Highlight: Daido Moriyama ‘Shinjuku’

Daido Moriyama, Japan b.1938 / Shinjuku (from ‘filmograph 6’ series) 2003, printed 2014 / Gelatin silver photograph, open edition / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2014 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / © Daido Moriyama / Courtesy: Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

With the generous support of Michael Sidney Myer, the Gallery recently acquired this stunning black-and-white photograph by a Japanese artist known for his gritty, intense photographs of the streets of Tokyo.

A central figure in Japanese photography since the 1960s, Daido Moriyama is renowned for his distinctive visual style and his singular commitment to documenting the everyday life of a densely urbanised society. An autodidact, Moriyama began his career as an assistant to renowned photographer Eikoh Hosoe in 1961, and developed a practice that combined Hosoe’s and Shomei Tomatsu’s striking documents of postwar Japan with the influence of North American street photographers like Robert Frank and William Klein, the bohemian photo-narratives of Ed van der Elsken, and the emerging Pop style of Andy Warhol. On joining the group of photographers associated with experimental magazine Provoke in the late 1960s, he further honed his methodology to epitomise the group’s stark ‘are, bure, boke, kontempo’ (raw, blurred, out-of-focus, contemporary) style.

Moriyama’s early work evoked the sociopolitical turmoil in which Japanese society found itself in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when widespread dissatisfaction with the nation’s role in the Cold War led to street fighting, terrorism and factional unrest. During this period, Moriyama and his Provoke colleagues pushed photographic representation to its limit, with their unusual angles, obscured subjects and gritty, grainy images, shooting through glass and fabric, deliberately mishandling shutter and darkroom processes, and re-photographing journalistic and commercial imagery to produce an intense, alienating vision of a society in transition. Over the years, he has demonstrated a profound engagement with the street life of Japan, focusing on metropolitan Tokyo and other towns where changes in the country’s social fabric registered, in an ongoing visual and theoretical dialogue with his Provoke colleague and rival Takuma Nakahira and the mercurial Nobuyoshi Araki.

His trademark high-contrast, black-and-white style is captured beautifully in the recent acquisition Shinjuku 2003, named for the commercial, administrative and entertainment district on Tokyo’s west side. Shinjuku is home to the world’s busiest railway station, to a dizzying blend of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, government offices, and department stores, but also Tokyo’s largest red-light area, its Koreatown, its gay and lesbian district, and labyrinthine warrens of tiny bars and yakitori vendors. Moriyama has lived and worked in the area since the 1960s, and between 2000 and 2004 subjected it to intense photographic study over a series of books and photographic essays that culminated in a collaborative exhibition with Araki held, appropriately, at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery, on Shinjuku’s western edge.

In this 2003 photograph, drawn from the photo essay filmography 6 and originally published in the magazine 10+1, a single figure, at once androgynous and feminine, stands in the neon glow of a Shinjuku alley. The figure is captured candidly, slouching on enormous platform shoes and clasping a shopping bag, but with a fashionably poised cigarette and a gaze directed somewhere other than the barrage of surrounding fluorescent signs and banners advertising convenience stores, karaoke booths and shabu-shabu. This is a Japan distinct from the media image of elegant temples and cherry blossoms, of animated fantasy and high-tech production, yet it reads as natural, so adapted is the photographer to his context. Moriyama provides a human-scaled, street level counterpoint to the skyscrapers gleaming above. His is a project devoted to undermining conventional depictions of the spaces of life and living, and it is achieved simply by inhabiting them.

Shinjuku 2004 is on display at GOMA until 20 September 2015 as part of ‘We can make another future: Japaneseart after 1989’. Accompanied by a comprehensive exhibition catalogue, ‘We can make another future’ is a view of contemporary Japan from a specific institutional perspective, but one constructed from a deep history of collective research and ongoing engagement and is available for purchase from the QAGOMA Store and online.

