In his The Japanese Chronicles, the Swiss writer and traveller Nicolas Bouvier wrote that Kyoto belongs on a list of 10 cities whose quality of life should be sampled by everyone. It is definitely worth living there just for the annual Kyotographie photography festival. At the start of the 21st century, the heart of avant-garde thinking about the medium of photography beats in this ancient capital of Japan. Art historian Ania Diduch talks with photographer Wojtek Wieteska.
In art, just like in art tourism, there are no coincidences
Ania Diduch: Kyotographie doesn’t resemble any of the photographic festivals I’ve ever been to, although we almost missed it because of you.
Wojtek Wieteska: I’ll admit, I wasn’t in a hurry to get there. I wasn’t really inspired to go and see photographic exhibitions in Kyoto. I didn’t travel 8500 kilometres away from home just to go and watch other people’s work. Rather, I was interested in what was in front of my camera lens. In a way, that’s how I found myself at Kyotographie. I was curious about what the festival goers look like…
We started the visit without any solid plan. In the Nijō-jō castle, instead of seeing the shogun’s lodgings, we first came across the palace kitchen pavilion – Okiyodokoro. The lady responsible for letting the successive groups of visitors into Ismaïl Bahri’s Kusunoki exhibition knocked quietly on the sliding door. After a moment, it quietly ‘opened itself’ from the other side. Inside, it was completely dark, like at the cinema. Once our eyes got used to the darkness, we saw the first work. I felt as if someone had taken a memory out of my brain and unceremoniously displayed it on a monitor in the centre of Kyoto.
The video work depicted a blade of grass that, moved by the wind, draws a circle in the sand like a compass on a sheet of paper. I thought: Oh, not bad, that’s exactly what we saw in Lithuania in January, during our stay at an arts residence in Nida. There is an area there known as the ‘Lithuanian Sahara’ – a dozen or so square kilometres of seaside dunes. We walked there to relax, to reset visually, and we saw that kind of grass bent by the wind, outlining circles.
But you didn’t photograph or film the motif at the time.
No, because showing such a phenomenon without comment, as an ‘event’ in itself, seemed inconsequential to me. I don’t see the point in registering nature if there’s no punchline. And I had a similar frustration at this exhibition, seeing the shots of a single drop on someone’s wrist or a sheet of paper burned by the hot air above a gas hob…
It reminded me a little of the idea behind Norwegian ‘slow TV’ from the beginning of the 21st century. Public television channels broadcast programmes consisting of static shots and you could watch for seven hours, for example, the landscape seen from the roof of a train travelling down a particular route, or a burning fireplace – all live. Moreover, I was captivated by the simplicity of this exhibition: an array of screens in complete darkness. The space was small, so some people sat down on tatami mats and watched from that level.
Yeah, they were ‘exposing’ themselves to the rays of lights going on and off. Perhaps the show was too much of a ‘diet’ to begin our viewing with.
Photography’s new dimension: see it for yourself
The next show we found, Alfred Ehrhardt’s The Forms of Nature – 100 Years of Bauhaus, finally convinced us of this event. It was a sophisticated visual game of indoor and outdoor spaces.
Alfred Ehrhardt’s show was displayed against the background of black tatami mats on which 1940s black-and-white photographs were placed flat, more or less eight inches above floor level. I have never seen such an arrangement before. In a way, the whole thing looked as if it was levitating, and looked ultra-modern, despite the fact that the exhibition venue – Ryosokuin – dates back to the Edo period (1603–1867) and is one of the oldest Zen temples in Kyoto. I had never been to such an exhibition before!
This is the characteristic feature of this festival: all the exhibitions are created within the context of a particular space; a complex set design is constructed for each one. Because of this, when I viewed the shows at Kyotographie, I felt as if I was in a theatre: each exhibition was a new spectacle, complete with lighting direction, the colour of the walls, the size of the prints, their location within a given space, the soundtrack. These were simple but effective procedures (for example, having to walk around a given work). I can lie down, I can see the photo upside down, I can take a walk in the garden and find the tea pavilion where the photographs are six feet away from me and I cannot access them. When I talked to the festival’s chief operating officer Marina Amada, she confirmed that every project, even if it had been previously shown elsewhere, is re-examined in Kyoto once again.
I’ve seen dozens of photographic exhibitions. En masse, it all boils down to visiting numerous, almost identical, air-conditioned, white-walled rooms. In order to connect with the world of photography, I have to focus on the framed surface. At Kyotographie, I did not feel limited in this way. You could say that this festival does not treat photography as a window onto the world – here, Alberti’s Renaissance ideas of a two-dimensional view are absent. Instead, we are served the experience of pure form: its arrangement within the space and the light, falling on the surface of the print, bringing out another, different dimension. We are in the 21st century, so there is no need to prove that photography is art; there is no reason to treat prints with piety! The sand, dunes and shells from Ehrhardt’s photographs ‘merge’ with the spring greenery of the temple’s garden. This makes more sense, because both the creator of the Japanese garden and the photographer wanted to draw our attention to the same issue: nature is a great architect! It creates forms that are beautiful without the need for any human intervention.
