Inspired by autochromes, Hanako Murakami creates photographs that reflect projections onto the eye’s retina.
In light of her recent solo exhibition at Tokyo’s Taka Ishii Gallery, Art Radar profiles Japanese photographer Hanako Murakami and her latest oeuvre based on the technique of the autochrome invented by the Lumière brothers.
“Anticamera (Of the Eye)”, Hanako Murakami’s latest solo exhibition and her first at Taka Ishii Gallery in Tokyo, closed on 7 May 2016. The show featured new work by the young Japanese photographer, inspired by a colour photograph process developed during the early days of the medium – the autochrome.
Paris-based Hanako Murakami (b. 1984) holds a BA in Literature from the University of Tokyo and an MA from the Tokyo University of the Arts’ Department of New Media. She then moved on to study in Belgium and received the Pola Art Foundation scholarship to continue her training in France, where she joined Le Fresnoy National Studio of Contemporary Art.
Among her major exhibitions are “The Capital Room: Beyond Three Dimensional Logical Pictures: Hanako Murakami”, Gallery αM, Tokyo (2015); “Panorama 17”, Le Fresnoy, Studio National d’Art Contemporain (2015); “Practice of Everyday Life”, Aomori Contemporary Art Centre (2011); “Tokyo Story”, Tokyo Wonder Site (2010); and the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale, Niigata (2009).
Murakami’s work is based on her in-depth research into the history of the photographic medium and the development of photography, such as alternative techniques and letterpress printing.
The photograph as a retina
For the exhibition, Taka Ishii Gallery published a 48-page catalogue in which Murakami wrote a text for each series of work in the show, presenting anecdotes and interesting facts about the early days of photographic technology as well as her own personal impressions and experiences with the medium. Her works thus, as Taka Ishii Gallery writes in the press release, “produce situations in which truth and fiction and historical fact and contemporary hypothesis are knotted together”.
Opening the catalogue is the following quote by Murakami:
Every photograph may be a retina. Regardless of the period in which the photograph was produced, each one of this is a scene or its fragment as it was projected onto the retina. An image may be fixed on a piece of paper, or a silver-plated copper sheet, a glass plate, a fragment of film, or on electronic medium. In all cases, it is a materialization of a scene that was once projected onto the retina and then disappeared.
An amber-colored light shines through. A retina collides with the world and the distance between them is totally obliterated. Or, it was rather the world that collided with the retina. Anyhow, the distance has disappeared. ANTICAMERA. Between the eyelid and the retina, time has been suspended.
The exhibited work is inspired by the colour photography process of the autochrome, developed by the Lumière brothers, patented in 1903 and first marketed in France in 1907. The autochrome was the principal colour photography process in use before the advent of subtractive colour film in the mid-1930s. The medium used a glass plate coated on one side with a mosaic of microscopic grains of potato starch dyed red, green and blue.
The resulting images featured a grainy appearance, which reminded Murakami of the painting technique of post-impressionist pointillism, digital photography pixels and the visual cells of the eye’s retina. Quoted in the exhibition catalogue, Murakami writes:
I had heard about photographs made of potatoes and thought it strangely intriguing. More precisely, they were color photographs made with potato starch. In fact, when examined closely, glass plate “autochromes” also reveal grains of colored starch in the image’s details, resembling pointillist paintings. The array of starch, artificially colored in red, blue, and green, is said to be identical to that of visual cells in the human retina.
Murakami created her abstract photographs by processing and printing from autochromes plates that had been unused for over a century. The artist makes an analogy between the plates and the human retina, describing the autochrome plate as “a space that images pass through”. In the catalogue, Murakami goes on to recount:
I planned to obtain unused, dry autochrome plates produced around 100 years ago, process it as is, and make prints from the results. A carefully packaged and very old fashioned box arrived. I opened the box in the darkroom and realized that time does not exist inside this box. The four sheets of retina inside knew nothing of the world outside or the passage of time. The fragments of retina, exposed to the world for the first time, transformed the accumulation of darkness into color.
Transforming light into colour
In her series “APPARITION (OF THE SUN)”, Murakami reproduced images that she found through an Internet search for the word ‘sun’. The first step involved the reproduction of such images as daguerrotypes – the first commercialised photographic process invented by Louis-Jaques-Mandé Daguerre and introduced worldwide in 1839. Her daguerrotypes capture the sun with its flares and sunspots, images which did not exist in the mid-19th century when the technique was used.
Through this process, Murakami created a bridge between past and present. On the one hand, the artist attempts to bring the photographic image back to its ancestral past, by using an old technique, while on the other, as Taka Ishii writes, she
simultaneously addresses the notion of veracity essential to photography and film to function as a magnetic field in which the beginning and end of a medium are looped in coexistence.
Photography as suspension of time
Murakami’s analogy between the autochrome technique and the functioning of the human eye extends into various aspects of the photographic process used in her work. She compares the paper used to wrap the dry autochrome plates to the eyelid, whose function is to prevent light from hitting the retina.
In Murakami’s work, truth and fiction, past and present intertwine, giving life to abstract scapes that result from reflections of images and light, filters of everyday scenes suspended in time. In the catalogue, Murakami concludes:
Time has been suspended. In this state, the present is as ephemeral as a mayfly. The sun, reflected in the silver-plated retina, will disappear just the moment it is touched.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- Monochrome and Minimalism: 6 Dansaekhwa artists in New York – May 2016 – New York exhibition at Blum & Poe compares and contrasts the Korean art form Dansaekhwa with American Minimalism
- “Another World”: Vietnamese artist Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai at Berlin’s Künstlerhaus Bethanien – April 2016 – the result of her recent residency in Berlin, Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai’s latest project explores the anonymity of a migrant’s life in a new city
- “Each piece is a puzzle”: Japanese-American cut paper artist Lauren Iida – artist profile – April 2016 – fragile paper cutaways capture Japanese-American artist Lauren Iida’s cross-cultural wanderings and family’s incarceration
- Fragmented beauty: Japan’s Yuichi Ikehata – artist profile – March 2016 – Japanese artist Yuichi Ikehata’s surreal images examine series of recollections through deconstructed sculptures
- Vulgarity and the sacred: Japan’s ceramic artist Katsuyo Aoki – artist profile – February 2016 – a sense of romance and reverence in contemporary ceramist Katsuyo Aoki’s ethereal masterpieces
Subscribe to Art Radar for more on Japanese contemporary art