Tokyo’s new space for Chinese photography


In the 1950s American photographer Robert Frank traveled the United States with help from a Guggenheim grant, taking a series of sublime images of people from all walks of life documenting the mediocrity of diners and cocky cowboys to funerals and soulless bus depots.

These images, which culminated in the now seminal photo book “The Americans,” first published in 1958, were to change modern photography forever. “The Americans” was the photographic equivalent of Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s legendary 1957 novel “On the Road,” a meandering journey that illuminated a side of life that had rarely been recorded. Kerouac was later to write the introduction to “The Americans,” which was essentially a photographic study of postwar America — a nation divided by race and societal inequalities.

The spirit of “The Americans” is very much evident in the first exhibition of Zen Foto, a new gallery in Shibuya. “Dream Shock,” by acclaimed Chinese photographer Liu Zheng, is a series of portraits and tableaux, and is the first time the photographs have been shown outside of China. Zheng’s first photo-book, published in 2000, “The Chinese,” which caused a stir in the Chinese and international art scenes, details a journey Zheng made across the expanse of China in the 1990s.

Sharing a similar aesthetic as Frank and other American artists such as Diane Arbus, Zheng focuses on a wide spectrum of society, snapping oddballs, the homeless, transvestites and rural drug dealers. “Dream Shock” can be seen as an extension of “The Chinese” and is equally as impressive.

Zen Foto is showing 28 images, a cross section of society including the old and young, diseased and dead, as well as prostitutes, obese ladies and S&M madams. The portraits are frank, shocking and fascinating, many are explicit, but they also express the same candor and subtlety of August Sander and Mike Disfarmer’s iconic portraiture.

Zheng is one of the many cultural stars, along with novelists such as Ma Jian and Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, that have gained international recognition since the ’90s. This new wave of cultural commentary comes at a time closely reminiscent of Frank’s America. The economic and societal changes have produced a crop of artists who are relentlessly capturing a China that is in the midst of eradicating a troubled past and diving head first into a new age revolving around construction and consumption.

Mark Pearson, polymathic owner-director of Zen Foto and hedge-fund maverick, is a serious collector of Japanese and Chinese photography. His diverse private collection includes work from artists such as Nobuyoshi Araki and Daido Moriyama as well as current exhibitor Liu Zheng. Assisted by Waseda University graduate Amanda Lo, he opened Zen Foto in September with the purpose of having a gallery that specializes solely in Asian and, more specifically, Chinese photography — the first of its kind in Tokyo.

Having made numerous trips to China in the past few years Pearson says he was fascinated and impressed by the quantity and quality of Chinese art. He believes that the Chinese photographs on display can “bring dynamism and energy to Japan” and hopes that the gallery “can contribute to cultural relations between Japan and China.”

Liu Zheng is the first of many exciting new Chinese photographers to be shown at Zen Foto. The next exhibition, scheduled for November, will showcase the work of Yang Yankang, who is engaged in a decade-long project to capture Buddhist communities in Tibet.

Pearson explains that Zheng, who has already shown in cultural centers such as London, New York and Venice, is a “post-Communist pioneer” and a vehement advocate of preserving traditional Chinese cultures, adding that “Zheng doesn’t like modern China and the destruction in China. He doesn’t even want his work to be held in Chinese museums.”

Zheng, a 40-year-old native of Hebei Province, is a graduate of Beijing’s Technology Institute and started his career as a photojournalist for Workers’ Daily, one of China’s biggest newspapers. His body of work reflects both the massive cultural shifts that have taken place in China and gives us a rare glimpse into the soul and character of his fellow countrymen.

The stark and graphic portraits contrast superbly with the often haunting tableaux vivants. In the words of Pearson, “Dream Shock” is a representation of “a dream of what China is and was and could be; and the shock of what it has become.”

“Dream Shock” at Zen Foto Gallery runs till Oct. 13, closed Sun., Mon.; admission is free. For more information call (090) 9301-7058 or visit