Tomoko Yoneda’s photographs imply more than show

by Edan Corkill

The classified ad in the Dec. 6, 1933, edition of The Japan Advertiser is as unremarkable as it is straightforward: Wanted to Buy Ukiyo-e prints by old masters. Also English books on same subject. Urgently needed.

And yet these innocuous lines were the first coded contact made between two spies working in Japan for Russia — Yotoku Miyagi and Richard Sorge.

That fact alone gives them historical significance, and, more importantly, it means that in the mind of anyone even vaguely familiar with the cloak-and-dagger tale of “Spy Sorge” (as he is referred to in Japan), they are evocative far beyond their literal meaning.

Even reading them now, one can imagine Miyagi studiously composing them from a code manual, and the debonair Sorge perhaps thumbing through the Advertiser — which incidentally was acquired by The Japan Times in 1940 — as he stood at the bar of the Imperial Hotel or some such place.

The idea that an image, too, can be evocative far beyond its appearance has always been at the core of the London-based Japanese artist Tomoko Yoneda’s photographs.

She is now the subject of a retrospective running till Nov. 30 at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, where, along with a broad selection of her past work, there is a new series based on Sorge and his fellow spies.

Yoneda used an old Kodak Brownie camera to take snapshots at locations in Japan where the foreign spy and his cohorts met. Black and white and slightly blurry, the shots seem like they are from another time.

“What surprised me was that they were meeting in such normal places,” says Yoneda. “Ueno Zoo, Nara — I used to live near the place they met in Nara.”

Yoneda gives explanatory titles to her work, revealing who met whom in each of the locations depicted. They tell us, for instance, that Sorge and Miyagi ended up meeting at the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum — a location Yoneda depicts in a neat, seemingly accidental composition of a brick wall and a sun-bathed flower bed. It was another associate, Hotsumi Ozaki — a journalist temporarily employed by the Intelligence Department of the South Manchurian Railway Company — whom Sorge met at a park in Nara. Their secrets were no doubt overheard by the same kind of deer that Yoneda’s antique camera has captured in a pool of sunlight.

Yoneda’s exhibition catalog also provides information about the spies. Miyagi’s use of ukiyo-e (genre paintings) in his advertisement and his choice of the Metropolitan Museum as a meeting spot no doubt stemmed from the fact that he was an artist. Yoneda’s text also explains that Sorge was a Russian-born German national who had been sent to Japan with a German newspaper. He worked in Japan from the early ’30s till ’41, when he was arrested.

But perhaps more interesting is that even without these biographical details, the photographs, coupled with their titles, are sufficient to send viewers’ imaginations on flights of fancy.

“I am drawn to spy stories,” says Yoneda. “I don’t really know why.”

But the reason is clear: Novels and movies have cloaked them in such romanticism they are like hair triggers for the brain. Even blurry black-and-white photos of banal scenery with descriptive titles are enough to set them off. Such a theme makes Yoneda’s “Sorge” pieces more accessible than her other work.

“I have always been interested in nonpresence in an image, in the invisible image beyond,” Yoneda explains.

That interest translated in the late ’90s into her “Topographical Analogy” series: photographs of curled wallpaper and heat marks on walls in houses, a selection of which is also on show at Hara.

“I wanted viewers to imagine the lives of people who lived in these houses,” she says. “You can think about what they would have talked about in those places.”

Since the turn of the millennium, Yoneda has been working on another series, called “Scene,” in which she depicts places with infamous pasts.

“Path — Path to the Cliff Where Japanese Committed Suicide after the American Landing of WWII, Saipan” simply shows a loosely vegetated track leading up a hill. The works are done in large format, capturing even the smallest details. Yet they are also empty, like stages for which our imaginations must provide the actors — in this case, terrified citizens scurrying up the track to their deaths. Their power lies in the juxtaposition between their technical dispassion and the potency of their historical associations.

Yoneda’s interest in “nonpresence” continues of course in her “Sorge” work, where the old spy is very much the absent subject. But it differs from the “Scene” pictures in its recourse to technical manipulation — the black and white, the blurriness — to encourage viewers in their imaginary wanderings.

The dark hues push viewers in the direction of noir spy flicks, and the on-the-fly snapshot compositions suggest not so much straight documentation of place but a first-person viewpoint — it’s not a great leap to assume we are seeing Nara and Ueno through the cool eyes of Sorge and his clandestine comrades. Yoneda has thereby taken us one step closer, placing us inside the stories at which she has in the past just hinted.

That’s not to say these are lesser accomplishments. They might have lost the tension found in “Scene,” but in it’s place, they’ve channeled the thrill of the spy story. And who doesn’t like a good spy story — even if it’s only in our heads?

“An End is a Beginning” runs till Nov. 30 at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, 4-7-25 Kitashinagawa, Shinagawa-ku, Tokyo; open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (till 8 p.m. Wed.; closed Mon.); admission ¥1,000. For more information call (03) 3445-0651 or visit www.haramuseum.or.jp