Opening Thursday November 14, 2013
with the artists!
Come and discover the new japanese generation at the Gallery, from November 14 to December 28, 2013.
9 rue des Arquebusiers
Marc Feustel is an independent curator, writer and blogger based in Paris. A specialist in Japanese photography, he is the author of Japan: a self-portrait, photographs 1945–1964 and a founding director of Studio Equis, an organisation devoted to promoting Japanese photography in the West. He has curated several exhibitions including Japan A Self-Portrait, 1945-1964 (Setagaya Art Museum, Tokyo), Tokyo Stories (Kulturhuset, Stockholm) and Eikoh Hosoe: Theatre of Memory (Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney). He blogs about photography and photo-books at www.eyecurious.com and is a regular contributor to photography magazines including European Photography, Foam, Fantom, IMA, Some/things, The Eyes and Lensculture.
Interview with Marc Feustel
For some years, through your structure Studio Equis, you have been developing exhibition or publication projects around Japanese photography. Could you tell us something more about how you initially became interested in this scene?
I used to work for the publisher Flammarion in their fine art books department and while I was working there, I came up with a proposal of a book on postwar Japanese photography. The reason for this proposal was mainly because I knew nothing about the subject: I felt that as a Westerner we had no opportunities to access this field. We knew maybe a few names in Japanese photography but we did not know much beyond these individual names. That was really my first contact with Japanese photography.
I had a real interest in the postwar period in Japan, because it is sociologically fascinating and very unusual in terms of the total transformation of a society in a short space of time. This raised the question of why we don't haven’t really seen many images from this time. Many people have a sense of Japanese history, during the war and after, but why do we not have a sense of the photographic history of this period? It was really that question that led me to that book project.
In researching that book and visiting Japan, I met photographers and editors and started to get a small introduction into the Japanese photography world. After the book was published in 2004, I hadn't really considered where it might lead, I just thought of it as a one-off project. However, a number of the photographers that I had met stayed in touch and proposed opportunities for collaboration: they were interested in showing their work outside of Japan and did not feel there were opportunities to do so.
How was Studio Equis born?
Studio Equis grew organically as an organization dedicated to help to build links between Japan and the West. Based in Paris, founded in London, its location is really incidental in a sense. We have done exhibitions in lot of different territories and have also helped to bring projects to Japan. The idea behind Studio Equis was really to open up the channel of communications between Japan and the West in general. Initially we started on focusing on postwar Japanese photography, a very specific period, as there were established figures in Japan but that we did not know in the West, names like Kimura Ihei or Hamaya Hiroshi or Nagano Shigeichi. As I was always interested in contemporary photography as well we gradually started working with contemporary photographers such as Toshio Shibata for example.
And before this book, how well did you know Japan?
I knew very little about Japan. This book was really the doorway into both Japanese photography and Japan for me. I had visited Japan before and I think Japan is not a place that leave people indifferent, it's a place that you tend to love or hate. A place of obsession. I had some experiences as a child in Japan, and I always felt fascinated by the country, and have always been interested from a distance in Japanese aesthetics, literature, film, but I had never formally studied that field.
Do you feel that at the time the book came out, that special moment in 2004, a channel was opened more widely between Japan and the West? There were other memorable initiatives, such as the Rinko Kawauchi exhibition at the Rencontres d’Arles presented by Martin Parr; it was a discovery for the broader public. Would you say some kind of a phenomenon emerged at the time, to which you also took part?
The bridge between Japan and the West has opened and closed many times over the course of Japan’s history. In terms of photography, Japan has a very long history as the country adopted photography from the West very early on. There have been little moments since World War Two, where Japanese photography has been shown overseas: for instance there was a period in the 1970s where MoMA did the New Japanese Photography Show, ICP did Japan, A Self-Portrait, The Pompidou did the Japon des avant-gardes and in Graz, Austria there was also a big group show in 1976. Rather than this being a tipping point, establishing a kind of openness and a relationship that would last, Japanese photography somewhat disappeared again from the West for some time. As you said, around 2004, was the time when things opened up again. One of the major events was that Anne Tucker at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston published a kind of encyclopedia of Japanese photography which was essentially saying we know nothing about this subject. This is a very large, weighty first step in the direction of integrating this history into our own understanding of what photographic history is. It was a big milestone, even though not everyone took notice. Then Martin Parr also began to bring the Japanese photobook to a lot of people's attention.
