Artists expand photography and film conventions into a new language

by Stuart Munro

Special To The Japan Times

At a time when popular culture is fed both mesmerizing and disturbing imagery, it often carries with it a sense of terror, while alluding to the possibility of something disturbingly sublime. What makes that something “sublime,” however, evades easy definition.

“Expanded Retina #2″ at g3 Gallery (Tolot/Heuristic Shinonome) explores this contradiction and more, with an installation of film, photography and ephemera that stutters between being uncomfortable, unsettling and strikingly captivating.

In the woods surrounding Mount Fuji, Daisuke Yokota and Kazuo Yoshida, members of the artist group MP1, photograph each other at night with only flashguns providing illumination. They capture the outlines of each other’s bodies and the close proximity of their alpine landscape. For MP1, the tension between terror (of photographic realism) and the sublime (the artists’ experience and impression) is what makes “Expanded Retina #2″ so provocative.

During America’s struggle for independence, political thinker Edmund Burke thought the line between terror and the sublime was “authoritarian” — you submit to the power of authority because its terrifying. Philosopher Immanuel Kant, on the other hand, thought that tension involved identity, self-discovery and inner freedom — not oppression. All this is visible in both Yokota and Yoshida’s work, yet the images seem to cement the emotional and analytical elements that terror and sublime separately enjoy, in ways that engage as much as they distract.

Together, the two-channel video and photographs form a self-portrait of sorts. Yokota and Yoshida capture fragments of their bodies as they evade each other’s camera. There are no Lynchian Black or White Lodges here, but the forest surrounding Mount Fuji is full of its own dark symbolism. The darkness helps to further their detachment from the city and eliminate detail from images of each other, turning this photographic process into a filmic performance replayed in the controlled space of a gallery.

Unto itself, the exhibition is every bit the experience it professes to be. The video, accompanied by equipment they took into the woods and discarded material from the show’s construction, stands in good company. Filmmaker and musician Tony Conrad’s “The Flicker” (1966) contains just six key frames and it is the text of the opening warning frame, written on gallery door, that prepares you before you enter the exhibition through a black curtain.

With Conrad, film slowly evolves before the viewer. His series “Yellow Movies” (1973), painting “performances” that gradually change over time, was made by restricting the exposure of square sheets of photographic paper with industrial black paint.

This exploration, now shared with Yokota and Yoshida, rejects photography and film as a way to simply portray realism. Where previously they sampled, distressed and cut images together like music, they now analytically group together images, objects, material and sound. Experiencing both terror and the sublime and their delicate balance is consciously encouraged.

Viewed repeatedly, the exhibition reveals new combinations of sound and image. Patience is necessary, but it’s well worth it — to quote Conrad’s welcoming warning message: “A physician” should probably “be in attendance.”

“MP1: Expanded Retina #2″ at g3 Gallery runs until Aug. 30; open 11 a.m.- 7p.m. Free entry. Closed Sun., Mon. and national holidays. www.g3gallery.com