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A Kiss in the Dark at the Tokyo Museum of Photography

by Monty DiPietro

            When I spoke with curator Michiko Kasahara about the Tokyo Museum of Photography's new exhibition, "A Kiss in the Dark," the first thing she wanted to explain was the show's rather intriguing title. From her catalogue essay:

"The metaphor concealed in the word 'kiss' is truly this sense of a presentiment of the unseen future. [The photographs in the show] reflect contemporary values. Extremely subtle, complicated, silent and tranquil, still, the works are charged with a slight fever, like a 'kiss in the dark.'" (Curiously, the English title preceded the Japanese version, Tesaguri ni kissu, which has a different nuance, something like "groping for a kiss.")

"A Kiss in the Dark" looks at where Japanese photography is headed, and, remarkably, it does this not by focusing on new media, computer graphics, or digital video; but rather by bringing together a group of artists whose reasons for making art, and maybe even their values, are, in Kasahara's opinion at least, informed by a set of sensibilities unique to the contemporary world. And, surprise, these are not a bunch of kids here -- most of the photographers are in their late thirties or early forties, their work, on the whole, refreshingly mature.

One of the eight participating artists is Takano Ryudai, who has brought a series of seven larger-than-life portraits of men. The good-looking fellows are all standing, facing the camera, hamming sexy poses, even. And, they are naked.

How, you might ask, did pictures featuring male full frontal nudity get on a museum wall in Japan? Simple, Ryudai took a blade to them -- the pictures, not the men. Each of the portraits is actually a composite of two separate shots, with the hips as the bisection point. Members were held up for the lower body shots, and down in the upper body shots. Kasahara then mounted the two halves of the final works with a razor-thin, back lighted gap between them, creating a weirdly disjointed body of work that just barely skirts this country's censorship laws, and in doing so, succeeds famously in mocking the 19th century mentality that maintains these standards.

What happened to the snipped-out bits?

"Since I did not have the heart to throw away the penises I left out of my works," says Ryudai, "I pasted them on the backs of each of the prints." No, it isn't possible to peer behind the pictures for a peek, although a visitor I observed seemed to be giving it her best try.

Go Watanabe's traveled the world to assemble his truly fascinating series of border photographs. These are not what you might expect, nowhere are there the uniformed guards and gates and checkpoints widely associated with borders. Actually, there are hardly any people in any of the works. Instead, Watanabe's picture of the Swiss/French frontier features a nice little bungalow on one side of country road, and a bunch of grazing cows on the other. A wooden stick in the ground marks the place where a field in Austria becomes a field in Hungary. There are walls, though -- a battered tin fence closes America off from Mexico, and a tall, reinforced concrete wall divides Catholic Belfast and Protestant Belfast.

Another somber globetrotter is Tomoko Yoneda, whose World War II-related work brings us to places such as Hitler's Nuremberg hotel room, the kitchen in Stalin's boyhood home, and MacArthur's Tokyo command center.

I particularly enjoyed Asako Narahashi's contribution, a set of pictures taken while standing chest-deep in the ocean, facing the shoreline. The work is vague, we don't really get a sense of where we are; and yet it is quite evocative, as it brings the viewer to uncertain perspectives -- are we about to slip under the surface of the undulating water?

            Blurry buildings by Miyuki Ichikawa, disused factory interiors by Shinichiro Kobayashi, Ryoko Suzuki's tortured self-portraits, and some really engaging and well-composed manipulated crowd shots by Makiko Koie round out the show.

"A Kiss in the Dark" is a thoughtful, above average exhibition -- far meatier than the fun, point-and-shoot stuff we've gotten used to seeing in Tokyo photography shows.

Notes: "Kiss in the Dark - Contemporary Japanese Photography" is at the Tokyo Museum of Photography (3280-0099) to Nov 25 2002.
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