Transcultural Pictures: Photography in NE Asia

Wednesday, 16:30-18:30, Media





When photography was first introduced in Japan, back in the days of the Bakufu regime in the 1850s, it was a young medium with no history at all, still in search for the constituting techniques of this process. Japanese, and later Chinese and Korean photographers had the opportunity to participate in this process and contribute from their experience and aesthetical tradition to the development of photography as a transcultual medium.

The proposed session will focus on contemporary photography in China, Japan and Korea, with a special interest in themes like the representation of classics, familial lineage, death, war, low intensity conflicts, immigration, sleep, and other daily and mundane activities. Focusing on cultural and social issues and cross-cultural tensions in the post-colonial context of China, Japan and Korea, the papers presented on this panel bring forward a broad arena of cultural, social and aesthetic discourse.


Re-Staging the War: Morimura Yasumasa and the icons of WWII

Morimura Yasumasa (b. 1951, Osaka) is well known for his staging of famous female figures and mise-én-scenes of famous images. From the 1980s onwards, Morimura has gradually grown from the critique of the art world (‗Portrait of the artist as Art History'), to repetitions of Hollywood spectacles (‗Sickness Onto Beauty: Actress'), to his current grand project of a political inventory of images (‗Requiem of the 20th c.'). While most famous for his female portraits and successful repetitions of famous art masterpieces and cinematic scenes, Morimura's shift into the political arena is remarkably concentrated on male images and the memorable icons of photojournalism and war photography.

This paper will survey Morimura's shift from the carefully staged tableaux of famous paintings, to his desire for Hollywood's glamour and stardom, to his current interest in dominant male figures and their icons as saved on film of photojournalists of the 20th c. In my presentation, I will stress the complex relationship between Morimura's practice of staged icons which are in this series all belong to the language of photojournalism and the immediacy of the photograph. I shall scrutinise at the impact of staged the images, all originally created under the discourse of ‗the crucial moment'. I will show how this shift from 'documentary' to 'fictional' is a multifaceted strategy for photography as a medium to distance itself from its prescribed role of documentation and memory.


Yang Fudong’s Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest

My paper examines the photographs associated with the film Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest by Chinese contemporary artist Yang Fudong. Yang started as a photographer, and eventually expanded into film. Executed between 2003 and 2007, Seven Intellectuals in Bamboo Forest is a series of five episodes, with a total running time of approximately four hours. It has been screened only twice in its complete form, first at the Venice Biennale in 2007 and recently at the Asia Society in New York City in 2009. For this reason, the photographs associated with the film have undoubtedly reached a wider audience than the film itself. These photographs, which appear in such publications as catalogues and review articles, highlight in a manner more emphatic than what can be seen in the film itself, the links that the artist forges between classical Chinese and modern concepts. In an ironic twist, Yang uses a medium introduced by the West, to advance the principles of Chinese shan shui (mountain and water) painting. What he has achieved contributes significantly to the transformation of photography into a medium that transcends cultural affiliations.

Current critical discussions about the film revolve mainly around the significance of the subject. The legend of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove is based on a historical group of Daoist intellectuals from third-century China, who turned their backs to civil service and retreated to a bamboo grove, in an act of protest against the corruption of the current government. Instead, they engaged in intellectual discourse and created art for their own consumption. Yang's film reinterprets the story by setting it in contemporary Shanghai and featuring young urbanites in designer-label attires.

What has not been noted is how the photographs derived from the film, and used for public distribution, spotlight Yang's re-visit of the classical painting tradition through a Western-originated medium. The photographs make apparent Yang's compositional preferences, such as expansive landscapes dotted with miniscule human figures, or lone figures appearing lost in a landscape, and lost in thought. Such compositions were actually developed in ink paintings by scholar-artists of the Song Dynasty (972-1276), especially those who retreated to the south, after northern China was invaded by foreign tribes. For this reason, shan shui paintings came to represent, in Chinese tradition, the ideal of the independent-minded intellectual and his life of solitude and scholarship in nature.

While classical landscapes invariably feature natural settings of mountains and water, Yang's landscapes are sometimes urban, with trees replaced by skyscrapers, mountain cliffs replaced by rooftops. The photographs offer a complementary discourse to that presented by the film, focusing on Yang's absorption and renewal of classical shan shui compositions. They demonstrate the full circle that Yang has made in acknowledging his artistic legacy, while forging a new path.


