There’s a faint scent of incense as you crawl through a knee-high door into a pebble-filled corridor that leads into a white igloo-like space, just big enough to fit three people. “This is my meditation room,” says Akiyoshi Taniguchi, the curator who is introducing Kurenboh, a tiny modern gallery located in Kuramae in Tokyo’s Taito Ward.
“Meditation room” is an unusual way to describe a gallery that has exhibited the works of leading photographers such as Yuki Onodera, Naoya Hatakeyama and William Eggleston. But then Taniguchi himself is an unusual kind of curator — he is also a Buddhist priest.
Taniguchi trained as a monk when younger and in 1988 became the head priest of the Buddhist temple Chohouin, which was founded during the Muromachi Period (1336-1573) by his ancestors.
Despite its ancient history, Chohouin is not the kind of temple that thousands of people visit on New Year’s morning to throw coins at for good luck. It is a modestly sized local temple that is humble in appearance and receives mostly local visitors. In 2006, Taniguchi added a surprising modern addition to this piece of Buddhist history. He opened Kurenboh.
Designed in the style of a modern Japanese tea-room by the architect Makoto Yokomizo, Kurenboh is a minimalist space that has hosted an interesting mixture of photographic works by both Japanese and foreign photographers. The current exhibition “The Ardbeg,” features images by American photographer Leo Rubinfien, who is also preparing for an upcoming exhibition at National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo and was visiting Taniguchi in Kurenboh.
Widely known for his exquisite use of color photography, Rubinfien is particularly famous for global projects, such as his “Wounded Cities” series and “A map of the East.” Japan, he says has always been close to his heart, but he is also a good friend of Taniguchi, whom he addresses affectionately as “Aki.”
“We just had a Christmas party here with Leo’s family here, you know, here, a Buddhist temple” says Taniguchi in his charmingly broken English that Rubinfien insists is “accidental poetry.”
The two met in New York in 1979, when Taniguchi, in his pre-monk days, was studying under Rubinfien at a photography school. Rubinfien immediately found Taniguchi intriguing — enough to later inspire him to write “The Ardbeg,” an essay about him, in which he describes the young Japanese man as having a “face such as you might expect to see on a Prussian-collared boy in a picture from the Taisho Era, reading Baudelaire through wire-rimmed eye glasses and dreaming of the glamorous torments of artists in Paris.”
Though Rubinfien’s first impression of Taniguchi may not have been quite on the mark, Taniguchi’s upbringing was different to most aspiring photographers. Born into a family with a tradition of becoming head priests, Taniguchi says he was never pressured to follow in his ancestors’ footsteps. In his first photo book, “Shashin Shonen 1973-1979″ (“The Blue Period 1973-1979″), he recalls vivid memories of his grandfather using Chohouin temple’s hall as a darkroom, an experience that undoubtedly influenced him to study photography.
After receiving his first camera in junior high school, Taniguchi wanted to take “cool pictures,” and just like his inspiration, Daido Moriyama, he took hundreds of snapshots. New York, he later decided, was the city where he could realize his dreams — photography, jazz and fine whisky. Luckily, Taniguchi’s father, the head monk of Chohouin at the time, encouraged him to go overseas.
“My father was a very liberal man and enjoyed art. He was a kabuki theater director back in the days. Lots of actors and geisha friends . . .,” says Taniguchi, laughing.
Once in New York, like his father, Taniguchi lived an artistic life, Rubinfien describing him in “The Ardbeg” as a mobo (1920s’ Japanese slang for “modern boy”). Seeing Taniguchi, says Rubinfien reminded him of his own days as a boy, when his father worked in Japan and he went to school there.
“When I was in high school in Japan, there were these two classmates who would go out to Shinjuku on weekends and bring back pictures that they took there, as well as photography magazines filled with works by Japanese photographers like Daido,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t really pay attention to the names, but the snapshots and the works by Japanese photographers inspired me as I explored the streets and alleys of Tokyo, a habit I still do as a photographer, just with more complicated intentions within a variety of cultures now.”
“The Ardbeg” show exhibits this blend of Tokyo and New York, but it really began with Rubinfien’s 1999 essay on Taniguchi, which is printed in full in the exhibition’s specially published photo book.
“I wrote the essay long before Kurenboh was built,” says Rubinfien. “Aki had asked me several times to do an exhibition at Kurenboh, but for a while I couldn’t think of anything to exhibit. But when I went back to the essay, a half- fictional essay using Aki’s character as its core, I thought that the timing was perfect for me to go to New York and take snap shots of ‘Aki.’ ”
His photographs are not actually of Taniguchi, they are shots that capture the friend-priest-photographer as Rubinfien remembers or sees him. In one image, a young Asian male is captured in a slight blur caught between New Yorkers at a crowded street crossing. In another, Rubinfien sees Aki in a cluttered shop filled from top to bottom with watches and jewelry. All the works are black and white, which both Taniguchi and Rubinfien agree is the most fitting way to capture New York.
Images from New York may seem an unusual way to capture a person’s character, but everything about “The Ardbeg” is delicately and effectively linked to Taniguchi and his life, as is emphasized by the title. In Rubinfien’s essay, Taniguchi says of good whisky, “If I say that one (Glenfarclas) is like color photography . . . this one (Ardbeg, Cadenhead, 28 years old) is black-and- white. . . . I relate to New York darkness. The Ardbeg has that darkness. Something like the smell of the cigar, also the smell of garbage.”
Though “The Ardbeg” is dedicated to Taniguchi, he remains characteristically humble. It’s “strange but natural,” he says when describing what he thought of being the subject of an exhibition in his own gallery. Rubinfien is right about Taniguchi’s accidental poetry. That almost oxymoron-like statement perfectly describes the “en,” destiny-like connection between people, that the artist and the priest share. It is very strange to have an old teacher dedicate a show to, and exhibit at his pupil’s gallery, Taniguchi later explains, but it is also perfectly natural for him as the pupil and subject to sit in his meditation room filled with photography from New York to Tokyo.
“The Ardbeg” is the beginning of Leo Rubinfien’s “New York” project, which will all be in black and white and is estimated to be completed in about 10 years of time. It runs at Kurenboh Gallery till Feb. 25; admission free, by reservation only (early e-mail reservation strongly recommended); open Wed.-Fri. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org Rubinfien’s work can also be seen at “In the World City” till Jan. 29, Taka Ishii Gallery, and at a solo exhibition at the National Museum of Modern Art Tokyo in August 2011. The photo book “The Ardbeg” is available at Kurenboh Gallery, Taka Ishii Gallery and Robert Mann Gallery in New York.