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Chiho Miyamoto at Gallery Chika

by Monty DiPietro

How I love to drift off to sleep in cars and on trains. But invariably, when the vehicle stops, I wake up. Someone once told me that the reason moving cars and trains are so soporific is because they subconsciously remind us of the time we spent inside our first-ever mode of transport, which was, of course, the womb.

Talk about a free ride! Those were the days, well, they must have been, anyway. When I try to envision myself way back at the start of it all, I don't want to picture a gooey glob floating in a sack of placenta. In my imagined womb scrapbook, I would much prefer to find the dreamy visions of Chiho Miyamoto.

Miyamoto, 32, is a Kanagawa-based artist now in with a jewel of a show at Gallery Chika, a great but almost impossible to find little spot in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward. The exhibition, part of the Chika's annual "Vision" showcase series, comprises three new, large (90x180cm) photographic works, and an installation of 12 smaller (36x36cm) pieces from the same series. These principle works are photographs the artist took of a newborn baby (sans goo), and they are mounted in white wooden display boxes which are fronted by thick sheets of semi-transparent plexiglas, producing the soft-focus, looking-into-another-world atmosphere that makes this work so engaging.

Further contributing to the ethereal effect is Miyamoto's choice not to photograph the entire baby -- we never see more than a larger-than-life eye, or ear, or clutch of fingers. Also, there are no discernable backgrounds in the pictures, just a wash of white, and no other contextual clues -- no clothing, no cute pink ribbons in the hair, etc. Aside from the fact that the baby is fair-skinned, we can not determine gender, we cannot determine race. It could even be you. What we can experience here is an abstraction on existence.

This is an entirely new avenue for Miyamoto, who did her graduate study (in oil painting) at the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Aside from her capable abstract painting, in the past Miyamoto has also done microphotography of botanical subjects, and Hockney-like photomontages of plants and various other objects found in everyday life. The artist traces the inspiration for the current work to her twin sister, a museum curator in Ehime Prefecture who recently had a baby of her own.

"I would have worked with my sister's baby," explains Miyamoto, "but I couldn't get down to Ehime in time so I used my Tokyo school friend's baby instead. It was long process, sometimes I would photograph the baby sleeping and other times when it was awake. I decided to put the pictures behind the plexiglas partly to invoke the mystery of life, and partly because I didn't want the pieces to necessarily look like photographs." (Actually, at first glance the pictures, which are a mixture of C-Type and digital process prints, look very much as if they might be paintings.)

Filling out the show are a couple of unframed pictures which really only seem to illustrate the wisdom of mounting the other pieces behind the plexiglas. Also here is what I think is a problematic bunch of cut-up pictures, these stuck up in a sort of random pastiche on one of the gallery walls. This bit is jarring in its bulletin board-style clutter, and comes off as amateurish in comparison with the rest of the room, which is so clean and well-presented -- I think the exhibition would have looked better without it. Fortunately, the busy wall is in the far end of the L-shaped Chika, while the principle pieces are displayed in the bigger part of the room and as such they can be experienced on their own.

What I think the very talented Miyamoto has accomplished with this show is a compelling revisitation of the genesis. This is a soothing, beautiful body of work that in a mysterious way leads the viewer toward a communication with the deepest of personal memories.

Notes: Chiho Miyamoto is showing until March 16 2002 at Gallery Chika (2-21-3 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3449-9271. Gallery hours are 12 p.m -7 p.m. (until 6 p.m. on Sundays, public holidays and on the last day, March 16), closed Mondays.
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