Medialogue at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography

by Monty DiPietro

"Do you like the title?" curator Hiromi Nakamura asked me several months ago while she was organizing "Medialogue," the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography’s current exhibition.

"Sure" I replied, not exactly sure what the neologism meant, but sensing that it promised something interactive. Having been advised by Nakamura that the exhibition would showcase young photographers working in new media, my curiosity and anticipation grew.

So I was a little disappointed when the show opened and I discovered that the soft-core studies of phornographer (my neologism) Nobuyoshi Araki sit at the center of "Medialogue - Photography in Japanese Contemporary Art ‘98," an otherwise excellent overview of the last ten years in Japanese photographic art.

On one of a dozen computer monitors arranged in the center of the airy exhibition room, visitors can watch as a young, short-haired, full-figured nude model, her eyes half-closed and one hand buried between her thighs, writhes on a hardwood floor. Other models are, predictably, bound. This constitutes Araki’s foray into new media.

Nakamura is one of the most intelligent and progressive curators in Japan. Why on earth did she include this sexist stuff in her exhibition?

"Well, Araki is very popular, so we needed him in the show," explains Nakamura, her voice betraying a hint of embarrassment hiding behind the rationalization. "Anyway, in Japan the line between pornography and art is very ambiguous."

Sadly, Nakamura is right. Araki is probably Japan’s best-known photographer and consequently a big draw. Enough said.

Those visiting the museum in pursuit of art are advised to look beyond these CD-ROMs and focus on the work of photographers such as Osamu James Nakagawa (b.1962), whose five 673x1016cm computer-processed photocollage prints bring the viewer into a startling confrontation with social issues in contemporary America. Born in New York City, Nakagawa divides his time between Tokyo and Texas. His international lifestyle affords Nakagawa a unique perspective on subjects as diverse as immigration, TV evangelists, and Godzilla.

"Spiritual Help," from the artist’s 1997 "TV Monitor" series features a distorted image of Billy Graham superimposed over the television screens in a Houston sports bar. The arms of patrons, originally raised in celebration of a basketball team’s victory, now seem to celebrate spiritual salvation.

"When I show in the United States I often get the comment that my work doesn’t look very Japanese," laughs Nakamura. "I usually respond ‘What do you want? Geisha? Mt. Fuji?’"

The "Mirage" video and crystal float glass stills of Mariko Mori do look very Japanese, as do the vivid, magically airbrushed digital photographs from Yukinori Tokoro’s fantasy series "Those who Believe in Evil-Looking Gods."

Amusing, documentary-style black and white photographs by Ko Yamada featuring the diminutive artist and his hulking roommate Robb King posed deadpan against a variety of backgrounds join the work of a dozen others in a well-balanced look at the exciting developments in photography in Japan over the last 10 years.

While Mimi Yokoo, Yasumasa Morimura and Hiromix are conspicuous in their absence, the omissions illustrate the breadth of good photography-based art currently being produced in this country. About half of the featured artists are post-baby boomers who grew up more familiar with cameras and television than brush and canvas, and many in this generation are now exploring the possibilities of new technologies. "Medialogue - Photography in Contemporary Japanese Art" neatly begins the chronology of a movement we’ll be seeing a lot more from in the future.

Incidently, none of the artists I spoke with at the opening (and few of the guests) cared much for Araki’s contribution.

notes: Until May 24, 1998 (3280-0031).
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