presented as a reflection of the era’s political turmoil and social unrest. Moriyama DaidÅ’s “Accident” series (1969) features rephotographed images focusing on themes of disaster and scandal that he found on road-safety campaign posters, in newspapers and on television. The series is representative of Provoke’s work not only in its grainy style and its inclusion of other “imperfections” (such as the camera flash reflecting off the original sources), but also in its direct acknowledgment of the reproductive nature of photography, with no distinction in value being made between “original” and “copy.”
By the end of the 1960s, artists began critically reassessing their relationship to societal change and abandoning New Left ideologies. Rejecting notions of stability and physical permanence, they pursued approaches that defamiliarized the everyday while embracing the instability of language and the ephemerality of experience. The show’s conceptual anchor is the work of Provoke member Nakahira Takuma, whose seminal 1970 photo book, For a Language to Come, inspired the exhibition title. Both his Circulation: Date, Place, Events (a rotating installation, displayed at the 1971 Paris Biennale, of 1,500 black-and-white photographs he took of Paris) and Overflow (a 1974 project, whose Japanese title also means “revolt,” comprising 48 color photographs taken around Tokyo in the early 1970s) bring together dreamlike fragments that speak to a nonlinear, psychogeographical approach to the city.
Artists including Nomura Hitoshi, Enokura KÅji, Uematsu Keiji and Kawaguchi Tatsuo used process as a means to detach subjective experience from personal expression and to locate a new form of intentionality. Nomura’s 1970 work Time on a Curved Line investigates the body’s physical interaction with the landscape and illustrates his notion of “sculpting time.” Consisting of 34 large-format gelatin silver prints, the project documents a walk Nomura took one day along a road in Kyoto. First, he wrote the date and time directly on the road and photographed the markings; then he proceeded to walk, and when he could no longer see his written marks in the distance behind him, he stopped, wrote the date and time on the pavement and took another photograph. He repeated this activity over the course of seven and a half hours.
Made two years later, Yamanaka Nobuo’s Fixed River turns a photographic record into a sculptural installation. The work originates in an earlier piece by Yamanaka, in which he projected footage of the Tama River onto the river itself. For Fixed River, a slide photograph of this piece is projected onto a series of 15 transparent screens hung one behind the other. The projector’s beam of light echoes the streaming river, and the image becomes increasingly diffuse as it travels through the screens. Nevertheless, the screens’ surfaces afford a means by which to make the image perceptible.
Critic TÅno Yoshiaki described this action as giving off “a strangely negative presence,” suggesting a negation of the artist and the emergence of an authorial presence from within the depicted subject itself. Such a spectral appearance is also seen with Sugiura Kunié’s Central Park 3 (1971), a close-up of a rock printed on a 7-foot-long canvas; the rock, here resembling a fibrous cloud, seems to reveal its own strangeness.
A seeming absence of artistic agency similarly informs the konpora (contemporary) genre of snapshot-style photography, which emerged in the late 1960s and sought to portray the everyday in a manner that eschewed drama or subjectivity. The style was epitomized by GochÅ Shigeo’s expansive views, shot from a distance, that appear to offer unbiased portrayals of the world. In the late 1970s, however, GochÅ began departing from this style, as seen in the more close-up shots that comprise his “Familiar Street Scenes” (1978-80). These were shown in the final section of the MFAH presentation. With their distinctly low perspectival angle (reflective of the short height of the artist, who had a spinal disease) and small format, they provided a contrast with Ishiuchi Miyako’s large-scale prints depicting her apartment and its surrounding area in Yokosuka—her attempt to correct the town’s predominant association with U.S. military bases by showing the experience of a local. At the end of the exhibition, Ishiuchi’s and other artists’ portrayals of places beyond Tokyo served to foreshadow the next decade, which saw the rise of independent galleries that promoted regional networks and collectives outside the nation’s capital, and the ascendancy of a new generation of artists experimenting with new approaches to photography.