When Koichi Watari, the director of the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art contacted Yoshitomo Nara to organize a solo exhibition of his work, the artist was traveling around Hokkaido and Sakhalin with photographer and hard-core explorer Naoki Ishikawa. Nara suggested to Watari that they do a two-person show, and the result is “To The North, From Here,” which combines two very different practices. It is worth mentioning this, as one of the key concerns of the exhibition could be said to be the process of becoming, both on a personal and on a grander historical scale.

Nara is well-known for his paintings and installations featuring children who are by turns fierce, cute and pathetic, and which helped define a new generation of Japanese contemporary art. Ishikawa’s work is more austere; using extreme climates and locations, his work has achieved distinction by eschewing the melodrama of travel photography and treating the spectacular scenes he encounters with subtlety and restraint. The two of them working together has resulted in a display of tangible objects and images, but the exhibition can also be seen as documentation of past events, in which the artefacts are secondary.

None of Nara’s paintings — which allude to the darker side of childhood, and are much beloved by fans — can be found in this show. However, on one floor of the exhibition space is a display of personal objects that includes family photos that show the artists as kids, the sleeves of some of Nara’s vinyl record collection and selections of both artists’ books. Viewers can effectively embark on their own mini-anthropological expedition, searching for clues to better understand these particular artists.

We get to see that Nara’s music preferences tend toward eclectic 1970s folk rock, and that Ishikawa has read “Orientalism” by Edward Said and “I was a Soldier of the Emperor,” the true life story of James B. Harris, a half-British journalist of this very newspaper who was drafted into the Japanese army and fought in China. A diagram clearly shows whose personal artefacts we are looking at. This contrasts with the floor above, where the photographs on show are deliberately without captions, and we cannot tell who took what.

The display of personal possessions is an interesting mix of tenderness, nostalgia and forensics, with a splash of theory of mind. On its own it might appear self-indulgent — but here, sandwiched between two floors of photography of people in traditional dress, local matsuri (festivals) and hunting, it is an admission of vulnerability; an indication that the observers do not claim to be disinterested or free from bias. For Nara, as a child growing up in Aomori Prefecture, Ainu culture was a lingering presence in the names of local towns and folklore stories, and it’s easy to imagine the mythological allure of a people on the periphery of Japan’s history. Ishikawa’s PhD was in art and anthropology and he must be acutely aware of all the moral complexities of photographing subaltern cultures and the history of Ainu oppression.

To put the exhibition into context; in the early years of photography in Japan, by far the most produced genre was the tourist photo — hand-colored prints that were ordered by visiting foreigners to take home as souvenirs of their trip. The more exotic and old-timey the better. These images were made almost exclusively for foreign consumption. They fitted well with the prevailing world-view of social Darwinism, developed by Herbert Spencer, which applied the theory of evolution to human societies and races. Spencer’s ideas became immensely popular in Japan, in no small part because British observers had concluded that the Japanese were superior to the indolent Chinese and savage tribespeople of Southeast Asia, and that they would “evolve” to become the leading nation in the orient.

The exported photographic images depicted a medieval Japan that was quaint, exotic and anachronistic. Domestically, however, besides privately commissioned studio portraits of noblemen and samurai, the only other group who could afford photography in significant quantities was the Meiji government (1867-1912), who focused more on documenting the new rather than the old. The one exception to this was an extensive mission to photograph the Ainu in a way that emphasized their aboriginal culture and physical differences to wajin, the people of central Japan. Festivals, bear hunting, ethnographic portraiture and native clothing and tattoos were important features of this documentation.

There are some unsettling similarities in content between the Meiji government’s symbolic display of power and the imagery in “To The North, From Here,” but the differences in process and setting are crucial. The wearing of native clothes now comes across as an act of defiance and commemoration, the snapshots of festivals are glimpses of celebrations that are for the benefit of the locals, not staged events for the photographer, and butchered game is more representative of survival than savagery.

The exhibition is not without flaws and imperfections, but this is somehow positive. Given the subject matter, clinical precision would be inappropriate.

“To the North, From Here: Naoki Ishikawa + Yoshitomo Nara” at The Watari Museum of Contemporary Art runs till May 10; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Wed., till 9 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.watarium.co.jp


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