Friday, September 29, 2006

Rapt! - 20 Contemporary Artists from Japan

“Geek culture” sounds it should be in the dictionary under ‘oxymoron’. But “otaku culture” is on the rise in Japan, and those geeks are typically obsessed with anime and manga.

But a Japanese geek is a very different animal to a western geek. There’s an expressiveness as ingrained as language, and as visual as a kanji character. This is, after all, a culture where a reader not only interprets the meaning of what you have written, but judges the aesthetics of how you have written it. Every sentence is a signature.

The high-tech West is baffled by Japan’s contentment with 2-D animation and hand-drawn comics. The biggest animation industry in the world just doesn’t ‘do’ 3-D rendering on computers.

But as Australia’s resident manga and anime expert Philip Brophy explains, “In Japan, surface is sublime. Reality is not what they’re interested in. To them, it’s only an image!”

Understanding manga, says Brophy, helps you understand contemporary Japanese art. “They’re not [entirely] divorced from each other. Understanding those levels of difference allow you to read what is happening in Japan. The amount of energy that can be packed into surface in Japanese culture is mind boggling.”

Surfaces are, without question, all-important in the works on display at Melbourne’s Centre for Contemporary Photography at the moment. The exhibition is the first of several around the country which form just one part of the Rapt! project. (The others parts are residencies, forums and symposia in Japan and Australia, and a catalog documenting the process and ‘outcomes’.)

It’s possible to breeze through the CCP exhibition and merely admire the work -- it has immediate appeal, visually and viscerally. Like good poetry, it communicates before it is fully understood.

Kazuna Taguchi: She Can’t Even Remember
(click on the image to enlarge)

At first glance, there are rich, dark, still-life images by Kazuna Taguchi; sublimely clinical architectural transparencies of office spaces by Hirofumi Katayama; and some clever photographs of beach resorts, taken from the perspective of a swimmer by Asako Narahashi.

A closer inspection of Taguchi’s prints reveals an inexplicable texture. Like fabric or canvas. I wondered, vaguely, if it was an effect introduced in printing... gauze between enlarger and paper perhaps, or a digital effect. Even more baffling were Katayama’s grainless office interiors, with their ever-so-slightly odd shadows.

I discover, from Philip Brophy, that these images are not what they seem. Taguchi “takes photos of the objects, then does paintings of them, then cuts them out, positions them together and then takes a photograph.”

Which is what is exhibited.

But this is not a Magritte-like ‘this-is-not-a-photograph’ joke. “It’s got nothing to do with illusionism of depth, it’s actually got to do with the celebration of surface. That’s what you get a lot in Japan.”

And Katayama’s oh-so-perfect images aren’t photographs at all. They’re creations on a computer. “It’s all vector with gradients using a graphic program. It’s all algorithms. They’re called vector scapes.”

Hirofumi Katayama: from Vectorscapes
(inkjet facemounted on acrylic, click to enlarge)

“In Photoshop, if you zoom in on a scanned image, you’ll eventually reach the bitmap threshold, the dpi right? Well, Vector has no end point. It’s literally a mathematical algorithm that outlines the shape and then tells the printer or the video monitor or whatever to fill it in, in a certain colour, so it’s completely computerised.”

So it could, theoretically, be enlarged to infinity?

“Absolutely. Those images, you could put them on the twin towers if they still stood!”

Even the sea-sickness inducing photographs from within the ocean’s swell -- unquestionably real photographs taken on a real camera -- have a classically Japanese back story.

Not drowning, perving: half awake and half asleep in the water
by Asako Narahashi (click on the image to enlarge)

According to Brophy, they’re a view of Japan “as a very frail island, [an] isolationist domain. And those shots very beautifully capture that sensibility.”

The diorama-like images are all of tourist sites.

“These are all the subtle gestures that are really part of the Japanese eye, even when it comes to something as straightforward conceptually as photographing the land from the water. There’s a lot of poetic depth in these kind of works.”

Rapt! is a most unusual project, quite unlike previous projects supported by the Japan Foundation in its open-endedness. But it is, in its way, an experiment. A research. A search for an alternative to pavillion-style exhibitions which attempt to package a culture -- to condense and summarise a culture -- and present it to the rest of the world. Hence the subtitle of Rapt! It’s not “Contemporary Japanese Art” or “Japanese Art Today.” It’s simply “20 Contemporary Artists from Japan.”

Its three Japanese curators are all in their thirties. And, as you’d expect from the Japanese, an advance party scoured just about every art gallery and museum in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne before venues were selected. Input was also sought from several Australians including Philip Brophy, Kathryn Hunyor, Max Delany and Stuart Koop.

The results, so far, are eye-opening and delightful.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Financial Review.

See also Q & A: Philip Brophy on calligraphy, manga and the graphic novel at Sarsaparilla which is archived at Pandora.

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Blogger Gricegrocers said...

It's funny how "Lost in Translation" made such a big impact in terms of what people will list as their favourite movie. Maybe it has to do with the ability to be individuals in a relatively homogenous society.

12:11 PM  
Anonymous Andrew Eglinton said...

Let's not forget the tremendous following of so-called 'reality tv'in the 'West' - yet another cultural oxymoron for the list. How less real is anime/manga for the otaku than Big Brother for the geek?

“In Japan, surface is sublime. Reality is not what they’re interested in. To them, it’s only an image!”

In the UK, surface is decadent, reality is undistinguishable from surface and few people would have it otherwise. To the Brits it's a healthy dose of self-loathing!

11:39 PM  
Blogger Chris Boyd said...

I confess, gg, I haven't seen Lost in Translation. I do remember, however, that the Three Mile Island reactor incident was reported in Japan as having occurred at "4.8 kilometre island."

Thanks, Andrew, for providing the predictably auto-flagellating Brit response.

I have mixed feelings about so-called reality TV. Watching rats in mazes... it's reality for the rat, is it not?

It's gonna be a challenge for non-Japanese viewers of these art works to appreciate the depth/richness of the surfaces. It's not just a conceptual richness either. There's a real celebration of surface here.

As in the UK, the word 'surface' and the idea of surface -- and superficial -- all have pejorative connotations here. So it's fascinating and envigorating to have those preconceptions challenged.

9:29 AM  
Blogger jose manuel said...

Hello! I total agree with the views of "Andrew" who cleared the main difference between Japan & UK. I like it.

Art Contemporary Photography

With regards
Jose MAnuel

11:00 PM  

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