The exhibition “Stream of Consciousness” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery is an extremely successful representation of contemporary Japanese photographic art. It combines some of the salient aspects of Japanese culture with the aesthetically formal, yet emotive imagery that is indicative of what gives photography in Japan its particular flavor.
The images are courtly, precise and elegant. A few hours after seeing the exhibition, while talking to a Tokyo University of Arts Ph.D candidate, I was wondering what kind of person the artist could be, when an charmingly schlubby guy in sweat shirt and pants with a worn-out Chiquita-banana-branded shopping bag over his shoulder quietly shuffled into the modest venue we were in and apologized to the student for not answering his emails.
Behold Risaku Suzuki. How fortunate for this reviewer — except that artist Suzuki is not, by his own admission, fond of talking. It was not until I mentioned the beautiful unfocused circles of light in one of his video pieces of a pond — a work that lays flat on the ground like a virtual water feature in the exhibition — that he began to open up. Only supremely good optics will render out-of-focus highlights as perfectly round (cheaper camera lenses have fewer aperture iris blades resulting in polygonal shapes) and Suzuki was delighted that someone noticed this.
In essence, this is a major part of what drives Suzuki’s work — sharing a delight and fascination with the act of looking. It is not necessarily the sight of the signified object or scene that is of primary importance, but the process of human perception. For Suzuki, the act of using a camera and the materiality of the photograph are integral to this.
The color in his 2014 series on the coastline of his home turf in Kumano, at the southernmost tip of the Kii peninsula, for example, is extremely carefully controlled, with red and magenta hues reduced to the barest minimum that will allow viewers to read the images as “natural.” They contrast with the blazing and traumatic reds and oranges of a companion video piece on the local Nachi Fire Festival.
Given that Suzuki moved away from the Kumano region when he was 17 and has been living in Tokyo ever since, it is notable that none of the images in the exhibition includes evidence of modern urban life. Sea, mountains, water, sakura, snow; that’s the deal here. His work is a forthright 21st-century example of what professor and writer Haruo Shirane has eloquently critiqued in his illuminating exposition “Japan and the Culture of the Four Seasons” as “secondary nature.” That is to say, Suzuki does not give us a vision of his actual environment, but rather his images are an attempt to communicate a state of grace.
“Risaku Suzuki: Stream of Consciousness” at Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery runs until Sept. 23; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥1,200. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp/ag