Highlight: Tomoko Yoneda ‘Baseball Ground’

Tomoko Yoneda, Japan b.1965 / Baseball Ground — Formerly a Kamikaze base until the end of the Second World War, Chiran 2000 / C-type print / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

This is an interesting image of an unremarkable thing, at least at first glance. Ostensibly, the work depicts the edge of a suburban sports ground in what appears to be the wet season. In the foreground, puddles gather among stems of verdant grass as clouds hover overhead, still pregnant with unspent precipitation. The image itself is carefully composed in the standard landscape format, with sky and ground forming planes of colour — pale grey and deep green — divided horizontally by an exquisitely detailed line of neat houses on the edge of the park, the ground’s function marked in the centre right by a scoreboard. If not for the characters counting out baseball innings and kawara tiles on the large, sloping, deep-eved roofs of the homes, marking this location as being in Japan, this scene could be have been produced on the fringes of virtually any city in the developed world.

With its highly formal construction and the trace of rain that haunts it, this beautiful image conveys both stillness and tension. A look at the photograph’s title, however, throws these aspects into deeper relief: ‘Baseball Ground’, it announces, before continuing more forensically: ‘Formerly a Kamikaze base until the end of the Second World War, Chiran’.

Chiran, now part of the municipality of Minamikyushu on the Japanese archipelago’s southern tip, is one of the more storied bases from which young pilots departed for ‘special attack’ sorties in the last, desperate days of World War Two. It was there that a group of high school girls were photographed on 12 April 1945 farewelling 23-year-old Second Lieutenant Toshio Anazawa as he took off in a Mitsubishi Zero carrying 250 kilograms of explosives, which he would pilot into a US destroyer off Okinawa shortly after. That image was widely circulated as propaganda to encourage other young men to emulate Anazawa’s heroic self-sacrifice, and the tragic narrative associated with it became deeply embedded in the Japanese consciousness, as testified by Koji Seo’s celebrated manga Love Letter of 2007.

Baseball Ground . . . 2000 is one of three photographs that have recently been acquired by the Gallery from Tomoko Yoneda’s ongoing ‘Scene’ series (the others being Path – Path to the cliff where Japanese committed suicide after the American landings, Saipan 2003 and Railway Track – Overlooking the location where the Japanese army fabricated a bombing to create a reason to invade Manchuria, Shenyang, China 2007). Arguably the most representative body of work by this leading photographer, ‘Scene’ consists of large-format, colour landscape images depicting sites of events of world-historical significance in their current state, whose unassuming character often belies disturbing histories. The locations chosen are remarkable for being unremarkable — for various reasons (political sensitivities, deliberate obfuscation or simply the desire to forget), they are unadorned by the physical monuments and memorials that often characterise places of such importance.

It is possible to consider Tomoko Yoneda’s practice as a process of monumentalising, of creating memorials by giving abstract historical moments a visible, comprehensible topography. To a certain degree, the photographs in ‘Scene’ also interact with the images produced by conflict — from propaganda to reportage — highlighting their capacity to mediate the popular experience of history. At the same time, the series proposes a deeper scarification of place, where horror is deepened by the banality of its vestiges. Awful things, they suggest, can happen anywhere.

Tomoko Yoneda / Path – Path to the cliff where Japanese committed suicide after the American landings, Saipan 2003 / C-type print / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist
Tomoko Yoneda / Railway Track – Overlooking the location where the Japanese army fabricated a bombing to create a reason to invade Manchuria, Shenyang, China 2007 / C-type print / The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Highlight: Takahiro Iwasaki ‘Reflection Model (Perfect Bliss)’

Takahiro Iwasaki, Japan b.1975 | Reflection Model (Perfect Bliss) 2010–12 | Japanese cypress, wire | The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 2013 with funds from Michael Sidney Myer through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

This stunning APT7 work by Japanese artist Takahiro Iwasaki was recently acquired for the Gallery’s Collection… however, there is more to this sculpture than its sheer beauty.

