Kikai Hiroh at the Yamagata Museum of ArtPosted: 26/12/2011
Last week I was in Yamagata (City), for Kikai Hiroh’s big exhibition Persona. Simply, this combines the content of his earlier, large Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography exhibition “Tokyo Portraits” with work from the other two main strands of his career: India and Turkey. All in glorious black and white.
Yamagata isn’t that far from Tokyo — I sat down in the shinkansen, I ate my bento, I did some work, I arrived. Yamagata has plenty of hotels; I stayed in one mysteriously named after a London suburb. It was colder than Tokyo, but my clothing was better suited for a February visit.
A short walk from the station, and you arrive at Yamagata Museum of Art, whose triangular facade makes it easy to spot:
But if you’re still in any doubt, there’s a reassuring sign right in front of the entrance:
And then, you’re inside.
I was happy to be greeted by a familiar face. Kikai hails from not far away; but he no longer lives there or anywhere in the area, and so is only at the museum for a few days. Nevertheless, he’s in the museum for a generous number of hours per day and — when not preoccupied with the prose for some editorial deadline (half the time while I was there he was working on his comments for pp. 241–248 of the “January 2012” Asahi Camera) — is delighted to talk about the photographs.
The exhibition is divided into two halves. On the second floor is (I think) everything that was in the Ebisu show (and the Tokyo Portraits book): (a) the series best known outside Japan as “Asakusa portraits” (people without distracting backgrounds), and (b) “Tokyo labyrinth” series (buildings without distracting people). Both these series (of squares) add up to a big show. On the first floor are “landscape” rectangles: to one side are photographs of India; to the other are photographs of Turkey. (You really need to make two visits to do justice to the whole of this exhibition.)
Here’s a view of the second floor. This was during the first week of the exhibition. Admittedly it was a weekday, but even so the number of visitors seemed rather low.
I hope that more people come later. (For future exhibitions, here’s one way to draw the masses.)
Here’s the catalogue published for the Ebisu exhibition Tokyo Portraits. Unlike the great majority of Japanese museum catalogues, it’s published like a conventional book, and so it may be bought anywhere. (For ordering info, see the foot of this post.) Slightly smaller in format than Asakusa Portraits (and, as you can see, a lot smaller than Anatolia), it has plenty from the “Asakusa portraits” and “Tokyo labyrinth” series. (Jörg Colberg has given it a video introduction.) It doubles as the catalogue for the larger half of this exhibition in Yamagata.
Even if they’re familiar, the Asakusa portraits are worth your time in the gallery because of details that can go unnoticed in smaller book reproductions, because some of them will be new to people who haven’t seen the Tokyo Portraits book, and because of the use of variants. A particular portrait at first looks familiar, then perhaps a little unfamiliar: it turns out not to be that used in the book from Steidl. Which in turn makes you start to wonder about this or that detail in the other portraits too.
Another level of pleasant befuddlement is introduced by the differences between what’s in the Tokyo Portraits book and the prints exhibited. In Tokyo, there were three or four such differences; now there’s just one, as far as I noticed. (Hint: it’s in the first half of the book. Look at the hands.)
It has to be said that the Tokyo labyrinth series hasn’t generated the excitement of Asakusa portraits. If the former is Kikai in Atget mode, then of course we’re far too late for excited imputations of surrealism or modernism; and the solemnity is inadequate for once-“new topographics”. So let’s skip the isms. There’s very little portrayed that’s new or shiny (in contrast to Nagano Shigeichi) and instead an emphasis on the worn and lived-in, but certainly not on the quaint. Pretty obviously, these views are as uncomplicated by people as the Asakusa portraits are uncomplicated by backgrounds — but even aside from people in posters, there turns out to be at least one actual living person, if you look very carefully. Indeed, these photographs are replete with non-obvious little pleasures.
All this is upstairs. The captions are in both Japanese and English for the portraits, in both Japanese and Roman script for the approximate addresses of the labyrinthine scenes. Plus the years. (Ditto within the Tokyo Portraits book.) And they’re all protected by glass (or acrylic or whatever) so unreflective you hardly notice it’s there.
Downstairs are over fifty photographs of Turkey (not limited to the Anatolia of the title), and over fifty of India. Each has a descriptive caption in Japanese only, the placename in Roman script only, and the year. This is the same as in the book Anatolia (and more informative than the book India, which merely has the placename and the year). The protective glass isn’t bad, but doesn’t rival the wonder material used upstairs.
