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Takeshi Honda at Gallery Gan

by Monty DiPietro

Japanese cultural life has long revolved around the changing of the seasons in particular, and around nature in general. Or has it? There has been much discussion of the differences between Japanese sensibilities toward nature and those generally held by Westerners. It is interesting to note that, when used to indicate nature, the word "shizen" is something of a neologism, first employed in the early 19th century as a translation of the Dutch "natuur." Previous to this time the Japanese tended to use only specific terms for specific natural phenomena.

Hence, "Against Nature: Japanese Art in the Eighties," one of the most important Japanese modern art exhibitions, was less about this nation's relentless covering of riverbanks in concrete than the seemingly ironic attitudes toward nature one finds in this place of awe-inspiringly beautiful countrysides, and nose-pinchingly ugly cities.

They cut down one of the few remaining trees in my neighborhood a few weeks ago, to install a tower of surveillance cameras. Meanwhile, the growing number of unsightly homeless living in the three little parks nearby prompted the city to first pave the parks over, and then, when the wretched souls somehow adopted to what was intended to be an inhospitable environment, to fence the parks off altogether. Now they are a no-man's land, receptacles for litter that is thrown over the fences. It is my guess that one day they might be cleaned up and landscaped, but that the fences will remain. Maybe the enclosures will be called "nature spaces." Look, but don't touch,

With nature pushed beyond the direct experience of most Japanese, we are seeing a sort of revival of nature painting here, but with a twist: These are not color-and-light-filled pictures celebrating nature's beauty, but rather dark black views mourning its disappearance. A sort of post-modern, defeatist Impressionism.

Takeshi Honda takes walks in the forest near his home in Tono, a small town in northwestern Japan, and takes pictures of the trees, leaves, and streams there. Working from his photographs, he 43year-old artist creates the large charcoal on paper drawings that are his life's work. A selection of about a dozen mostly new Honda pieces are now showing at the Gallery Gan in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward.

Honda titles each of his pictures "A Walk in the Mountains," this followed by the month in which he took the photograph he worked from. Using this time reference, one can sometimes trace the seasons through visual information such as foliage, or whether there are leaves on the trees. In contrast to the airy style of traditional Chinese-style Japanese monochrome ink painting, these are heavy, dense pictures. Some of his works are several meters high and wide, yet there are very few white spaces left when Honda has finished a piece, which can take several months in the case of the larger works.

Like Hiroshi Sugimoto's moody monochrome seascape photographs, which are taken from carefully chosen vantage points with exposure times that can last from a couple of hours to an entire day, Honda's work communicates a dedication to process and subject that approaches meditation. And, for city dwellers anyway, this can trigger a weird longing for an imagined past, an "it's is a sad and beautiful world" pathos. By this I mean that the more intimate Honda's relationship with the changing seasons and nature is, the more divorced we realize we are from these same things.

Also worth mentioning is a concurrent show in a similar vein, which finds new black and white photographs by Seiji Shinohara at Gallery Art Space, also in Shibuya. Shinohara travels around Japan with a large format camera, photographing inside forests. Unlike Honda, whose pictures seldom seem to have a single point of focus, Shinohara generally takes a path running through the woods as the central compositional element for his pictures. This makes the images a little lighter, inviting even. There is the hint of a feeling here that maybe man can live with nature. In the final analysis however, partly because they are monochrome prints, Shinohara's work also brings that atmosphere of apartness that seems to prevail in the Japanese view of nature these days.


Takeshi Honda is showing to April 27 at Gallery Gan (5-51-3 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-5468-6311. Seiji Shinohara is showing to April 26 at Gallery Art Space (3-7-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3402-7385)
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