Where you stand depends on your vantage point
In Chinese and Japanese painting, there may be a number of variants of seeing within a single composition, because the artist tried to take into account the movement of the eye and the ground (i.e. a scroll examined from right to left). David Hockney refers to this as painting ‘variable focus points’. I think that being a part of such a tradition of imagery leaves a trace on the Japanese curators’ mentality, and this is why their scenography seems so fantastically different from ours. Or maybe this is their natural approach to storytelling?
And I would be tempted to say that the kind of spatial thinking about photography that we saw at Kyotographie is a harbinger of a new life of photographs. In the near future, images and typographies will exist without a foundation; they will all be projections in space. Augmented reality will become the norm, and I hope that curators will take it up creatively.
Kurosawa, Japanese Guerrilla Girls, and sex in the Edo period
Kyotographie consciously provokes the interpenetration of tradition and contemporaneity, for example, by combining bold erotic scenes from Edo period woodcuts with subtle works by Pierre Sernet entitled Synonyms – a series of abstract photographs depicting couples having sex, black-and-white contours only, no details.
The woodcuts are clearly sensual, but at the same time beautiful in their sophisticated composition. They are so stylized that it is difficult to take the depicted scenes seriously; rather, one watches them with a warm smile. I read in the catalogue that the Japanese are ashamed of their erotic heritage, so it was difficult to organize such a show in Japan (initially, the woodcuts were shown in London). The need to ensure decency is so strong that the two illustrations chosen for the catalogue do not show sex at all.
It’s a bit like the erotic scene from Kurosawa’s Ran.
The one where the wife of the slain king tries to slit the throat of his murderous brother?
Exactly. She wounds him with a sword, there’s a pause, and then she kisses him unexpectedly and both disappear from view. Cut. In the next shot, we see them finish getting dressed. Actually, one can hardly call this an erotic scene; it is rather an ‘eroticism of the absence’. With theatrical gestures, Kurosawa consciously tries to distract us from the fact that the protagonists are having sex. Apparently and ineffectively, Kyotographie’s curators also wanted to divert the viewers’ attention away from nudity. But what they really wanted to achieve was to direct the viewers’ eyes and disenchant prudishness.
Similarly, Weronika Gęsicka’s project talked about Japanese feminism under the pretence of a sweet, surrealist atmosphere. I wouldn’t have thought of showing Traces in such a context.
In Kyoto, Gęsicka’s project gained a new title, What a Wonderful World, and a new life in the form of a special set design. The prints were displayed across two rooms in the style of 1950s American homes. One of the rooms had a black-and-white floor, and red, blonde and dark brown mops placed in the corners. These were, in fact, women’s wigs attached to broomsticks...
I liked those mops. These were the most creative works at the exhibition. Transforming photographs from 1950s’ archives à la Magritte is not my cup of tea, and neither is the post factum feminism or the entire scenography attached to them. Some people like coffee with whipped cream, maple syrup, chocolate sprinkles and candied cherries with stems. I prefer espresso, which is why I like Gęsicka’s photo album much better.
I like to return to it as well. As for the exhibition, the curator deliberately went over the top with the design. I respect this decision, because I view it in the context of, for example, Japanese pop culture. Feminism practically doesn’t exist in Japan, so every attempt to begin a discussion is meaningful. Japan has Godzilla, but where are the Japanese Guerrilla Girls questioning the female-male status quo? Gęsicka’s works were meant to inspire young Japanese women to look at themselves more critically.
Charlie and the photo collage factory
Finally, let’s talk about the enormous installation in the basement of the former printing plant of the daily Kyoto Shimbun newspaper. The newspaper still exists, but is now produced digitally. This exhibition brings to mind the activities of the Japanese collective teamLab, a group of 100 artists creating installations and mappings in a purpose-built space.
I remember that a lot was written about them in the foreign art press in 2018. They ‘advertised’ themselves as the creators of the world’s first digital museum…
Based on this positive PR, I had quite high expectations for teamLab. Actually, the show turned out to be a kind of virtual funfair. At the same time, I liked Teppei Kaneuji’s exhibition, because I didn’t understand it. It doesn’t matter to me that I couldn’t really read his intentions. What matters more is that I can enter such a vast space and feel like Charlie in a chocolate factory, only that instead of sweets I see images and mobile installations. They are living their own lives programmed by the artist, but as a viewer, I don’t feel that they need me to exist. And this independence makes me want to observe them all the more.
