The year 1968 saw a wide range of actions directed against the Japanese government: Universities were occupied, protesters demonstrated en masse against Japan’s complicity in the Vietnam War and students mobilized to stop the transportation of Vietnam-bound jet fuel through Shinjuku Station. A quieter, though equally radical, event could be added to this list: the publication of a slim, independent magazine of photography and essays called Provoke.
Streetlights burn white holes into one of the images inside; the unlit pavement in the foreground is a nearly even tone of black. This photograph, by Takuma Nakahira, of a city at night stands out among the collection. It is a study in harsh contrast. Nondescript men in suits linger to the right of the frame, and a couple of cars are visible on the left. There is practically nothing else in the image — except for a placard above the cars that spells out a single word: “Empire.”
Provoke is now the subject of a major exhibition, “Provoke: Between Protest and Performance,” that will travel through Europe and the United States over the next two years. Although only three issues of Provoke were ever published (between 1968-69), it has influenced both the development of photography within Japan and the reception of this work outside of the country. Thanks to the magazine, the rough look of photographs by Nakahira (and fellow contributor Daido Moriyama) have practically become a visual shorthand for “Japanese photography.” The intensity of these images, combined with the rarity of the magazine itself, have granted Provoke mythic status as an obscure source of aesthetic innovation.
These blurry, high-contrast images are arresting — but don’t let that distract you from Provoke’s critical project. It’s no coincidence that the word lingering in the background of Nakahira’s photograph is “Empire.” At this time, Japan was involved in the Vietnam War by proxy, through the American occupation of Okinawa. Provoke struck a blow against this union of military power and of capital — which means that to view the magazine in aesthetic terms only is to erase its critical position.
Now comes “Provoke: Between Protest and Performance,” a catalog edited by the Western curators of the exhibition for an English-speaking audience. The book weighs in at nearly 700 pages, and its sheer abundance of material alone — including full reproductions of the magazine’s three issues, and many previously untranslated texts — makes it an invaluable reference for anyone with even a passing interest in the relationship between art and politics, to say nothing of Japanese photography. But does the catalog continue to push the myth of Provoke as aesthetic, or does it make a case for the magazine’s relevance to contemporary political struggles — in Japan or otherwise?
Much to their credit, the curators know the danger of aestheticizing the images inside Provoke; they make it clear from the start that they will not treat these works as “artistic achievements for which political strife was only a colorful, circumstantial setting.” They have made a serious attempt to account for the broader context of political activism in which the magazine was produced.
As a result, a third of the book is devoted to Japanese protest photo books, a diverse category that includes tomes published by activist groups, student organizations and individuals alike. These images report directly from sites of struggle, such as the major Shinjuku anti-war protests of October 1968, or the movement (from roughly 1966 on) against the construction of Narita airport. This material helpfully situates Provoke within the political climate of its time, while another third of the book explores performance-based photography in Japan from the 1960s and ’70s.
While this catalog does not reduce Provoke to a style, it has missed an opportunity to connect the magazine to contemporary times. To take just one example, the ongoing protest against the construction of helipads in Takae, Okinawa, makes clear that the urgent political questions of the late ’60s and early ’70s in Japan are still relevant. (Needless to say, these questions are not specific to Japan, either.)
On this point, though, the catalog essays largely come up short: it is clear that they are the fruits of meticulous research, but they do not offer enough opportunities to think of Provoke in terms of the present. Why Provoke, and why now? The very first sentence of the catalog offers a wry answer: “Western interest in Japanese photography has been running high in recent years.”
Although the book certainly makes a powerful argument for why its English-speaking audience should not take Provoke as a mere aesthetic, more work remains to be done to show just why the magazine deserves our attention today.