History that lingers in photography


Special To The Japan Times

There is an unseen hand behind The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition, “The Angel of History.” On the surface, this is an eclectic, almost random mix of avant-garde photography that spans the last 80 years and includes the work of Man Ray, Diane Arbus, Christian Boltanski, Robert Mapplethorpe and others. But weaving this all together are the theories and poetic words of Koji Taki, a well-known art critic who died last year at the age of 82.

According to the museum’s curator, Etsuko Watari, Taki’s spirit, exemplified in a poetic text that he donated to the museum, is the heart of the exhibition.

“We have selected the works according to that text,” she told me on a recent visit. “This is the third time we’ve used Taki’s text as a basis of a show. The first time was in 1996, but each time it becomes more relevant to the present day.”

This relevance may not be immediately apparent to every visitor. My first impression was that the exhibition was a rather pretentious mixture of antiquated avant-gardism and ’60s radicalism. Also, some of the selections seemed to have been made for their name value. Although once spellbinding, Man Ray’s “rayograms” have by now been completely drained of their mystery; while Rene Magritte’s tiny snapshots showed a much more mundane aspect of the great Belgian Surrealist.

But the key to this exhibition is Taki’s text. Parts of this are displayed in Japanese on transparent plastic sheets suspended from the ceiling, but the museum also provides a sheet of translations for English speakers.

Taki’s notion of the “Angel of History” is drawn from a quote by the German Jewish critic, Walter Benjamin. This was itself inspired by “Angelus Novus,” an image of an angel by Paul Klee, which is not included in the show. Using this work as a starting point, Benjamin described the angel as a symbol of the confused rush toward progress:

“The storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows towards the sky. That which we call progress is this storm.”

But how do such poetic conceptions inform and enliven an exhibition of photography? Taki’s notion is that the real subject of photography is “history that does not appear in ‘history.’ ” He also refers to the gaps, omissions, and “missing pages” of history that only photography can fill with its ability to inspire powerful leaps of association.

A cynic might say that the words are here to soften you up so that you’ll treat the images more generously. However, in my case viewing the images first stimulated a similar train of thought to that described in Taki’s rather abstruse text. While the Mapplethorpes left me cold and the Arbuses reminded me of eerie Halloween games, the oldest photo, “Unemployed Sailor” (1923) by the German photographer August Sander struck a chord, stimulating me to fill in the gaps and imagine the situation of its subject.

The history books will inform you about German hyperinflation and the unemployment statistics of the time, and also present a standardized image of the unemployed, but Sander’s sailor immediately contradicts the clichés of the grand historical narrative with his feisty individuality. Instead of a suitably despondent face, we get a man who is a mix of emotions. There are traces of cockiness and confidence mixed in with a sense of poverty. He is a human agent able to act on his own, rather than a statistic to pad out some socioeconomic theory. The great, depersonalizing historical forces seem to recede before the intense micro history captured by Sander’s photo.

But even images of fantasy and imagination can offer a vivid alternative sense of history. Duane Michals nostalgic-looking photo narrative “The Fallen Angel” (1986) deals with lust and guilt, and the spiritual and carnal dichotomy. “Historians fail to grasp the flesh while photographers fix their gaze on it,” Taki writes in the accompanying text, which also refers to the Mapplethorpes.

Strange resonances were given off by these works as I imagined the milieu that created them, a New York that was then reeling from the first deadly wave of the AIDs outbreak, which also killed Mapplethorpe. These photos tell that history more eloquently and concisely than any “proper” historian ever could.

With this in view, one of the most interesting inclusions is a piece of still unfolding contemporary history by the edgy art collective Chim↑Pom, one of whose members worked at clean-up operations at the damaged Fukushima nuclear reactor. “Red Card” (2011) shows him holding up a red card, like a referee, to the stricken reactor building. While the ponderous words of historians drag their feet, this is an image that leaps into the mind with the facility of a flying angel.

“I Love Art 12: The Angel of History” at The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art (Watari-um) runs till Nov. 11; open 11 a.m.- 7 p.m. (Wed. till 9 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.watarium.co.jp.