Private Room II at Art Tower Mito

by Monty DiPietro

There is a particular facial expression appearing in more and more youth-targeted advertising imagery recently. The countenances of models are being fashioned beyond the always-cool jaded look and into a sort of studied and unapologetic show of empty intensity. "I may have nothing on my mind," the far-away eyes seem to say, "but mine is an especially deep nothing." It is an engaging and intriguing face, and Kansai-based photographer Kaori Yamamoto wears it well.

Like most of the ten artists participating in the Art Tower Mito photography exhibition "Private Room II," Yamamoto has turned her camera on the atmosphere of the times. Yamamoto’s "Room of Love" series of black and white self-portraits find the 23 year-old posing in a wide variety of personas in a wide variety of love hotels. In one shot Yamamoto is a pony-tailed innocent kneeling on a bed, while in another the office lady uniform suggests an after-work tryst. Even when Yamamoto poses as pregnant in one of her lusciously-toned prints, that postmodern detachment is still all over her soft round face. If they are intended to comment on the superficiality of contemporary sexual relationships, Yamamoto’s pictures, all of which are mounted in distressed metal frames, succeed.

That they are so elaborately staged and carefully printed sets Yamamoto’s photos apart from most of the other work in this surprisingly diverse show. All the photographers are females in their twenties or early thirties – some of the best of Japan’s "onna no ko shashinka," a label usually mistranslated into English as "girlie photographers."

Among the hundreds of pictures are selections from pioneer Yurie Nagashima’s family portraits, Aiko Nakano’s work with focus and movement, Keiko Nomura’s Okinawa landscapes, and more bra-and-panties portraits from Maki Miyashita. Each of the photographers has her own room at the Ibaragi Prefecture art complex, which, with its high ceilings and good balance of natural and artificial light, looks great as always. Each of the rooms has a distinctive mood, Mikiko Hara’s installation or Jun Kanno’s slide show, for example, and this adds to the exhibition’s appeal. It is also nice to see the work of different artists diverging from what was, a few years ago, a fairly simple formula.

More than anyone else, critic Kohtaro Iizawa is responsible for making the print-club generation snapshot girls into the media darlings they became at the start of the decade when Nagashima and the then-teenaged Hiromix were leading the new movement. Shot with an autofocus compact camera, developed at the local photo kiosk and blown-up on color copiers, Hiromix’s slice-of-life pictures of herself, her apartment, her friends, and so on, gave us an up-close (if out of focus) look at what it was to be a girl. The pictures suggested that girls spent a lot of time in their underwear, pouting, which was a perfect hook for the male-controlled media. Iizawa instructed us to think about the photographers’ "light, yet wild and daring style" as a sort of folk art for the 1990s. The question that lingers is, who hooked who?

A few years later the Iizawa-edited 1996 photobook "Shutter and Love – Girls are Dancin’ on in Tokyo" has become an historical reference. As trends go, the entire movement seems played out. The girls have become women, growing into what might be more appropriately termed "Jopan shashinka," or "Japanese women photographers."

The exhibition is rounded out with Rika Noguchi’s moody monochromes, Mika Ninagawa’s colorful pictures of Mexican streetscenes, and a refreshing twist – Satomi Shirai’s sexploitation of her boyfriend (touché, Araki!). In an essay attendant to "Private Room II," Iizawa notes that the photographers "are progressively changing and actively involved in photographic expression in multiple ways. The framework of their expression called ‘girlie photo’ now appears to be discarded like taken-off clothes."

While it is unlikely they could address social issues, for example, with the same approach used for the non-moment lifestyle pictures that first brought them to the public’s attention, "Private Room II" illustrates the some "Jopan shashinka" are attempting to adapt their original immediacy in new and more involved work.

And that is an encouraging sign from a good exhibition.


notes: On to June 6, 1999 (029-227-8111).
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