Takahiro Iwasaki’s Reflection Model (Perfect Bliss) 2010–12 is an intricate miniature recreation of Phoenix Hall, part of Japan’s Byodo-in Temple complex. It reproduces the building’s reflection in its traditional mirror pond as a physical object, and is presented suspended from the ceiling, appearing as a three-dimensional mirrored image floating in space. This dreamlike doubling is significant, inviting consideration of the work beyond the artist’s superb technical skill.

Byodo-in, near Kyoto, is part of the iconography of everyday life in Japan. Its image appears on the 10 yen coin, and the phoenixes that adorn the temple’s central hall are represented on the 10 000 yen note. As one reviewer has commented, however, this exemplary oriental structure also ‘belong[s] to the meditative sphere that Westerners qualify as “Japanese”’. (1) This is more problematic territory, for while the subject of the Phoenix Hall can be read in terms of the everyday in Japan, in a ‘globalised’ contemporary art context it bears an uneasy relationship to exotic conceptions of Japan, and Asia in general, that continue to characterise the Western mindset. And indeed, this is reciprocated in Japan’s perception of its own national identity.

When Iwasaki’s rendering of the temple is encountered as an object in space, a further paradox arises. Critic Noi Sawaragi has noted that Iwasaki’s work often has both an element of surprise and the capacity for ‘drawing the act of “observing” to the fore’. (2) These effects differ in a temporal sense, surprise being immediate and observation gradual. A similar tension animates the act of looking at this work, which presents unitary volume and minute detail in the same moment. In contrast to traditional aesthetic contemplation, which takes into consideration a concrete relationship between a whole and its parts, Reflection Model (Perfect Bliss) provokes what Sawaragi describes as the ‘differentiated movement of the eyeball’. (3) Perception is not only visual but also corporeal; seeing, too, is a physical sensation.


These contradictions are appropriate to the device of the mirror. Moreover, they are helpful in considering Iwasaki’s work’s relationship to orientalism, his specificity as an artist, and the development of Japanese modernity. Iwasaki lives and works in Hiroshima and has commented on having been ‘brought up with the reflection of the city’s inscribed memory, which is the fact that the one whole city vanished in a few seconds’. Curator Mami Kataoka sees this as precipitating his evocations of architecture’s fragility and ephemerality, and the possibility of structures that are venerated to the point of forgetting; they begin to lose their presence as buildings and become reduced to an idea, a mirage. (4)

To a substantial degree, architecture has been instrumental in the development of Japanese conceptions of national identity and modernity, along with the close and contested relationship between modernisation and Westernisation in Japanese culture. Curator Tsukasa Mori has imputed a dual inference in Iwasaki’s use of ‘construction’ as both analogous and causal, implying the role played by architecture in shaping social values and perceptions of collective identity: construction that constructs. (5)

Like a mirror image, which moves in relation to its observer and the object reflected — especially when these are one and the same — the symbolic function of Reflection Model (Perfect Bliss) is not static but performative. National identity, it implies, is not fixed, but rather a process of complex and ongoing negotiations between shifting domestic and international contexts.

1 Michele Vicat, ‘Reinventing the “ordinary”: The Biennale de Lyon 2009’, in 3 Dots Water, 2010, <www.3dotswater.com/pointeratwork003.html>, viewed February 2013.
2 Noi Sawaragi, ‘Iwasaki Takahiro’, in Roppongi Crossing 2007: Future Beats in Japanese Contemporary Art [exhibition catalogue], Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2007, p.136.
3 Sawaragi.
4 Mami Kataoka, ‘Discovering contemporary’, in ShContemporary 2009 [exhibition catalogue], Shanghai Contemporary Art Fair, 2009, p.174.
5 Tsukasa Mori, Happiness in Everyday Life [exhibition catalogue], Art Tower Mito, Mito, Japan, 2008.

Gimhongsok’s Canine Construction

Gimhongsok, South Korea b.1964 | Canine Construction 2009 | Resin, ed. 1/2 | Purchased 2012. Queensland Art Gallery | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Recently acquired for the Collection, Canine Construction 2009 by South Korean artist Gimhongsok is both likeable and enigmatic. The sculpture features in ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT7) which closes Sunday 14 April.

