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During the installation of this year’s Kyotographie international photography festival, which is currently running at various locations around Kyoto, an electric fan fell over at Nijo Castle, possibly leaving a slight mark on the wall of the World Heritage Site. For a few days it looked like one of the photography festival’s most impressive venues would be canceled.

One of the exhibitors, Richard Collasse, who is also chairman of the board at Chanel Japan, had things to say about the incident at his pre-exhibition talk. A tongue-lashing of Kyoto and Japan by a senior figure of a global fashion brand is not something you hear every day. While praising Kyotographie for being an important way for Kyoto to develop as a cultural center, he also castigated the city for being “the most closed society in a country whose spirit is still closed to the world.” That a small incident should blow up into such a huge issue was, in Collasse’s view, “a very Japanese problem.” The mainly Japanese audience that was present nodded and lightly tittered.

One reason Kyotoites might have been amused rather than offended by Collasse’s chastisement is that if you love where you live, an outsider’s frustration at your exclusivity isn’t a problem, it’s an affirmation. On the “love Kyoto” side, there is the artist couple and Kyotographie contributors RongRong and inri, who moved to the city six years ago. When I ask RongRong, who is originally from Fujian, China, what it was like to live in Kyoto, he says he would gladly stay forever.

“Being from China I felt a strong sense of continuity, through Buddhist tradition, connecting Kyoto to my own roots,” he says. “Other than that, the air, the smells — things that can’t be put into words — this is Kyoto for me.”

Taking into account that Kyotographie is an international festival and provides access to Japan’s ancient heritage shows that Kyotoites are at least willing to share on occasion. And with reports of a budget crunch in Japan’s crown jewel, an artistic festival is a pretty on-brand way to do so.

'Jifei Kyoto' by RongRong and inri at Lake Biwa Canal Museum | ©︎ TAKESHI ASANO-KYOTOGRAPHIE 2021
‘Jifei Kyoto’ by RongRong and inri at Lake Biwa Canal Museum | ©︎ TAKESHI ASANO-KYOTOGRAPHIE 2021

Signs of the times

In recognition of the ongoing pandemic as well as the 10th anniversary of the Great East Japan Earthquake, Kyotographie’s theme this year is “Echo.”

As such, one of the centerpiece exhibitions is Dutch photographic artist Erwin Olaf’s “Annus Mirabilis,” which combines two series created during the pandemic. Located at the Museum of Kyoto Annex, the first of the series, “April Fool,” reflects the absurdity of life in lockdown. The second, “Im Wald” (“In the Forest”), is an extraordinary demonstration of what digital photography can do in terms of creating vast and impeccably detailed images with perfect exposure. The impact of Olaf’s images is enhanced by the complementary design of the exhibition, which takes us from dark claustrophobic corridors showing “April Fool” into an expansive white space for the “Im Wald” section. The whole thing is visually seductive, but the easy and deferential recycling of 19th-century painterly aesthetic seems regressive rather than contemporary.

The five exhibits at the almost-canceled Nijo Castle venue include Kazuma Obara’s “Fill in the Blanks,” which uses different recording techniques to remind us that in major disasters there are many individual stories of suffering. Ikebana master Atsunobu Katagiri’s “Sacrifice” uses the type of black bags used to store irradiated soil, placing inside them photos of simple ikebana designs created using materials from Fukushima Prefecture, which suffered a nuclear disaster after the Great East Japan Earthquake. In the video of “Brise-lames” (“Wind-waves”), by choreographer Damien Jalet and French street artist and photographer JR, dancers’ bodies undulate in tortured waves. Chikuunsai IV Tanabe has woven strips of recycled bamboo into a huge organic shape that overwhelms the room in which it has been installed. In the context of Kyotographie, the work is a threatening nonhuman presence with which the viewer must negotiate the right to coexist.

And in one of the castle watchtowers, Collasse’s own photography of the March 11 disaster is presented with words from his novel “L’Ocean dans la Riziere” (“The Ocean in the Ricefield”), which also centers on the tsunami. While introducing his exhibition, Collasse humbly described himself as a lover of photography rather than an artist, but with a superbly designed installation, erected in just a few days, the total effect of viewing his images is powerfully emotive. This is representative of the strength of Kyotographie as a festival as well as its weakness, in that the beauty of the setting may blunt a work’s critical potential.

