Tokyo Museum of Photography puts the private out in public


Conceived during the optimism of the bubble era, but built in the mid 1990s, the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography’s development was stunted by budget cuts, less-than-impressive attendance and an unfocused raison d’etre.

Although centrally located in Ebisu with a large exhibition space, the MoP always seemed something of an underachiever — overly modest and apparently unwilling to claim its place as our city’s premier venue for photography, perhaps due to the increased attention given to photography by other museums recently.

Happily, the museum’s ambitious new exhibition, “Absolutely Private: On Photography in the Zero Decade,” does almost everything right, suggesting that the MoP, now celebrating its 10th anniversary, is finally coming of age.

The exhibition of photography from this decade comprises 124 works of photography, installation and collage. The show’s theme — an exploration of the changing connotation of “private” in the information age — does not constrict what is a surprisingly open-ended survey of the current state of photography. There are a few fairly well-known names among the 15 participants from seven countries, though most are the sort that tend to be referred to as “emerging.”

The first of three sections is “Myself Within Me,” which deals with portraits. It starts well with a collection of monochrome “Family Portraits” by Chiharu Shiota, displayed inside a scaled-down, burned-out house frame. The acrid odor of the charred wood creates an unsettling atmosphere, and as the piece references a visit to Shiota’s hometown after an absence of many years, the triggering of the olfactory sense’s nostalgic qualities are all the more appropriate.

Other highlights include photographs by Jean-Paul Brohez, Anni Emilia Leppala and Antoine d’Agata. In Brohez’s pictures of the Belgian countryside what we see are stuffed animals, colorful wild mushrooms and the open air, but what we feel is a total harmony between the artist and the land.

Although the selections from Leppala’s “Seedlings” series appear to be digitally reworked, the young Finn uses only straight photography for these moody pictures. “I’m interested in the moment, the relationship the photograph can have with the past tense. So it’s important for me that it is a real moment,” says Leppala.

D’Agata’s contortion of erotic and violent images is pulsing with energy. A man who might be dead, a woman having sex, an old church, a scarred forearm and more cover three walls, enveloping the viewer in a jubilee of decadence.

In part two, “Myself in Society,” the first picture is of a kitten biting a hockey puck. At least that’s what it looked like to me. Anyway, a playful image by Mikiko Hara — from work reminiscent of the point-and-shoot “Girl Photographers” trend that swept Japan in the early 1990s.

“Society” also features recent work by Masanori Ikeda, who might well be this country’s next big cultural export. Ikeda’s juxtapositions sit a schoolboy in a living room dominated by apples and plant twin girls in the tiny garden of a sterile apartment building to shift perceptions of normal Japanese home life toward the absurd.

Home and professional identities are the subject of Jacqueline Hassink’s ongoing exploration of women’s relationship with corporate culture. She photographs the dining and board rooms of successful businesswomen, whom she refers to as “Queen Bees,” offering interesting insight into modern bastions of power. Hassink has published a book, “Table of Power,” and recently did a spread on the subject for Fortune Magazine.

Nicole Tran Ba Vang’s cynical look at models is a good bit of weirdness. Her video — with a breathy French chanson featuring the lyrics “strip me” — shows a quartet of women sitting at their make-up tables. The video runs backward, making the the women strip away their eye shadow, rouge and eyeliner. So dramatic is the transformation from radiant divas to shaved-eyebrow, sallow humanity that the viewer begins to question even the gender of the models. You’ll never look at a runway the same way again.

The show finishes with “Adventures in the Everyday,” which looks at less artsy uses of the medium. At its center is Lomography, a cult built around an impish Soviet-era 35mm camera called the Lomo Kompakt Automat. Matthias Fiegl, an Austrian carrying the Lomo torch at the show, explains: “Lomography is a little philosophy that says don’t respect any rules, free yourself and shoot whenever and however you can. Lomography has no conceptual framework other than letting the random work for you.”

Two Lomography installations show hundreds of grainy snapshots — faces, a lamp, a road sign, a pet. It’s pointless to examine these too closely or critically, as it’s better to just imagine yourself half-asleep in an old car, peering through a dirty, streaked window on a slow drive through an unfamiliar city — if the unknown sights strangely resonate, then you have discovered the universal connectedness of Lomography.

Finally, a treat for native English speakers is “Karasu” by artists’ group Second Planet, featuring a video of Tokyo crows accompanied by a soundtrack of World War II Japanese propaganda radio broadcasts. The playfully suggestive female announcer bids, “Hello to our friends, I mean enemies in the Pacific. To help you relax, here is another blow at your morale — the jive, I mean song, ‘I don’t want to go to work’!”