Daido Moriyama at the Taka Ishii Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

About twenty years ago, while photographer Daido Moriyama and print-and-poster-maker extrordinaire Tadanori Yokoo were visiting New York City, the two Japanese artists were presented with the opportunity to get together with Andy Warhol. But Moriyama was too shy, he says, and so passed up on the chance.

"Shy" is a word that is closely associated – in the Japanese language anyway – with "embarrassed." And while it is difficult to imagine a tough-guy like Moriyama being shy about meeting the retiring Warhol, it is nearly impossible to see how the 62 year-old photographer could be anything but embarrassed about his latest show, "Rafflesia," which is probably the most blatant appropriation of Warhol’s work that this reviewer has ever seen.

I look around for some sort of acknowledgement or sign indicating that the show is a homage to Warhol, or that the works have been executed with permission of his estate. Perhaps there is a cryptic message somewhere ("après M. W.") which would at least hint a debt to the dead Pop artist. But no, not a nod, not a wink.

So finally, I decide to ask Moriyama for the word.

"Well, I like Warhol," he says, "but I’ve been doing silkscreens for a long time…"

There are 17 of Moriyama’s silkscreens on the Taka Ishii Gallery’s south wall. Fifteen feature the same image of a flower, printed in purple on green, red on turquoise, or gray on green, and arranged in sequence in a tight five-by-three rectangle. The artist has chosen as his subject the Rafflesia, a foul-smelling flower with five petals that is found in Indonesia, and which lends its name to the exhibition title. Over the pattern of "Rafflesia" pictures, Moriyama has push-pinned two slightly larger (70x88cm) prints he calls "Josei" (woman), which depict a female accident victim’s battered and dead face. Both sets of silkscreens are 1999 works, and both are rendered flat and cold by the two-color screening process.

"Chilling" might be a better word than "cold" to describe the "Josei" prints, which were made from photographs Moriyama shot of images he found in a local magazine, the title of which he does not recall. Actually, the artist just laughs when I ask him the name of the magazine, as if this were a totally superfluous point, which maybe it is. What is not quite superfluous is that Warhol, almost 40 years ago, was doing exactly the same thing with his "disaster" series. It was a couple of years later that Warhol introduced his "flower" screens.

C’mon Daido.

"No, this isn’t a tribute to Andy Warhol," a Taka Ishii staff member assures me when I call the gallery a few days later, just to make double sure, "they are original works by Moriyama."

The pock-marked Moriyama sports a longish 1950s slicked-back hairdo that smells of pomade, and he is wearing a pair of flared black polyester trousers over black "Beatle boot" footwear featuring that U-shaped elastic insert over the ankle. Combined with his prominent gut, the look truthfully suggests that he would be a darn fine addition to someone’s Saturday night ten-pin bowling team. At the Taka Ishii’s low-key opening party, Moriyama is smoking Peace cigarettes and signing autographs for a cadre of fans who were not born when Warhol made the works their idol has ripped-off. One of the books he is signing is "Fragments," an excellent collection of black and white photographs published two years ago to coincide with Moriyama’s Parco Gallery exhibition, which was one of the best "in-the-moment" photography exhibitions to show in Tokyo that year. What, I ask him, is the deal with this show?

"I guess it’s sort of half-work and half-fun to do these sort of prints," he replies, "it’s not a new direction for me, just a new show."

Daido Moriyama is one of Japan’s best photographers, and his pictures have had a strong influence on the work of this country’s young photographers for decades. While "Rafflesia" is an embarrassing step in the wrong direction for this talented artist, we can of course be confident that he is intelligent enough to realize this.

By all means keep an eye open for future exhibitions, but it might be best to give "Rafflesia" a miss.


notes: "Rafflesia" is showing at the Taka Ishii gallery (3-27-6 Kita Otsuka, Toshima Ward, Tokyo, 3915-7784) until Oct 9, 1999.
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