Long a darling of the Japanese photography scene, Mika Ninagawa’s latest exhibition, “Liquid Dreams,” brings a riot of color to the Parco Museum in Shibuya. Ninagawa has always been fond of bright and bold hues. What is most surprising about her new work is her choice of subject matter. Although she has enjoyed great success with pictures of people and flowers in the past, this time around Ninagawa has turned her attention to, of all things, goldfish.
“One day, while looking though a tourist guide book,” explains the friendly Ninagawa at her well-attended opening party, “I read that there was a so-called ‘Goldfish Street’ in Hong Kong. I was curious, and I thought maybe goldfish would be interesting to photograph, so soon afterward I visited Hong Kong, went to the street and I took lots of pictures.
“Later, when I did more research into goldfish, I realized that they had been bred to look a certain way just to be attractive to people. Some didn’t even have fins in the proper or practical location. It was at this point that I realized that their artificiality suited my work perfectly, and started this project.”
The “Liquid Dreams” exhibition comprises some 40 photographs. About 15 are presented in light boxes, while the balance, some as large as two meters across, are mounted behind sheets of Plexiglas and front-lighted with tightly focused spots. In the absence of any other illumination, and with the walls of the gallery painted black, the colors look all the richer — a very effective presentation by Parco.
Along with the rainbow of super-saturated color, the fish here also come in a wide variety of shapes — some with big bulging eyes, others with what look like red wigs plopped atop their bulbous heads. I did a little research myself, and found that goldfish are indeed one of the original designer pets, first domesticated and selectively bred by the Chinese during the Sung Dynasty some 1,000 years ago.
These days, with advances in genetic manipulation, goldfish can literally be made to order. If you wanted an iridescent goldfish with five eyes and your family crest fanned out on its tail fins, the fishnicians on Goldfish Street could probably give you a quote.
“I found it sad the way the goldfish have been manipulated,” says Ninagawa, “and this is difficult to explain. But then I wondered whether my ‘pity’ for the goldfish — thinking ‘they are cute but also sad’ — didn’t represent a sort of human arrogance. This brought me to the point where I wanted to look at the ‘but’ in this equation.”
Ninagawa, just 31, has had quite a career so far. She was initially associated with the so-called onnanoko shashinka (the term, coined by critic Kotaro Iizawa, is sometimes translated into English as “girlie photographers”), a group of young females who emerged in the 1990s with candid and fanciful self-referential work. They caught the public eye, and Ninagawa rode the wave, and went on to win several prestigious awards, among them the top prizes at the 3.3 Tsubo Exhibition in 1996 and the 13th New Cosmos of Photography competition in the same year. Since then she has enjoyed success with photobooks, a key source of revenue for photographers in Japan.
So this exhibition represents a totally new direction for Ninagawa. However, taken at face value, I don’t know if these pictures really succeed in addressing the issue of human intervention on the development of goldfish as there isn’t much context. We are long accustomed to regarding goldfish as cute and colorful, and so not especially inclined to wonder how they got to be that way. There’s just a (Japanese-only) text by Ninagawa, displayed on a large panel at the entrance to the show, which helps illuminate the artist’s intent. It reads in part: “I have realized that I have an obsession, I have realized that I am attracted to the twisted and unnatural.”
One interesting thing — the more I found out about goldfish, and about Ninagawa’s motivation, the less cute the fish in the pictures seemed. One little fellow even started to look downright mean . . . and more than a little angry.
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