As the latest exhibition of Daido Moriyama draws to a close, Art Radar traces the photographer’s most recent work.
Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris launched a major show of the Japanese photographer’s most recent work in February 2016. Charting some of Moriyama’s most significant oeuvre of the past decade, the exhibition brings to the fore the artist’s lesser-known colour photography as well as a new body of commissioned work.
Back in 2003, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris held Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama’s first major survey exhibition in France, featuring more than 200 of his photographs dating from the 1960s to the present. The show, which was organised in collaboration with the artist, included some of his most significant series of work, including Platform (1977), Light and Shadow (1981-82), Hysteric (1992), Polaroid Polaroid (1997) and Shinjuku (2002).
Twelve years on, Fondation Cartier is holding one of Moriyama’s most inspirational exhibitions entitled “Daido Tokyo” (6 February – 5 June 2016), focusing on his most recent works including a large number of colour photographs – a departure from the artist’s trademark style of black-and-white.
For the exhibition, Fondation Cartier has also commissioned a new work entitled Dog and Mesh Tights, an immersive multiscreen projection of black-and-white photographs with a soundtrack of urban noise. The images were shot in Hong Kong, Taipei, Arles, Houston and Los Angeles between July 2014 and March 2015, and as The Guardian writes, are all
a version of Moriyama’s Tokyo: a gritty, grimy, rundown, shadowy everywhere in which even the most prosaic subject matter – electric heaters, pipes, footprints, fabric, cats, telegraph poles, shop signs – take on an air of alien otherness.
A “snapshot aesthetic”
Daido Moriyama (b. 1938, Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture) trained as a graphic designer and started work as a freelance industrial designer in 1958. During his work, he came across photographer Takeji Iwajima in his studio and was fascinated by his practice and the world of photography, to the point of giving up his job and becoming an apprentice in his studio. Moriyama then moved to Toyo in 1961, with the hope of joining the VIVO Agency, a radical collective of contemporary photojournalists, which included, among others, Shomei Tomatsu and Eikoh Hosoe, who exerted a profound influence on Moriyama’s work.
His arrival coincided with the group’s decision to disband, nevertheless he was still able to work as assistant to Hosoe, one of the first Japanese photographers to be recognised internationally. Moriyama was, like Hosoe, fascinated by the bizarre character of the underworld of Japanese street life and its urban grit, while he also learned Tomatsu’s sense of the theatrical and the erotic.
In addition to home-bred influences, Moriyama also drew inspiration from American photographers William Klein and Robert Frank and their action-oriented street photography. He adapted his style to this more dynamic approach, creating, as Fondation Cartier writes,
often out of focus, vertiginously tilted, or invasively cropped […] images [that] convey a sense of the disordered human condition.
The chaotic everyday life of post-war Japan showed through Moriyama’s photographs, and in his first publication entitled Japan: A Photo Theater (1968), the disjunctive nature of Japan’s urban experience laid bare the artist’s fascination with the strange, the unusual and the extraordinary. Quoted by Fondation Cartier, Moriyama has said:
My underlying thought was to show how in the most common and everyday, in the world of most normal people, in their most normal existence, there is something dra- matic, remarkable, fictional. This kind of chaotic everyday existence is what I think Japan is all about.
His unique aesthetic of capturing fleeting, secretive moments was inspired by Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: Moriyama’s photographic style reflected the outsider’s point of view of the author’s rambling voice in the novel. He started to shoot pictures in any moment he felt like it, such as in a moving car, or while running, photographing in haste, as if taking pictures in secret, without looking through the viewfinder, turning the camera in all directions, even towards himself. Describing his photographic method, Moriyama has stated:
I turn to the right and photograph a poster, then, I turn around and photograph the street. Sometimes I even turn the camera on myself. I do so without discrimination and without any internal contradiction.
Moriyama’s dilemma of working with a ‘transparent medium’ unable to convey a fixed meaning was expressed in his iconic publication Farewell Photography (1972), which questioned the very nature of representation, as Fondation Cartier writes,
expressing a nihilistic doubt in our capacity to ever fully grasp reality through its photographic representation. The artist suggests that there is no one natural reality available to express our beliefs and sensations.
In Moriyama’s images, the real and the fictional are blurred, and the only true reality is perhaps found in the act of photographing itself.