'Stand' by Chikuunsai IV Tanabe at Nijo Castle | ©︎ TAKESHI ASANO-KYOTOGRAPHIE 2021
‘Stand’ by Chikuunsai IV Tanabe at Nijo Castle | ©︎ TAKESHI ASANO-KYOTOGRAPHIE 2021

Not just photography

Over at the Hosoo Gallery, the Maison Europeenne de la Photographie (MEP), in conjunction with the global luxury group Kering, is presenting a selection of work by five early-career female photographers. Manon Lanjouere’s “Demande a la poussiere” (“Ask the Dust”) is a collection of faux-archive and constructed images that mixes the dramatic, poetic and forensic with particularly fine judgment. Inspired by a natural disaster and a piece of music by John Adams, Lanjouere’s work evokes a creeping sense of dread and awe that fits powerfully with the “Echo” theme. Another standout work in the MEP selection, though not a photography project, is Adele Gratacos de Volder’s combination of tiny scribbled handwriting and fever-dream video piece “Jamais Indemne! Un Coeur a Corps” (“Never Unscathed! A Heart to the Body”).

Other non-photographic works in this year’s festival include David Shrigley’s “Unconventional Bubbles,” the output from a collaboration with the Champagne maker Ruinart, and “Miroirs” (“Mirrors”) a manga by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu that is inspired by the life of fashion designer Coco Chanel.

With panels that portray, for example, a sign reading “Please do not destroy the world” and an oval Earth with the text “World has been distorted — we must return it to its original shape,” the Shrigley work chosen for display does not quite capture the esoteric and multivalent humor of the British artist. The “Miroirs” exhibition, however, is beautifully set up in a traditional obi workshop and attached storehouse from the Taisho Era (1912-26), and tells a story of grit and liberation through self-expression. Don’t expect any mention of Chanel’s Nazi sympathies, though.

'Miroirs' by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu at Kondaya Genbei Chikuin-no-Ma and Kurogura | ©︎ TAKESHI ASANO-KYOTOGRAPHIE 2021
‘Miroirs’ by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu at Kondaya Genbei Chikuin-no-Ma and Kurogura | ©︎ TAKESHI ASANO-KYOTOGRAPHIE 2021

Fresh takes

In the KG+ Select satellite program, which is intended to incubate new talent, the project “Saori” by Taro Karibe, takes a nonjudgemental look at 65-year-old Senji Nakajima and his life with a silicone sex doll named Saori from 2016 to 2020. Although Nakajima is married with two children, he has lived away from home due to work since the age of 40. Karibe’s gaze is largely a sympathetic one, showing Nakajima taking care of Saori — when he takes her outside he puts her in a wheelchair — as well as enjoying her sexually as an object. According to Karibe’s accompanying text, which references the work of “Love and Sex with Robots: The Evolution of Human-Robot Relationships” author David Levy, “Saori” is underpinned by the question, “What makes us human?”

Karibe’s moral equanimity toward his subject’s situation is understandable, but in the context that the treatment of mental health issues in Japan — including loneliness — mostly focuses on ameliorating symptoms, rather than seriously engaging with causes, the question “What makes us human?” is rather sophomoric. Yusuke Takagi, another artist in the KG+ Select program, asks a harder question in his work, “Spin”: How can I break the cycle of my father’s behavior and have a better relationship with my son, more than what my father had with me?

Using old family photos, enlarged versions of his photography and colored patterns derived from CT scans that show his father’s brain atrophy brought on by chronic alcoholism, Takagi’s images owe something of their style to the postwar avant-garde of the Provoke era in Japan. His photobook of the project, however, is powerfully unique.

Catharsis is a key point in Takagi’s work, and important to the festival as a whole, particularly this year. However, photography’s superpower is to critique narratives, even if it is particularly good at creating or confirming them. Kyoto has long thrived on its narrative as being insular, and Kyotographie, simply by existing, has a major impact on that.

Kyotographie 2021: Echo is currently taking place at various locations around Kyoto until Oct. 17. For more information, visit www.kyotographie.jp.

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