Heavy Light: Photography and Video from Japan / Exhibition at the ICP, New York

ICP International Center of Photography, New York

Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan
Exhibition > September 7, 2008

Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan presents the exciting and highly individualistic work of a new generation of Japanese artists who have come of age following the Asian economic crash of 1990.

This ICP exhibition is the first major U.S. presentation of contemporary photo-based artwork from Japan in over ten years.

Hiroh Kikai
“I’ve always wanted to be different since I was a kid, and I’ve always been knocked around for it” (eight years later), 2002
Gelatin silver print
© Hiroh Kikai

For the last several years, China has been the focus of attention for contemporary Asian art, while the remarkable and distinctive younger generation of Japanese artists who are working today has been largely ignored.

The works in the exhibition comprise a range of highly individual—and sometimes eccentric—responses to the changes that have taken place in Japan since the mid-1990s. In addition to opening up fresh perspectives on the cultural dynamics of contemporary Japan, Heavy Light and its accompanying catalogue provide new insights into the distinctive position occupied by Japan’s visual arts on the world stage.

Heavy Light features approximately eighty works [including both photographs and video], many of which are large and dramatic pieces, by thirteen Japanese artists, all currently living and working in Japan. The participating artists are Makoto Aida, Naoya Hatakeyama, Naoki Kajitani, Hiroh Kikai, Midori Komatsubara, Yukio Nakagawa, Asako Narahashi, Tsuyoshi Ozawa, Tomoko Sawada, Risaku Suzuki, Miwa Yanagi, Kenji Yanobe, and Masayuki Yoshinaga. Approximately half of these artists are showing for the first time in the United States. Seen together, their works reveal the unusual imaginative power and visual inventiveness that are found in recent photo-based art in Japan.

The exhibition explores four themes that have come to occupy Japanese artists working with camera-based mediums. These include the relationship of nature and the manmade world; the re-examination of Japanese tradition; personal identity as a form of costume play; and the role of the child as a cultural icon. By foregrounding these themes, the exhibition provides a window onto the cultural transformations that are shaping Japan’s 21st-century visual art.

Tomoko Sawada
School Days / A, 2004
Chromogenic print
© Tomoko Sawada
Courtesy of MEM Inc. and Zabriskie Gallery

Asako Narahashi
Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water (Makuhari), 2001
Chromogenic print
© Asako Narahashi

Exhibition Highlights

I. Surfaces of the World
In his Lime Works series, Naoya Hatakeyama (b. 1958) offers a remarkable meditation on the human consumption of nature. His dramatic color photographs of the violent blasts that are part of the process of limestone extraction lead to images of the factories where limestone is turned into cement. His concluding cityscapes reveal the transformation of cement into Japan’s contemporary urban environment.
In her series Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water, Asako Narahashi (b. 1959) photographs Japan’s coastal landscapes and architecture while standing in the waves just offshore. Her large-scale color photographs portray the ocean as both a serene presence and a potentially turbulent force.

II. Transformations of Tradition
Risaku Suzuki (b. 1963) conceives his photographic projects as book-length sequences of images that unfold in a cinematic flow. Twenty color photographs from his Kumano series trace the artist’s journey from Tokyo, where he lives and works, to his home town of Kumano at the time of the winter fire ritual.
Since the 1950s, Yukio Nakagawa (b. 1918) has been recognized as one of Japan’s most radically inventive practitioners of ikebana. His distinctive color photographs of his flower arrangements encompass a wide range of moods, including refinement, eroticism, and violence.
The whimsical objects, photographs, videos, and installations of Tsuyoshi Ozawa (b. 1965) use the procedures of conceptual art to explore everyday materials and situations. Included in the exhibition is Ozawa’s Vegetable Weapon series.
A digital street photographer who employs an intuitive, stream-of-consciousness approach, Naoki Kajitani (b. 1970) produces large-scale, Pop-style color photographs of Japan’s dense urban settings.

III. Costume and Self-Display
For three decades, Hiroh Kikai (b. 1945) has carried out memorable street portraits of the unusual personalities he encounters near the famous Senso-ji temple in the Asakusa district of Tokyo.
Tokyo-based Masayuki Yoshinaga (b. 1964) photographs Japan’s subcultural groups, portraying the street-fashion teenagers of Harajuku, leather-clad motorcycle gangs, and young members of Tokyo’s yakusa (gangster) clans.
In her series Sanctuary, Midori Komatsubara (b. 1965) suggests a fictional story taking place at a private Japanese boys’ school. Her photographs chart the changing emotional and erotic relationships between her invented characters.
Tomoko Sawada (b. 1977) explores the ever-present tension between individual and collective identity in contemporary Japan. For this exhibition, the artist will make large-scale prints that are part of her continuing School Days series.

IV. The Child as Icon
Kenji Yanobe (b. 1965) creates elaborate sculptural objects and installations that testify to his childhood fascination with manga (Japanese comics), anime, and sci-fi films. In the installation presented in Heavy Light, the doll-like figure Torayan is instructed in techniques for survival in an ever-threatening world.
Makoto Aida (b. 1965) creates works that revel in grotesque exaggerations of Japanese cultural attitudes. The exhibition will feature his sculptures and photographs of bonsai plants whose stems are ornamented with smiling, childlike faces.
Miwa Yanagi (b. 1967) presents her most recent photographic series, Fairy Tales. These dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish photographs are darkly erotic reinterpretations of famous fairy tales. In them, the protagonists are young girls who use their youth and cunning to triumph over their tormentors.


The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated, 246-page catalogue produced by ICP/Steidl. The catalogue features extended interviews with each of the thirteen exhibition artists, as well as a special essay by distinguished art historian Linda Nochlin.

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