“Abanga-do,” the Japanese loan word derived from “avant-garde” has a relatively wider usage than the original French term. The political philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) originally coined “avant-garde” as a rallying cry for art of the early 19th century to be a medium of social reform. In Japan it’s currently used for anything slightly kooky or off-kilter. That’s fair enough, even apart from the natural evolution of language, “avant-garde” is a slippery term.
“Photography/Magic” is a small selection of contemporary photography at the G/P Gallery in Ebisu, and it evokes a sense of the avant-garde in a couple of ways. Perhaps most obviously, the artists experiment with photography with an eye on what is possible with current technology; the “content” of many of the works is the process. Daisuke Yokota uses a combination of analog and digital processes to create black-and-white images that have the quality of abused and forgotten snapshots. Their surfaces are scarred and pitted with burns, and the subject matter appears dimly as though through a foggy veil. They work incredibly well at evoking mournfulness and abjection.
Takaaki Akaishi’s brightly patterned polyhedra appear to be computer generated, but are in fact photographs of projections beamed onto thin film formed into objects. Enigmatic and cool, Akaishi’s work in this exhibition is the result of a number of fairly involved and self-referential stages; trompe l’oeil for the 21st century.
Kenta Cobayashi’s work, by contrast, is anarchic and more aggressively iconoclastic. Recognizable bits and pieces of faces, bodies and household objects peek out from swathes of schizophrenic post-processing. All the usual complaints leveled at modern art — “I could’ve done that,” “Where’s the technique?,” “It’s ugly” — apply infinitely to Cobayashi’s work, since it is mechanically reproducible. All the usual ripostes also apply — “But you didn’t,” “It’s more about the ideas,” “What is beauty anyway?”
Taisuke Koyama works and reworks rainbows as a recurring motif, rephotographing their appearance in, for example, advertising through water, or with added digital layers. The results are reminiscent of optical art, in their tight focus on color and distortion, though as Koyama’s work is photographic other supplementary meanings creep in.
The work in the exhibition whose content is least manipulated, and whose concerns are more rooted in visceral social issues, is by the only woman artist present: Mayumi Hosokura. Nudes from her series “Crystal Love Starlight” reference the world of sex and commerce with images that echo the color palette of the neon signage often used by dodgy “snack” bars and love hotels.
The fact that she is the only woman artist indicates another sense in which “avant-garde” seems an appropriate way to describe this group show. Historically, the avant-garde has mainly been considered a boys own club, with women appearing only as subject matter. “Avant-garde” is after all, a military analogy. That being said, “Photography/Magic” is not to be missed if you are interested in where photography is headed as an art form.
“Photography/Magic” at G/P Gallery runs until Dec. 25; 12 p.m.-8 p.m. Free admission. Closed Mon. gptokyo.jp