Now people are interested in many different facets of Japanese photography: people access it through books, through more classic forms of photography, through established names, through young Japanese photographers. There are also new types of flows in terms of how people work: more Japanese photographers are ending up working outside of Japan. In this group exhibition, Kenji Hirasawa is based in London, Ryo Suzuki in Paris… it's becoming more common. I think this can all lead to a better understanding because people are not just all coming to Japanese photography through Daido Moriyama or Araki, or through one particular window in time. Increasingly we are getting a sense of the breadth and diversity of Japan’s photographic history.
Japanese photography still stands out as a whole separate world: do you think a kind of stylistic insularity exists? Are there specificities in contemporary Japanese production? If so, how would you describe them?
This is a complicated question. One of the things that I try to do when dealing with Japanese photography abroad is to avoid pigeonholing it, saying that it is all a certain way. A lot of the time it makes sense to group these photographers together because they are Japanese, because it is far away and quite different in terms of what is being done there photographically. While there are shared characteristics at the same time there are also great differences from one photographer to the next.
With that said, I think broadly speaking in Japan in the nineties up to quite recently, not only in photography but in society in general, there was a sense of drift. Photography was overwhelmed by this kind of ephemeral intimate diary-style work that focused on that sense of listlessness, being lost in society, not really knowing where you belong, feeling somehow ostracized or isolated… very inward-looking work. Compared to previous generations, there is none of the intensity or engagement of the 70s or the 60s. I felt it was a movement that was running out of steam. If anything can characterize this new generation, it is their desire to go beyond that and to go back out to the world in some way. It expresses itself in many different ways but I think that the time for this very introspective sort of "I-novel" style has sort of passed to some degree. People are looking for different ways for expressing themselves.
You said there were genuine singularities. If you were to compare Japanese creation and Western creation, what would these singularities be?
There are a few ways in which Japanese photography differentiates itself from European photography for example. There isn’t the same emphasis on conceptual work in Japan. In terms of discourse, people don't require you to have a conceptual apparatus every time you produce a body of work, it's totally acceptable to take a camera and go out into the world and you don't have to justify that through a structured intellectual discourse. Even in the way people talk about photography is framed in an emotional context rather than in an intellectual one.
It's no longer acceptable for a European photographer to take pictures of a tree, or the sea, cherry blossoms… people would look down on that, considering it as something totally naive and passé. However that remains a very important facet of Japanese photography.
There is also the fact—this is not specific to Japan but more universal–that up to quite recently there was a dichotomy between “old school” analog film-based photography and the certain approach to photography that goes along with that, and this kind of cold, hard, clinical digital approach. I think this new generation does not see those 2 things as separate, as having to choose between one and the other. Somebody like Daisuke Yokota would use both of these tools in order to get somewhere else. This generation became photographers in a context where both of these things were available to them. That is also interesting because it leads to these new approaches, to this desire to experiment, to use whatever is available in order to find something new.
Do you think there’s a correlation between the emancipation from the concept, and the fact that many of them produce works deeply rooted in the image’s matter and plasticity?
Because there isn’t this requirement for a conceptual framework in the Japanese photography world, yes you do see work focused on the plasticity, on the aesthetics and the surface of the image.
Also at the moment in European photography there is a sense of there being too many images, and that there is a certain futility to producing photographs of certain subjects that have been photographed thousand of times. So many people are focusing on ways of dealing with images, editing them, working with archives, with found imagery, recontextualising things, cutting images, deconstructing and recomposing. I think in Japan there isn’t this feeling at this point, there is still very much a desire to work by taking a camera and going out into the world. If the Rencontres d’Arles festival would have wanted to make a show like "From Here On" based only on Japanese artists there would have been nothing there.
In Japan, there aren't as many publications or institutions that are essentially giving you this picture "this is the way photography is now". You're left up to your own devices and you have to find your own way of working. Another interesting thing is that there are little collectives that are forming now in contemporary Japanese photography, not necessarily formal structures where they give themselves a name, but there seem to be a desire to group with others. Little kinds of constellations are forming. I think it's something that does probably help to push things forward as well in confronting different opinions and styles.