I had a similar feeling about teamLab. It seemed to me that as soon as I left the room, the projections would just stop and nothing there would make any sense; that these animations only existed in order to draw me in and sell me something. In the end, I didn’t buy anything in this shop and left all my impressions behind. I went back to the ‘real world’ with a void in my head.
With teamLab, you get a high-calorie visual experience, but these calories are just empty.
It’s a bit like fast food. Meanwhile, the S.F. (Splash Factory) installation showed the setting of the long-gone analogue world, and inserted something very contemporary into this context: animations, installations and mappings. The essence of printing and ink gained an entirely new character here. Photographs of ink were printed and attached to plywood, becoming sculptures. Animated streams of ink flooded the screens showing traditional landscapes. Suddenly, I realized that I was inside a remix of art history, and behind the decks were Fauvists, Cubists, Dadaists, surrealists, expressionists, Warhol and Calder. It’s like a perfectly ‘reconsumed’ 20th century. Digestion completed.
For me, it was like visiting a professional art supply store. There, I always feel overstimulated, I want to buy everything and get lost in the myriad possibilities offered by all the available materials: papers, paints, markers, pastels, inks, glues, oils…
I also experienced such enthusiasm at this show: Teppei Kaneuji talks about contemporary raw materials and the creative gestures that result from them.
Barthes and the Empire of Signs 2.0
Touch and gestures are an important part of life in Japan, because they are associated with precision, agility, attention to detail and mastery.
Sensual experiences of contact with substance are best visible in Japanese cuisine. In Empire of Signs (1970), Roland Barthes wrote that a tray with a meal served in small bowls and containers is like a playground, and he compared eating to painting a picture. He wrote: “[…] it might be said that these trays fulfil the definition of painting which, according to Piero della Francesca, ‘is merely a demonstration of surfaces and bodies becoming ever smaller or larger according to their term.’”
It sounds like he wrote this sentence while hungry!
But he has captured what the exhibition in the abandoned factory is all about: that the future of painting lies in its responsiveness and homogeneity.
Zen and VR: parallel worlds
You’re right. Art history is always the history of technology. Working on the mechanical moving type, Gutenberg accidentally became the forefather of the interactivity that we now have on our smartphones and websites. Because nowadays there are so many ways of working with images, artists need precision in their choice of methods, as well as focus. I think that in this context, studying the Japanese mentality, attentiveness and precision is particularly inspiring.
Do you know when I achieved the greatest concentration in working on photographic material?
I’ll lie and say I don’t remember.
During a morning walk in the ryokan garden in Awazu Onsen, where we spent a week after our stay in Kyoto. The ryokan has existed for 1300 years and is the oldest of its kind in all of Japan. We had a room with a view, and a direct exit to the garden. So first thing in the morning, before you even woke, I put on a traditional cotton robe, took my Fujifilm GFX 50R camera in my hand and went for a walk. I walked barefoot on wet stones. It kept on raining. The moss was soft and fragrant; green, as if from a paint factory. I filmed gold and red koi fish in a dark pond. The drops of rain were falling lazily here and there. And that’s what it was all about – the memory of that moment.
At some point, I woke up and began watching you through the three-winged window that took up an entire wall of our room. Garden TV 8K, Dolby Surround Stereo. Through the shape of the window, framing the view of the garden, I thought you were an animated character from a Japanese screen…
Of course, I was in the film that I was shooting. The cold stones, the smell of the air, the emanating colours of leaves, the vibrating sound of rainfall. After all the digital installations, screenings and looking at other people’s photographs, it was amazing to feel a physical connection with reality – my own Real Virtual Reality, immersion level 100%.
In Lost Japan, the American writer and Japan scholar Alex Kerr writes that traditional Japanese interiors were so dark that they needed golden screens to reflect every existing ray of light. The golden rims of teacups in the bourgeois salons of 18th-century England served the same function. And really, the room we stayed in was in fact quite dark despite its large windows, just like a cinema screening room. That’s why we were constantly looking out to the garden. It was the most relaxing 48 hours of my life.
So, one could say that the ancient Japanese perfected the ‘technology’ of Plato’s cave. They turned the projection of shadows into a tout court projection. In a word, they invented cinema. Each subsequent technological threshold – HD, full HD, 2K, 4K, 8K – are just rungs of the same ladder, as in Jacob’s biblical dream.
And what are we climbing towards?
I don’t know, but I cannot wait to get to the next level.
This year’s Kyotographie festival was held from 13th April to 12th May.
Translated by Joanna Figiel