Gimhongsok’s work is characterised by a deadpan humour. His references to art history and contemporary culture collide with political and ethical questions, visual gags, and sophisticated ruminations on artistic materials, all are carried out in a striking, compressed aesthetic. Canine Construction 2009 — a play on value, materials and authorship in this sculpture of a dog, assembled from black garbage bags and carefully cast in resin — is one of Gimhongsok’s most outstanding works of recent years.

This work is one of a series of sculptures typically composed of garbage bags, cardboard boxes and balloons and cast in expensive materials such as bronze or resin. The series stems from the artist’s long-held fascination with the foibles of public art and the difficulty of achieving consensus about objects placed in a public space. Cultural translation and the accidental creativity of mistranslation also interest Gimhongsok; he often refers to major works by prominent international artists in his own creations, dramatising the disjunctures that have accompanied Korea’s accession to the global art world.

Canine Construction mimics the sleek, colourful balloon-dog sculptures of Jeff Koons. However, the peppy stance, aerodynamic curves and anodised hues of the latter are replaced here with doughy, slumping garbage bags, their unwieldy mass a flat, uninspiring black. Haphazard binding compresses the rearmost bag into a tail, while an easy-carry tie atop the head furnishes the dog with a quirky pair of ears. The work has an endearing clumsiness and amiability to it, making it arguably more dog-like in emotional effect than the Koons.

That Canine Construction might be read as a poor man’s Koons suggests that questions of artistic originality have been subsumed under the broader category of value, of what provides a work of art with its venerated status. On the other hand, this resin cast of a garbage bag remains a copy, and it is in this that new notions of authorship, creativity and value may be found. For Gimhongsok, garbage offers the key to consensus precisely because it has been cast aside: freed from aesthetic proscription, he proposes that garbage is ‘a kind of collaborative project by the public’; producing a ‘rich allegory’ and embracing spontaneity and chance, its ever-evolving form is a measure of ‘true social agreement’.

Typically for Gimhongsok, these comments carry an air of the sardonic, and a strict reading of Canine Construction remains elusive. That, however, is part of the sculpture’s broader appeal: it is at once visually striking, instantly likeable and interpretatively open-ended.

Twentieth anniversary of APT: Detonating Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang, China b.1957 | Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared 1996 | Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper | Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) | Purchased 1996 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

Cai Guo-Qiang is one of the most significant Chinese artists of his generation. One of the earliest figures among the Chinese avant-garde of the 1980s to gain recognition outside of China, he was also a key participant in ‘The 1st and 2nd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ APT2 (1996) and APT3 (1999).

Cai’s project for APT2 was a complex body of work entitled Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared. It was emblematic of his early career practice, which was best known for the artist’s spiritually cathartic use of explosives. Cai sought to use gunpowder to explore the parallels he perceived between the Chinese dragon and the Aboriginal Australian Rainbow serpent. This resulted in an 18-metre-long piece made up of 9 gunpowder ‘drawings’.

David Burnett, QAGOMA’s Senior Curator of International Art was present for the explosion that produced these drawings and I asked him about Cai’s work.

‘It was quite extraordinary. It was APT2, and it was just ramping up to a calibre of work that was clearly a huge leap from what we’d done before. It was quite early in Cai’s career, and every new work was — well — a new work. He was still coming to terms with the properties of gunpowder. It was chancy and it was unpredictable, and I guess that was what was so exciting about it.’

‘A number of trials and tests were carried out, so there was a step by step process leading up to it. It took place in the car park of the Performing Arts Centre, which was chosen because it had doors that could be opened to the open air, so it was one of the few places safe enough for this event. It was early morning, with dozens of people on deck. There were fire professionals on hand and regulations were strictly observed.’