Tokyo’s urban decadence: Shinjuku
While his distinct style has been recognised for its grainy black-and-white aesthetic, Moriyama has also worked with colour photography, which he started to experiment with in the 1970s. With the arrival of the digital, his interest in colour grew until by the early 2000s he was shooting only in colour and then converting his images to black-and-white. Among his thousands of images produced between 2008 and 2015, he kept many in colour, a number of which are on show at the Fondation Cartier.
Moriyama does not consider colour and black-and-white as two opposites; rather he finds them complementary. He says, as quoted by Fondation Cartier:
The black and white tells about my inner worlds, my emotions and deep feelings that I feel every day walking through the streets of Tokyo or other cities, as a vagabond aimlessly. The color describes what I meet without any filters, and I like to record the instant for the way it looks to me. The first one is rich in contrast, is harsh and fully reflects my solitary nature. The second one is polite, gentle, as I set myself towards the world.
In his interview with The Guardian, Moriyama clarifies:
Black and white work is closer to what I consider the essence of photography, whereas the colour photographs are much more about the experience of being in the streets. They are an attempt to give the experience of actually encountering the overload of posters and signs and advertisements as you wander though the city.
His colour series is mostly shot in Tokyo’s Shinjuku, a major administrative and commercial centre and home of the artist since decades. Moriyama’s relationship to his neighbourhood is visceral, as he writes in his poetic catalogue essay:
Wandering around, enveloped in the vaguely violent atmosphere, I persuade myself that it is my duty as a photographer to photograph Shinjuku without shrinking back. Why? Because no other seedy neighborhood is quite like the shambles of Shinjuku. […] For street photographers like me, those who stand on Tokyo’s asphalt with camera in hand, it would be inconceivable to look elsewhere, to ignore Shinjuku as it presents itself to us, this Pandora’s box brim-full of modern myths.
After living there for 40 years, the photographer still finds Shinjuku enigmatic, and his obsession for it grows stronger everyday:
The fierce fixation for this neighborhood I have periodically fostered over the nearly forty years since could never be compared with any other. The more chimeric and labyrinthine it is, the more powerfully its enigmatic magnetism captures me.
Moriyama has been returning to some of the same corners over and over again, photographing them various times, like a coffee shop on a dirty street corner, which reminds him of the gritty urban atmosphere of the city – an image that he can also smell, just by looking at it.
Through his images, the photographer also attempts to capture the timeless character of Shinjuku, which according to him
appears sometimes as a giant stage backdrop, sometimes as an expanded gekiga, an eternal shantytown—even the far side, that area full of high-rise towers known as the new city center. Mysteriously, there is no sense of time: almost no trace of the passing of time can be found here, the time that every city experiences in its own way. […] this monster by the name of Shinjuku is spatially unfixed, temporally unclear. It is an uncanny creature that single-mindedly, repeatedly writhes and sloughs off its outer skin, and swallows everything in its path … except that, for some reason, it does not prey on time.
Moriyama goes on to talk about Shinjuku as a “living monster”, of which we can grasp a punching, striking portrait in his colour photographs of neons, dirty corners, posters and bizarre inhabitants:
The countless other neighborhoods that make up the huge metropolis of Tokyo sped through the gradual changes of the fifty-plus years since the end of the war and, before our own eyes, have now been reduced to white, hygienic, sterile landscapes … but Shinjuku is still there in its primary colors, a living, writhing monster.
Quoting himself in his essay, Moriyama recalls his early impressions of Shinjuku in a book he published, saying he “came to love this neighborhood” and “became obsessed with it. Shinjuku is imbued with a mystifying narcotic essence, and took me hostage with no possibility of escape.” And he concludes:
Light and shade, obverse and reverse, truth and falsehood: each accompanies the other. And just as blighted areas exist inside everyone’s heart, cities also need places of evil. An elusive labyrinth, a modern Babylon, scabrous, smarting, yet soothing. The fact that I am spellbound to shoot Shinjuku surely shows that we are one and the same.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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- The aesthetics of slum: Hema Upadhyay on urban displacement – January 2016 – Indian artist Hema Upadhyay’s installation works reflect on displacement and urbanisation, depicting city landscapes as a jubilant chaos
- ‘Beauté Congo’ at Fondation Cartier in Paris – in pictures – July 2015 – the Fondation Cartier in Paris unveils “Beauté Congo”, an intriguing exhibition that captures the development of Congolese art from the 1920s to present day
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