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Taiji Matsue at the Taro Nasu

by Monty DiPietro

On the wall is a field of 24 monochrome prints, light gray in tone, arranged in an eight by three horizontal grid. From a distance, the pictures all appear to be similar. They look a little like simple texture shots—you know, burlap, canvas, that sort of thing. But step a little closer to Taiji Matsue’s installation and the whole world begins to emerge.

The intriguing photographic installation is now up at the Taro Nasu Gallery, a tidy but adventurous art space located in an old, ex-rice market of a building marooned just across the Sumida river in a slice of Tokyo’s Koto Ward that time seems to have forgotten.

The unusual setting is wholly appropriate, for Matsue’s work stands among that most rare and wonderful class of contemporary art photography: work that starts out as nothing more than what it is, and yet comes to communicate much more. In this case, what is on the wall are landscapes, but what the pictures accomplish is the creation of an atmosphere which transcends perspective altogether.

One’s eye may start to play tricks here, with the mind identifying the images alternately as vast landscapes or macro photography done in a sandbox. Certainly, many of the pictures appear to be aerial photographs, but strictly speaking they are not. These studies of open country have all been snapped from terrestrial vantage points in the dozens of countries Matsue has visited in search of his art.

Look at the pictures of California, Iran, or Sweden, and the topographical differences present themselves. In one photograph bales of hay sit in a field; in the next, sand dunes, dotted with wild sagebrush, stretch to infinity. And then there are the trees, many, many, trees.

Matsue has been doing this sort of work for about five years now. With his large-format cameras in tow, the artist seeks out the optimum vantage point and atmospheric conditions from which to capture the plains and hills and valleys and mountains that are his subjects. Often he shoots from the top of a cliff at midday, sometimes from the side of an adjacent mountain.

A six-panel work, "Japan" (1999), leads the viewer’s eye across a tree-covered mountain range. There is a wonderful combination here, as in all of Matsue’s work, of and conceptual savvy and technical ability.

Matsue did not start out wanting to be an artist, he was initially inclined to the sciences, and studied at the University of Tokyo’s Department of Geography. Today he is living proof that while you can take the boy out of the science department, you can’t entirely take the science department out of the boy. Slightly, oh, how to put this, "square" looking, Matsue’s singular vision may have something to do with the fact that he is not a denizen of the Tokyo gallery scene. He lives and works in Kanagawa Prefecture. That is, when he is not out scaling a cliff in the Andes in pursuit of yet another perfect panorama.

"Taking each picture presents its own set of challenges," says the artist at his well-attended opening reception. "But I think that the details are some of the most important things." Here Matsue reaches forward to point at what appear to be some rocks in the foreground of the Iranian view. I look closer. Those aren’t rocks, I realize, they’re goats. Matsue smiles. And yet another level of perception is opened. I find fish circulating in the shallow, nearly invisible water in one picture, and in another, the size of a few pinheads with legs, is a pack of wild dogs. I could look at these pictures all day.

Matsue, 36, is a rising star on Tokyo’s contemporary art scene because his work succeeds on so many levels. As one’s gaze drifts in and out from the pictures, it can become impossible to decide just where the view is from, and what it is of. And there is a certain freedom in that, which unites the work in a one-world totality, if you like. This, along with the commitment to the process of taking these pictures, is what emerges as the really wonderful thing about Matsue’s body of work. The current Taro Nasu Gallery show provides the best opportunity yet to see what this artist is capable of. Well worth a look.

Notes: Taiji Matsue is at the Taro Nasu Gallery (1-8-13 Saga, Koto Ward, 03-3630-7759), until May 13, 1999. Pictured is: "Japan" (1999), (detail), by Taiji Matsue, silver bromide print.
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