Below is the closest thing there is to a catalogue of the smaller half of the show. It’s a single sheet: Turkey on the side with the front cover (above), India on the other side (below).
We can take the book Anatolia as a greatly expanded catalogue of the Turkish part of the show. At first I didn’t see any photographs in the show that weren’t familiar from the book, but after a little time I realized that at least three were variants. As an example, the following pair (“Remains from a large salt lake; Van, 2001″). First, from p.85 of the book:
Secondly, from the exhibition:
(If the second of the pair looks particularly mushy or otherwise dubious, put this down to my hamfisted use of GIMP’s jiggery-pokery on a photograph taken at a strange angle to minimize reflections.)
They’re both excellent but on balance I’ll take the latter for the way the man in the dark jacket has moved to the middle distance, where he somehow either seems implausibly small or makes the pair standing on the tower implausibly large. And the second tower in the far distance is an additional pleasing bonus.
(As for a difference from the book that had to be pointed out to me, see p.71 of the book, or look for the geese.)
However, for me (who’d seen the exhibition in Ebisu) the best part of this new exhibition was the roomful of photographs from India.
First, a very simplified history of book appearances. There have been two photobooks, India (1992) and しあわせ (Shiawase) = Shanti (1999). The photographs in the former (like those in Anatolia) are all “landscape” format and those in the latter all “portrait”. The exhibition only presents “landscape” photographs, and many of them postdate 1992 and so aren’t yet in any photobook.
India (the book) has the same large format as Anatolia. A decade before the first edition of Persona and almost two decades before Anatolia, its price-tag was higher than either (even if we ignore inflation). Little wonder that new copies were still in bookshops fifteen years or so after publication.
In the earliest stages of the India work, more of the photography concentrated on single subjects, but the emphases had settled down well before publication of India. The newer work is a continuation: no major stylistic surprises for those who know the book, but the quality remains high. Time for an affordable, two-volume anthology!
And our legs are tired and it’s approaching 5 p.m.: time to go downstairs to the shop and buy one or two books by the photographer, plus a handful of fascinating earlier (and Kikai-irrelevant) catalogues discounted to silly prices, and to leave the warm museum for its rather chilly surroundings.
The population of the town of Yamagata is just a quarter of a million, some way behind that of the greater Tokyo megalopolis. People have to be nudged toward the museum. At the centre of the station is a little tourist office, with no visible mention of the exhibition (or the museum). I’m not sure that I saw any advertising for the exhibition anywhere, aside from this one poster outside an art supplies shop. (At the museum, the posters weren’t for sale.)
That’s not to say that there was no publicity. There was even an NHK camera crew there during my visit. And once you do get to the museum and exhibition, the staff are very welcoming. (I was generously presented with the fat catalogue of what seems to have been a pretty comprehensive exhibition of work by Gochō Shigeo.) I hope that word of mouth brings more viewers.
If you are thinking of going to Yamagata, good news: Staying there needn’t cost much. Consider the α‑1 hotel:
If you can’t quite make out what’s going on, click on the photo for a close-up.
When not sleeping, viewing or eating, you could be drinking. Calling all alcoholics:
Message summarized for the Japanese-challenged: On weekdays, “happy hour” lasts seven hours. At the counter, you can drink all you want for seven hours for ¥1550 (about 15€).
I’m wary of winos and before hearing of α‑1 had booked a room in a most salubrious business hotel, providing me with this view downwards first thing in the morning:
and this view more horizontally:
The town has its charms for the eye and palate. (Let your cursor linger over a photo for a miniature explanation.)
For me the most fascinating building was not Bunshōkan (immediately above), but instead Kajō Central (霞城セントラル), a large building designed by Nikken Sekkei, which must have been in a cod-classicist mood at the time:
(At first I thought the influence might be from Pyongyang . . . but no.)
The station building itself is named S−pal. (I wonder what’s hidden by the “−” of “S−pal”.)
And then time to return to Tokyo. Half the time in the train I read Errol Morris’s Believing is Seeing (recommended!), half the time I looked out the window:
Here’s where the train pauses while carriages from the northeast are attached.
And now, the useful, fact-filled section:
The catalogue of the larger half of the exhibition:
Kurt doesn’t list this where I might expect it within the Japan Exposures bookshop, but his general offer of help with Japanese books should snag you a copy for well under the hilarious prices charged on Ebay, etc.
January 2012 PS: “Every Picture Tells a Story: Hiroh Kikai’s Tokyo Portraits” is a review by Alan Gleason of the earlier exhibition (in Ebisu), posted at DNP’s Artscape Japan.