It’s ‘otherness’ that helps define ‘self’

by John L. Tran

Special To The Japan Times

For better or worse, in contemporary art it is common to see male photographers tend toward featuring landscapes and objects, and female photographers working on problems of shifting identities, family and the body. In this respect there is a strong lineage for Ayaka Yamamoto’s first Tokyo solo exhibition of beautifully executed images of European women, which is showing at the Taka Ishii Gallery, a space well known for representing some of the more established heavy-hitters of contemporary photography. Although Yamamoto’s subjects are exclusively women, social issues and feminism, as the artist herself is quick to point out, are not her concerns so much as exploring the female body as form, and examining the difficulty of comprehending one’s existence.

Yamamoto may not be interested in gender politics, but as her subjects are exclusively female it does make us wonder what principle is at work in making this choice and if there is any particular reason why her subjects, in this instance, are all non-Japanese. For the artist these are certainly deliberate decisions, but the rationale of “not being interested” in photographing men, or Japanese women as she puts it, is more intriguing than illuminating.

One clue is that Yamamoto started off doing self-portraits, but found that the results were too predictable and turned to photographing strangers, which entailed traveling abroad. Not being able to communicate fully and working with people physically different from her are factors in making the strongest of Yamamoto’s images, despite their seductive visual beauty, complex and unsettling.

In this exhibition, her subjects are exclusively from northern Europe, and it’s tempting to conclude that there is an attraction to “otherness” at work in this series. The women are anonymous, and the images deprived of clues to their lives and personalities — they are dressed in neutral clothing or materials chosen by Yamamoto. It would be a misnomer to call these portraits.

It is also possible to say that, despite the semi-nudity of some of the women, the photographer’s gaze is not one of sexual voyeurism. There is, however, a strong and insistent desire to wish the female form into being. This — divorced from declared social, sexual or political intent, and not assuming any kind of subaltern discourse — is a kind of radical turn that renders feminist discourse about the gendered gaze and power relationships redundant. This is a strength of Yamamoto’s work, but also presumes that the artist has a greater degree of agency in a field in which young female photographers are often rewarded for appealing to the judgement and tastes of older men — something of a trend since the grand master of photographic “art porn” Nobuyuki Araki helped launch Hiromix’s career in the 1990s.

This is does not to detract from Yamamoto’s achievement as a photographer, but rather suggests that, just as Yamamoto attempts to comprehend her own existence by photographing others, we can also appreciate the work of “Nous n’irons plus au bois” by understanding what it is not.

“Nous n’irons plus au bois” at Taka Ishii Gallery Photography/Film runs till Feb. 8; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sun., Mon. www.takaishiigallery.com/en/exhibitions/photography-film