Conceived during the halcyon days of Japan’s economic boom, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography (TMP) has seen plenty of ups and downs in its 10 years of operation. The fact that the TMP’s entrance is hidden within Yebisu Garden Place has been one issue, but the bigger problem is that the TMP has never really found its direction. During the late ’90s, the museum was running debts at a rate well over 10 times its revenues, which prompted management changes and attempts to schedule more popular exhibitions, including nonphotography shows.
Although Japan’s largest photography museum has yet to make it into the black, this summer is nonetheless an “up” time for the TMP. Two excellent photography shows are currently running — “Supernatural Artificial,” curated by Natalie King, features 55 works (prints and video) from 10 contemporary Australian artists; while “World Press Photo” comprises 200 pictures from the world’s largest annual photojournalism competition.
“Supernatural Artificial” brings us glimpses of fantasy worlds from the land down under, glimpses made possible in large part by photography’s expanded horizons. In the digital age, photographic retouching is no longer esoteric practice — “to Photoshop” has become a common verb. While the representation of reality remains photography’s principal role, its intrinsic artistic potential (through digital manipulation) is now commonly recognized.
More than half the images here have been heavily manipulated by the artists. Pat Brassington’s images of apparently naughty flesh-on-flesh encounters are particularly engaging, and will have viewers scratching their heads, wondering what the heck is going on with those probing protrusions and soft red curves.
Also steeped in an eroticism are Monika Tichacek’s series of photographs and video, based on Amanda Lepore, a transgender cult diva whose eyes full of sparkle and lips full of collagen bespeak a self-obsession and quest for a “beauty” so powerful that it could rightly and ironically be described as self-mutilation. In the video piece we see a salmon-pink room with antlers hanging on the wall. Big-band music plays softly as Lepore reclines on a chair. She regards, then slowly caresses her “twin,” who is actually the artist dressed in an identical outfit.
The two women are joined by a snaking length of braided blond hair bound in green fishnet. All very David Lynch, and, if you like his kind of stuff, then you’ll love this. Also mysterious in a Lynch-esque way is David Noonan and Simon Trevak’s installation, “Sowa,” which features a three-minute video (from 16mm film stock) of a twentysomething female. Long-haired and wearing a simple black dress, the emotionless young woman starts out in a sitting as a ’70s space-music soundtrack plays; then suddenly she’s outside, walking through a lush green forest and field. Effective enough as a mood piece, but by the end I didn’t get the feeling that the work had gone anywhere.
Engagingly weird and almost funny are the forced, static poses in Eliza Hutchison’s portraits; I also liked Darren Sylvester’s framing of personal relationships. There is also recent and new work from Cherine Fahd, Darren Siwes, Anne Zahalka, and one of Australia’s most successful contemporary artists, Tracey Moffatt.
I moved on to “World Press Photo,” which is up on the TMP’s third floor gallery. Originating in the Netherlands in 1955, World Press Photo is a nonprofit photojournalism competition, with the winning selections forming a traveling exhibition that visits 40 countries. The pictures here appeared in newspapers and magazines and Web sites in 2003, so many may look familiar. Having them here together as large, full-color prints reminds us that good photojournalists do create excellent quality pictures.
The international work in this show surveys the mass of human experience — there are heartwarming human interest pictures, spectacular sports action shots, breathtaking geography and photo essays. But the images that really hit home are those that confront us, in one single, crisp composition, with otherwise indescribable horrors.
Its many war scenes catalog civilian casualties galore — “World Press Photo” is a vivid reminder that all is not well on planet Earth; it is an irrefutable testimony to man’s inhumanity toward his fellow man.
I felt sick and I would not bring children to this show — not simply to protect their sensibilities, but also out of shame for the utter cruelty that my generation has shown itself capable of. Better, perhaps, to bring the kids to the TMP’s basement gallery where the Seiji Fujishiro show offers a unique and family-friendly retrospective of exactly 50 years of fairy-tale illustrations and shadow drawings in an Indonesian style by Fujishiro (100 works).
In the first floor lobby, the TMP is screening episodes of the mannequin-action comedy TV series, “Oh! Mikey.”
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