‘What was required was to control the burn after the gunpowder had gone off. It was of course on paper, overlain with other pieces of paper and with weights. It was really about timing. The paper had to be removed very quickly to let air in, so that the gunpowder didn’t continue to smoulder and burn through the paper. Everybody was at different points along the drawing to run across the paper with bare feet to pick up the weights and to get the paper off to stop the burning. The idea was to scorch the paper with a brown and black fumage.’

‘The explosion was noisy — surprisingly noisy! I knew it would be loud, but not that loud. The tests had all been conducted outside, but because it took place in a low-ceilinged concrete car park, it really amplified the noise. And none of us had really anticipated that there would be so much smoke. There was a point when it all went off that I couldn’t see where anybody else was.’

‘We had some photographers documenting it, which is great to have now. You realise the value of that kind of archival documentation. At the time you just think, oh well, we better do it, but now, this far down the history of this project, you realise how important that is.’

Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared 1996 | Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper | Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) | Purchased 1996 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared (details) 1996 | Spent gunpowder and Indian ink on Japanese paper | Nine drawings: 300 x 200cm (each) | Purchased 1996 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist
Working drawings for ‘Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A myth glorified or feared’ (detail) 1996 | Pen and ink on Chinese paper | Seven sheets: 30 x 44.5cm (each) | Gift of the artist 1996 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

The twentieth anniversary of APT presents an opportunity to reflect upon the unprecedented transformations that have occurred in Australia, Asia and the Pacific over the past two decades. The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT7) 2012 opens this weekend over both QAGOMA sites on Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 December.

This year’s APT exhibition will present major new and recent works by more than 100 artists, including collaborations and collectives, from across Asia, the Pacific and Australia. It will also offer rare insights into new cultural production in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Pacific, providing Australian audiences with access to art and ideas from some of the most dynamic regions in the world. The APT7 exhibition catalogue marks 20 years of the APT project and will emphasise each artist’s distinctive voice.

The politics of persuasion

Kim Hung II, North Korea b. 1965 | Work team contest 2009 | Glass tessera tiles | Purchased 2009. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

I was admiring Kim Hung II’s fascinating mosaic Work Team Contest when a thought struck me.

The work is part of the show ‘Propaganda?, which recently opened on level 3 at GOMA, right next door to our recent acquisition Ride the Caspian. It’s an interesting opportunity to look at the legacy of Socialist Realism and various other forms of propaganda art through a few collection works. The exhibition moves from straightforward propaganda, as with the work of Mansudae Art Studio in the DPRK (North Korea), right through to more ironic takes, with a particular focus on Australia, and East and Southeast Asia.

What struck me about Work Team Contest was that if you remove the brass band and floral arrangements, the image of workers celebrating efficiency targets isn’t all that different from the workplace imagery of white-collar corporate culture we’re a little more familiar with in the West.

Do a Google Image Search for “corporate” or “business” and you’ll see what I mean. Managers pointing at whiteboards, fit and forward-looking young professionals, a sense of success and future-building — it’s all there. Even the composition is the same. The only major difference is that the colour red has been replaced with a distinct shade of blue.

It would be a mistake to say that ‘juche’ communism and liberal capitalism offer similar forms of social organisation. But the images used to ‘sell’ them do share unexpected patterns. In the marketplace of ideologies, it seems that little changes when it comes to the politics of images. There may even be a subliminal influence.

This is something that plays out as I look across the show — certain aesthetic formations are adjusted to suit the widest possible range of political positions, even extending to those modes of communication we think of as apolitical, such as advertising and news media. Indeed, a number of contemporary artists in the show take this as their starting point. The history of propaganda art certainly offers interesting perspectives on the visual culture of the present.

‘Propaganda?’ considers the varied approaches of politically motivated art. From the traditional forms of painting and sculpture, to mass media such as prints, posters, banners and photography, art has often been used to express the ideology of the state, promote the views of specific groups, criticise the status quo or document events. The exhibition features a number of works in socialist realist styles from China, Vietnam and North Korea (DPRK), as well as print and photo-based works that utilise text, collage and documentary imagery. You can view the exhibition until 21 October 2012.