The abominable beauty of Michiko Kon’s work is back.
In the early 1990s Kon was one of the first female photographic artists from Japan to achieve widespread international recognition. Her work combined a shocking use of animal parts with meticulous technique in a way that was both unsettling and visually seductive. She reached prominence around the time that Damien Hirst first exhibited his shark in a tank of formaldehyde, but some years after Joel-Peter Witkin had started using animal and human body parts in staged photographic tableaux in the ’80s.
Kon’s “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark” vibe, however, makes the British superstar’s butterfly works look like the self-comforting behavior of Frankenstein’s monster sticking stuff to a wall, while compared to Witkin’s darker and more stridently transgressive work, there is a Rococo-like decorativeness and wit to what she does.
After a hiatus of several years, during which time she was occupied with caring for her mother, Kon is once again making hats with fish heads, repurposing eyeballs and making impeccable darkroom prints of her surreal assemblages. Her new pieces, on show at Photo Gallery International (PGI) in Higashi-Azabu, have a greater sense of narrative about them, and the compositions are more fulsome than her earlier still lifes, which often had objects set against a plain black background, reminiscent of the etchings of 20th-century print artist Kiyoshi Hasegawa (1891 -1980).
The 2017 image “Mackerel’s Boot,” has at its center a boot made with coils of mackerel skins and ornamentations of shiny sanma (Pacific saury, also known as mackerel pike) heads. Around it are lilies, a stuffed bird, some roses and the background is a wall of black lace. Kon’s 1995 image “Boot of Shrimps” by contrast, is a boot on its own, with just four small rosebuds sticking out the top and a single bodiless prawn head off to one side. In this earlier image, the novelty and surreal incongruity of a fashion accessory made of impractical materials is shown off as an iconic object with less set dressing.
Proxy and hybrid human forms take on a more important role in Kon’s new work. The three largest photographs in the PGI exhibition “Goat Boy 2,” “Cocoon’s Girl” and “Sister Bambi” use doll parts to create fairy tale beasts that seem benign, despite their monstrosity. Goat Boy, with the skull of a goat for a head, sports a bow tie and polka-dot stockings, Cocoon Girl wears a white lace dress decorated with fish heads and silkworm cocoons, and Sister Bambi’s headdress is made of flowers. Being traditional darkroom prints made by the artist herself, there is a particular pleasure in seeing these images firsthand. PGI, which has supported Kon since the early years of her career and has a strong commitment to the craft of the photographic print must be pleased to see this bodacious artist back at work.
Some of Kon’s recent work has been created in Mexico and it’s not difficult to see a correspondence between their macabre festivity and the visual traditions of the Day of the Dead festivities. In a pointed departure from her usual depiction of imaginary and/or inanimate, objects, Kon appears in a self-portrait with her face made up as a skull. She cradles a doll in her lap with one hand, while holding on to the brim of her sombrero with the other, as though it might blow away in the wind. It’s an odd mix of poised calculation and kitschy tourist snapshot that doesn’t fit comfortably with the main body of her work.
In part, this is simply because live human beings only rarely appear in her images. On another level, it’s because showing an actual person undermines the way in which Kon’s photographs generally work. They should be repulsive, but are instead strangely comforting; giving form, and some kind of validation to the absurd and irrational nature of dreams and desires, outside the passage of time.
“Michiko Kon: Recent Works 2018” at Photo Gallery International (PGI) runs until April 28; free entry. For more information, visit www.pgi.ac.