The banner image for “Vibe,” the seventh edition of the Kyotographie International Photography Festival, is Scotsman Albert Watson’s sepia-tinted portrait of Ryuichi Sakamoto, which was used for the musician’s 1989 album “Beauty.” It’s an outrageously self-indulgent image, but so gorgeous, and the album itself so perfect, the indulgence can absolutely be forgiven. As an event that covers a broad range of photography appealing to different audiences, Kyotographie may never be able to hit all the right notes for everybody, nevertheless, this is Japan’s most comprehensive, and most beautifully set event dedicated to the medium.
From the point of view of what makes Kyotographie unique — that it has access to heritage buildings of Japan’s ancient capital — Tunisian artist Ismail Bahri’s installation in the Okiyodokoro kitchen of the Nijo Castle, is the epitome of what the festival can offer. Rather than show prints, Bahri has used the space to play with the idea of photography. The original configuration of the room had shoji screen doors and, realizing that these were a form of shutter, Bahri had them replaced with wooden screens in order to create a literal camera obscura. Natural light pierces the darkness in carefully calculated ways: a vertical gap between boards projects a line onto a sheet of Japanese paper, which moves gently with any gusts of air, a horizontal slot illuminates the edges of a roll of tape that is speckled with sand from a beach in Tunisia.
This may sound Zen-like or meditative — and how boringly Orientalist if it was — but there is too much pregnant tension in the work for that.
“It’s very political,” Bahri said in a gallery talk, which was also carefully constructed, in terms of how the artist took the audience’s attention span and energy into account. “I want to talk about the relation of the center and periphery, the inside and the outside.”
Weronika Gesicka’s “What a Wonderful World,” is also an exhibition that doesn’t rely on photography created by the artist. The Polish artist’s collection of digitally edited archive photos from 1950s and ’60s America have the biting satirical edge of John Heartfield’s anti-Nazi photo collages, and the anti-commodification spirit of pop artist Richard Hamilton and feminist provocateur Barbara Kruger.
Like Max Ernst’s “Une Semaine de Bonte” (1934), there is a consistency in the original material and process across many images, and Gesicka creates a whole alternative dream world. This is reinforced by the setting of Gesicka’s images, which are exhibited in constructed sets that are parodies of suburban American homes. There is also a “playground” of objects that look like they were designed by Lucy van Pelt from “Peanuts,” with a trampoline of glass instead of rubber, a crib made with white picket fencing and a swing that hangs from the ceiling with barbed wire.
Photography in “What a Wonderful World” is suspect. The part it plays in creating and reinforcing narratives is duly acknowledged, and this sets Gesicka free to challenge essentialist discourses about gender, family life and authenticity.
The positive to Gesicka’s negative, in terms of attitude to photography as photography, can be seen in “About Her, About Me, and About Them,” an exhibition of Cuban photographers; “Antarctica” and “Ibasyo: Self-injury/Proof of Existence” by two photojournalists taking part in Magnum Photos’ experimental Live Lab residency program; and “The Forms of Nature: 100 Years Bauhaus,” which shows images by Bauhaus-trained Alfred Ehrhardt (1901-84).
In the first of these, vintage prints of Alberto Korda’s (1928-2001) fashion photography and portraits of revolutionary militiawomen are watched over by a blow up of Korda’s most famous image, “Guerrillero Heroico,” the 1960 portrait of Che Guevara, which has become one of the world’s most reproduced images. In Rene Pena’s work, the body is treated as a graphic element or sculptural form, in a manner reminiscent of Robert Mapplethorpe and also fellow 2019 festival exhibitor Albert Watson. The youngest of the three Cuban photographers is Alejandro Gonzalez, whose 2008 series “Improper Conduct” explores diversity and youth subculture. With the color tweaked up or down there is a fashion-magazine quality to these images of kids on the streets and hanging out at the beach.
Images from Gonzalez’s later series “Re-construction: The Gray Five Year Period” (2015) have a more critical position toward the documentary potential of photography, and use models of communist state events made from cardboard and other recycled materials to drive a wedge between photography and propaganda. Taken as a whole, “About Her, About Me, and About Them” is an interesting reflection on rebellion not being a matter of what you do, but when and where you do it.
The work of Magnum photojournalist Paolo Pellegrin is represented with a projection of images from his “Antarctica” series and an unfolded leporello of small prints that provide a survey of his career covering humanitarian crises and civil unrest around the world. The grand aerial views of cracking ice sheets were made possible through Pellegrin joining the NASA Operation IceBridge project, which monitors the effects of climate change in the region. Pellegrin’s semi-abstract fields of black and white are very much in the tradition of the straight photography movement of new objectivity, of which Ehrhardt is an exemplar.
Next to Pellegrin’s “Antarctica,” freelancer Kosuke Okahara is showing his project “Ibasyo: Self-Injury/Proof of Existence,” which is a fly-on-the-wall look at the lives of at-risk Japanese, a series Okahara began working on 15 years ago. Grids of small monochrome prints are displayed in a maze of purposefully oppressive gray cubicles lit by the characteristic harsh white fluorescent bulbs that are common in Japanese households. Whereas Gesicka’s through-the-looking-glass setting is meant to be ironic at a meta level, Okaraha pushes us to experience an echo of the anxiety of the women in his images. The exhibition takes time to go through, with each image building up a story of hardship and emotional trauma.
Ehrhardt rejected the sentimentality of photography that aimed to copy the aesthetic of painting at the turn of the 19th and 20th century and, with other German and U.S. practitioners, he wanted to promote the automatic and mechanical precision of the photograph and its ability to depict beauty as a matter of documentary observation.
“The Forms of Nature” exhibition of Ehrhardt’s austere images of tidal flat lands and shells displayed in the study and tea rooms of the Ryosokuin Temple is very “Kyotographie”: a perfect match. It really is without equal if you’re into the whole nature and harmony thing, but like catching sight of a beautiful couple making a display of smooching in public, possibly slightly annoying.
“Kyotographie International Photography Festival 2019: Vibe” runs until May 12 at various venues around Kyoto. A passport ticket (single entry to all venues) is ¥4,000 and a one-day ticket is ¥3,000. For more information, visit bit.ly/kyotographie2019.