Japanese photographers at UMMA
by Laura Bien
Unquiet photos of toylike bombers, clangorous streets, and pregnant men in the U-M Museum of Art show of contemporary Japanese photographers collectively suggest a modern anomie concerned with uneasy relationships to others and to cultural and even biological standards.
Collected from eleven photographers ages thirty to sixty-five, the touring exhibition includes Tomoko Yoneda's haunting photo trio of a pearly blue sky. Closer inspection reveals a tiny airplane centered in each frame. Taken in England, the works' title, Beyond Memory and Uncertainty - B-52 Bomber Returning from Iraq, invests the simple compositions of a receding jet with a sense of watchful witness.
In contrast to this meditative trio, Keizo Motoda's jangly SNAP OSAKA street scenes bristle with such outsider types as a fifty-something busker playing not a guitar but a drum set, a mohawked teen boy with a bleach-blond teen girl, and what appears to be a child street performer drawing pictures in a notebook on the asphalt by holding a radio to whose antenna is attached a pen. In each case the subjects have separated themselves, by appearance, by spatial distance, or by strangeness of activity, from the city crowds around them, suggesting a modern-day isolation of the individual.
Echoing this theme is Shizuka Yokomizo's disquieting Strangers photo series. The artist created the photos by mailing letters, beginning "Dear Stranger," that asked if the recipients would be willing to stand at their windows to be photographed on a given day and time. Nighttime exterior photos of windows of apartments and homes each show one resident standing and facing the windows, staring at the camera. The odd juxtaposition of the subjects' expressions of wary curiosity about the voyeuristic viewer creates a reciprocal sense of fascination mixed with fleeting guilty embarrassment.
Unease also accompanies Hiroko Okada's manipulated photos of cheerful pregnant men. They're part of The Delivery by Male Project, which includes a video that "documents" the imagined innovation of male pregnancy. The photos imply questions about gender
roles and parenthood with the look-twice surprise of seeing male bodies, one with long hair that, combined with the visible pregnancy, suggests femininity at first glance. UMMA also plans to continuously screen the project's video mockumentary about a man who chooses to become pregnant.
Tomoko Sawada's poised re-creations of traditional arranged-marriage portrait photos also examine gender roles. In each one, she photographs herself, impeccably dressed in clothes ranging from a sleek 1960s-style high-collar leopard print dress with chunky-heeled black boots to intricate kimonos with traditional sandals. Various hairstyles and expressions transform her appearance from wary child bride to beaming, plump matron to cute fashion model.
Like these varied self-portraits, the exhibition as a whole offers a wide-ranging look at contemporary Japanese photography. It continues at UMMA Off/Site through September 16.
[Review published July 2007]