Surprisingly familiar photography

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

How do you continually surprise and shock when your work has become so familiar? What can you say with a photograph that hasn’t been said before? Will making things bigger make them better? These questions niggle at the back of the mind while visiting Shinoyama Kishin’s current show. “The people by Kishin” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery is one person’s constantly re-adjusting view of Japan that succeeds in being as confounding as it is at times unexpected.

Kishin has a knack for creating troublesome imagery, cementing the idea of a bon viveur, both unconventional and difficult. The reaction to his photobook “Santa Fe,” featuring model-turned-actress Rie Miyazawa, caused problems for his then very young muse, who struggled with the exposure and very public profile of the provocative photographs he produced. Conversely, portraits of Yukio Mishima exploited the self-parodying of Mishima’s god-likeness — an exploitation to which Mishima willingly submitted.

Looking back on Kishin’s work, such images seem quite traditional and no longer as shocking as they originally were. Aided by a popular culture shaped by his photography, they have been stripped bare of their past allure. It is his less-conventional images that retain the viewers’ interest. For example, his gigantic “Sumo” panorama, taken in 1995 (or shino-rama as he calls it) is impressive, though again a little underwhelming, despite dominating one entire gallery wall.

What remains are images that neither surprise nor shock. You are left to wonder why they are there at all and whether Kishin’s plan is to out-kitsch Disneyland, Mickey Mouse and AKB48 combined. Unfortunately he embraces the characters all too readily, allowing them to dominate over other parts of the show that basically work better on the wall.

The heart of the show is really within it’s beginning and end. Upon entering, a portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono taken by Kishin in 1980 welcomes you with a kiss. At the end, an array of portraits of survivors from The Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami bid you farewell. In Kishin’s own words the power in his own photography is questionable, something he seldom succeeds in truly understanding. With these images however, he focuses in on faces that illicit an honest response, without the distraction of television and media.

The whole show could almost be stripped back to these images, foregoing the central onslaught of his monumental photographic back-catalogue, which, as great as some of the images are, create an unhelpful fog of distraction.

Kishin is without a doubt a cultural manipulator and dictates a powerful influence on the photographs of musicians and celebrities we see day in day out. His legacy is more a cultural one and perhaps his vision of a society where people break free and abandon conformity is indeed radical. Let’s hope that the people who come to see “The People” realize this and embrace his work accordingly, tongue firmly in cheek.

“The people by Kishin” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs Dec. 24; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp.