A touring exhibition looks at the work of postwar Japanese photographers and members of the historic Provoke magazine.
Now still on show at Le Bal in Paris, the exhibition will move to the Art Institute of Chicago in 2017, and includes the work of renowned Japanese photographers who founded and published their work in the iconic Provoke magazine in the 1960s and 1970s.
“PROVOKE: Between Protest and Performance. Photography in Japan 1960-1975” is on show at Le Bal in Paris until 11 December 2016. Previously, it was on display at Albertina in Vienna, Fotomuseum Winterhur in Zurich and will move to the Art Institute of Chicago from 28 January until 30 April 2017, whose permanent collection makes up 60 percent of the entire exhibition.
The show is produced and organised as a collaboration between all these institutions, and the support of more than 40 international lenders, artists, collectors, museums and galleries. A publication by Steidl accompanies the exhibition, edited by co-curators Diane Dufour and Matthew Witkovsky, who curated the show with Duncan Forbes and Walter Moser.
The exhibition focuses on photography in Japan created between 1960 and 1975, and particularly on the work of the founders and other photographers involved in the publication of Provoke, a short-lived Tokyo-based magazine now recognised as a major achievement in world photography of the last 50 years. The magazine was only published in three issues, on 1 November 1968, and 10 March and 10 August 1969, each in an edition of 1,000 copies. The founders of the magazine were the collective of photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira, critic Kōji Taki and writer Takahiko Okada. Photographer Daidō Moriyama joined with the second issue.
The subtitle to the magazine of Provocative Materials for Thought came from the idea that visual images cannot completely represent an idea as words can, yet photographs can provoke language and ideas, as magazine founders Takanashi, Nakahira, Taki and Okada, wrote in the foreword to the first issue of Provoke:
Today, at this very moment, language is losing its material basis—in other words, its reality—and floating in space. We as photographers must capture with our own eyes fragments of reality that can no longer be grasped through existing language, and must actively put forth materials that address language and ideas. This is why we have been so bold as to give Provoke the subtitle Provocative Materials for Thought.
Divided into three sections, the exhibition defines photography as performative, both in a political and artistic sense. The first section entitled “Protest” sets the emergence of Provoke against a backdrop of the ongoing protests of the time. Part II introduces the three issues of Provoke, focusing on their belief in the ephemerality of photographic vision and its grounding in the performative presence of the photographer. Part III looks at performance and how photography of the time became both a variant of Japanese performance art and a means to document it.
The magazine collected examples of protest photography, vanguard fine art and critical theory of postwar era Japan, combined with the use of innovative graphic design and provocatively “poor” materials such as in some Japanese protest books of the time. These books started to come out around 1960 in conjunction with the country’s first large-scale protests, mobilised against the 1960 renewal of the United States-Japan alliance.
The protests, many of which were student-led, developed further in the late 1960s, culminating in 1969-1971, generating a wave of protest photobooks and photographic prints, including the aforementioned innovative graphic design involving photography: serialised imagery, gripping text-image combinations, dynamic cropping, with an alternation of provocatively “poor” materials such as rough paper and low-resolution printing with gatefolds and odd trim sizes.
Provoke members created their contribution to the protest movement, although they claimed that protest photography was exhausted, and asserted the impossibility of effecting lasting change through direct political action. Leading historian of Japanese photobooks and former curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography Ryuichi Kaneko (1956-2013) wrote something that had resonated within their practice:
If I can change my mind, if I can change myself, then my photographs can change those looking at the photograph.
The anti-establishment magazine showed a deep connection to the protesters and their ideas. While it brought out in the discussion both the state and its dissenting subjects, it showed the same dissatisfaction with consumer capitalism as the protesters did.
Provoke shone against a society saturated by mass media and the uncontrolled transformation of urban space, yet it also radically criticised the group dynamics of protest movements, like others in the creative sphere did, such as the architectural collective Metabolism, the performance Fluxus group Hi-Red Center or Shuji Terayama’s Tenjo Sajiki troupe (one of his street performances is also on show).
Hi-Red Center, who blurred the line between photodocumentation and live works involving photography among other media, and dance performers such as Tatsumi Hijikata and Shuji Terayama inspired photographers at that time to include an element of performance in their work. The ephemerality of performance was reflected in how photobooks and photographs were then seen: as contingent things.
Daidō Moriyama, Takuma Nakahira and Nobuyoshi Araki became interested in the 1970s in making darkroom activity and other processes of print creation into a visible and active part of photographic creation, as the curators explain, inspired by performers and performance artists. The influence was exercised both ways, as following Provoke photographers, Jiro Takamatsu (a memeber of Hi-Red Center) and Kōji Enokura (of Mono Ha) turned to photoconceptual art, as seen in their series in the exhibition. Enokura wrote, quoted in the press release:
I take photographs for no other reason than to experience the tension that exists between objects and myself, using the camera—the optical machine— as a mediator.
In the show is also work by the most internationally recognised photographer of the time, Eikō Hosoe, whose psychological images explored intriguing subjects like death, erotic obsession and irrationality. In the 1960s, he also collaborated with avant-garde artists such as the dancer Tatsumi Hijikata.
Inspiration for the work by Provoke members also came from photographer Shōmei Tōmatsu, whose images are also on view. Perhaps the most influential Japanese photographer of the postwar era, his documentary work included an element of the surreal, capturing a postwar country in flux. As the press release to the exhibition reads,
Provoke members responded to the precedents set by photographer Tōmatsu Shōmei, as regards the relation of photography to language, and the need to question the subject position of anyone engaged in ‘reporting’ on the times. In magazine and book projects that stretch over roughly a decade – far longer than the quick life of Provoke itself – members of the group acted to take apart subjectivity and to keep photography, and language, in a state of perpetual development: words and images in formation, engaging yet resisting a world dominated by information.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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