Things Seen by the Camera Alone

In the 1970s artists such as Suga Kishio, Enokura Kōji and Takamatsu Jirō recorded simple daily actions with their camera – small gestures that intervene within everyday life and create fragile situations in a specific time and a specific space. For the viewer, these photographs were documents of an occurrence that is now gone: a triangle traced with a stick on the ground, a hand extended forward projecting its shadow on the floor, a man laying on his side wrapping the base of a column with his body, a photograph of a photograph left on a table, and more. These photographs do not attempt to spontaneously capture everyday life or to record a specific man or thing. They are rather fabricated situations of intentional interventions within everyday life, which seek to turn the viewer's attention to an encounter between things, phenomena and action in time and space. In contrast to these artists' sculptures and installations, which sought to awaken a fresh new perception through an awareness to things and matter, these photographs, which are by definition records of past occurrences, emphasize the intervening action of the artist. The photographs reveal interrelations between things, actions and natural phenomena, express tension between man and things, and create situations that undermine the mere function of the photograph as mediator of reality. This paper shall examine the ways in which these artists utilized the ―documenting‖ and ―mediating‖ functions of the photograph in order to capture reality as it is – beyond the recorded object and free from the mediation of names and images.


Exhibiting Family, Displaying Death: Funerary Images in Contemporary Japanese Photography

My presentation focuses on the practice of funeral photo-portraiture (i-ei) in Japan, and its interpretation by contemporary photographers. Although it is a widespread custom to display i-ei—a portrait photograph of the deceased—its origin are a mystery. Until the end of the Meiji period, the contemporary style of displaying i-ei was to hang the black-framed photograph tied with a black ribbon on the top of a coffin.

Although no photograph is an i-ei per se—since every photographic portrait can become iei— some people prepare a portrait for use as i-ei advance. However, at the point of preparation, the photo is no more than a simple portrait. A photo becomes i-ei only at the time of one's death. Photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, also known as ―Genius Ararky,‖ had himself photographed while dangling his wife's i-ei at her funeral. He hand-picked his favorite photograph of his wife Yoko as a young woman for her i-ei from a stack of her portraits. This fact shows that every portrait photograph, even when taken at the most lively moment, is shadowed by a mood of death. A photograph is essentially a foreshadowing of death even if it was taken at the very moment of one's birth.

Masahisa Fukase's series of photographs of family members show this mixed state of death and life. The family members were assembled periodically in front of the camera for photos, each holding a different relationship in the family. Slight but clear change can be seen each year, as one by one members disappear and appear over the course of time. Eventually the viewer realizes that everyone has been replaced in the end. This theatrical gesture of exhibiting family is an homage to i-ei practices as a vernacular way of photographing.

Hironao Kuratani instructs his sitters to meditate with their eyes closed before taking their photo at his i-ei photo studio in Myokayama in Niigata Prefecture. The photographer must promptly click the shutter as soon as the sitter opens his or her eyes. The sitter plays a central role in theatrical practices at the photo studio, both as a customer and an owner of his or her portrait. KURATANI tries to put himself in the tradition of vernacular photography of photo studio practices in Japan.

In this presentation I will look at photographs by contemporary Japanese photographers in a different light, through their vernacular photographic practices. In doing so, vernacular qualities of contemporary Japanese photographers can be compared and contrasted with similar practices, particularly in East Asia.


Photographing the Cold War in the Twenty-First Century

While many anticipated that the post-1989 era would no longer be under the shadow of the Cold War, the story has unfolded quite differently in North East Asia. In August 2010, two months after the 60th anniversary of the Korean War, the largest annual joint United States–South Korean military drills took place for 11 days. This military exercise was immediately met with a threat from North Korea and a denouncement from China. The political tension in the region has been further complicated by the heightened territorial disputes between Japan and China, South Korea and Japan, and Russia and Japan.

In this paper, I will discuss the photographs of selected Korean photographers, such as Kim Sangdon and Lee Young Hoon, who have been exploring the meaning and influence of the Cold War in South Korea. Implicating the continuing tension of the Cold War in the region, the artists question what it means to live in the era of so-called the global society under the 38th Parallel, the inter-Korean border, which remains heavily fortified today. The impact of militarism in urban environments and collective identity has been central to their projects. The artists employ various conventions of photographic ‗styles', while experimenting how these different styles can still leave documentary effects. This paper will also discuss works that explore the ramifications of American military bases in South Korean cities, which are often neglected economically.