For Students

Past Exhibitions: 2007

Out of the Ordinary/Extraordinary: Japanese Contemporary Photography

June 16–September 16, 2007

Tilt headed, denim jacket on

Takano Ryudai
Tilt headed, denim jacket on, from the series “In My Room”
type-c print

Yayoi Kusama A p

Kunié Sugiura
Yayoi Kusama A p, from the series “The Artist Papers”
gelatin silver print

From the series -their eyes-

Shunsaku Hishikari
From the series “their eyes”

Stranger No. 23

Shizuka Yokomizo
Stranger No. 23
© Shizuka Yokomizo, courtesy WAKO WORKS OF ART

From the series -OMIAI♡-

Tomoko Sawada
From the series “OMIAI♡”

This exhibition of works by eleven young photographers-most of whom are unknown to North American audiences-challenges conventional Western assumptions about Japanese aesthetics and culture. Pregnant men posing in a fertility clinic; strangers photographed from outside the windows of their homes; a young woman dressed up in the various costumes of Tokyo teenagers, exploring consumer-oriented notions of “youth”: these are but a few of the puzzling and provocative images presented. Michiko Kasahara, one of Japan's leading curators of contemporary art, has chosen artists whose photographic vision probes the many layers of social and moral anxiety that underlie a surface of prosperity and well-being.

Out of the Ordinary/Extraordinary is organized and circulated by The Japan Foundation and accompanied by an illustrated catalogue.

This exhibition was curated by Michiko Kasahara at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and organized by the Japan Foundation, Tokyo. The presentation in Ann Arbor is co-organized by the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Japan Foundation, New York, and supported in part by Rudolf Arnheim and the Japan Business Society of Detroit Foundation.

Not Your Grandmother’s Japan

Maribeth Graybill
Senior Curator of Asian Art

Clouds continue to engulf Tokyo. … Japan in enveloped in gloom.
Michiko Kasahara, essay in the catalogue for the exhibition

The Japan visitors will encounter in this provocative exhibition is not the Japan of the tea ceremony, the rock garden, or the geisha and kabuki. It is the Japan of the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century, screened through the curatorial vision of Michiko Kasahara, one of the most visible figures in Tokyo’s art world. Ordinary/Extraordinary is the first of two exhibitions to be presented this year offering a rare opportunity to view contemporary Asia from an insider’s perspective; the second is Persian Visions: Contemporary Photography from Iran, to be on view this fall.

Michiko Kasahara begins with the view shared by many intellectuals in Japan today, that Japan is in a period of social and moral crisis. The despondency that envelops Japan cannot, she writes, “be simply explained away as the result of a stalled economy.” Instead, decades of the pursuit of material wealth—combined with bureaucratic mismanagement and the juggernaut of vested corporate interests—have led to a sense of hopelessness and frustration on the part of millions of ordinary citizens. In times like these, Kasahara asks, what is the role of art? How can artists be true to the moment and still find a meaningful form of expression? In answer, she invites us to contemplate the work of the eleven photographers in the exhibition.

The eight women and three men whose works are presented here have strikingly disparate styles and approaches to photography, and at first the assembly seems hodgepodge. That impression is deliberate, for part of Kasahara’s argument is that now more than ever we must “respect the diversity of ‘others,’ while listening to what they have to say.” On closer inspection, however, we begin to discover some common threads, to see a pattern of commentary and critique.

Ishiuchi Miyako and Chin Yo Mi, for example, each probe that most intimate of familial relationships, between mother and daughter. In both cases, a subtle subtext in their work is the woman/girl outsider, the repatriate from Manchuria or the Korean, who remain at the margins of Japanese society.

Sawada Tomoko, Okada Hiroko, and Takano Ryudai bring tongue-in-cheek humor to social norms of gender roles, with parodies of fashionable (= “marriageable”?) young women, pregnant men, and figures of ambiguous gender.

Sugiura Kunié’s silhouetted portraits of artists, with the barest of means, seem to metaphorically affirm the possibility of a strongly individualized identity, against all odds. By contrast, Hishikari Shunsaku’s portrait collages erase individual identity for anyone in a group, whether the group is a family, a circle of classmates, or a military squad. Three other artists who question individual identity in relationship to others—especially in the impersonal chaos of the urban environment—are Yokomizo Shizuka, Motoda Keizo, and Onodera Yuki.

Only one artist in the exhibition does not take the human figure as her subject. In three incongruously lyrical images, Yoneda Tomoko depicts an airplane soaring through a cloudless sky. How do these images relate to our time? How do these photographs reveal a distinct artistic point of view? —We discover the answer when we read the captions: the three are from a series made in 2003 entitled Beyond Memory and Uncertainty—American B-52 returning from a bombing raid on Iraq. Fairford, England.

Not so long ago, from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, Japan was riding high atop a wave of international admiration for its modernity and efficiency, while maintaining an aura of a noble and disciplined ancient culture. By the late 1980s, however, many observers grew concerned about the materialistic mania for ever-more-luxurious lifestyles, and the resurgent nationalism that accompanied unprecedented prosperity. New government-sanctioned history books portrayed Japan as a victim rather than as an aggressor in World War II, and politicians called for an end to the peace clause of the post-war Constitution, acts that caused alarm among Japan’s liberal intellectuals and its Asian neighbors. In a country where violent crime is rare, schoolyard bullying and the occasional murder of a parent or classmate by a young child seemed to appear in the headlines all too often. Perhaps most unsettling of all, the promise of lifelong employment for corporate employees—a system that offered financial security and a clan-like sense of belonging, if not merit-based advancement or high wages—came undone as companies were forced into economic restructuring. The collapse of the Asian stock market in 1997 was the last straw in what the Japanese media came to refer to as the “Lost Decade.” These are the gloom-filled clouds on curator Michiko Kasahara’s horizon.

While the specific circumstances that motivated both curator and artists in Ordinary/ Extraordinary are Japanese, the broad issues they address should resonate with American audiences. Here too, family relationships, gendered identities, and the place of the individual in society are in contentious flux, and we are frustrated by our inability to either win or affect the conduct of a war.