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A Look at Post-War Japanese Photography in the Context of Provoke

  • Daido Moriyama - Eros
  • Nobuyoshi Araki - Teatro del amor
  • The Gaze of Things - Installation view
  • The Gaze of Things - Installation view
March 6, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

The post-war atmosphere in Japan was a difficult one, as the country was under the US siege. The artistic production naturally reflected the burden of the era, and it blossomed during the 1950s with a number of significant art collectives such as Genbi, or the Contemporary Art Discussion Group, and the Gutai group. During the final years of this decade, Japanese photography became prominent and the pioneering photographers radically changed its language.

Therefore, the exhibition at the Bombas Gens Centre d’Art titled The Gaze of Things: Japanese Photography in the Context of Provoke summarizes the outstanding production of the artists gathered around the VIVO Agency (1959-1961) such as Ikkō Narahara, Shōmei Tōmatsu, Eikoh Hosoe, Akira Satō and Kikuji Kawada, as well as the artists belonging to the Provoke Collective (1968-1970) such as Yutaka Takanashi, Takuma Nakahira and Daidō Moriyama.

Yutaka Takanashi - Tokiotas
Yutaka Takanashi – Tokiotas 1978-1983 / Tokyoites 1978-1983, 1983. Colección Per Amor a l’Art © Yutaka Takanashi

The Historical Context of Post-war Japanese Photography

The exhibition jointly curated by Nuria Enguita and Vicent Todolí, director of the Art Area of the Fundació Per Amor a l’Art, is focused on the period between 1957 and 1972, when photography was radically used for experimentation. The artists needed to find innovative solutions amid economic, cultural and social changes of this period, based on the rejection of the legacy of the American occupation.

Alongside the pieces from the Per Amor a l’Art Collection, the most important private collection of Japanese photography from 1957-1972 outside Japan, the exhibition features the photographs by Hiroshi Hamaya, Takashi Hamaguchi, Toyoko Tokiwa, Nobuyoshi Araki, Tamiko Nishimura, Ishiuchi Miyako, Kōji Enokura and Michio Harada, who was a chemistry teacher and amateur photographer discovered by the artist João Penalva. Vicent Todolí explained their process:

In the beginning, we acquired artworks by Tōmatsu and Moriyama, and from their work, we started to pull the thread and complete the set we now hold. Contrary to what may seem, the bond between the photographers we include in the show is not national, but personal. All of them had a private relationship; we have not invented any connection between them because it already existed. We have simply compiled their works.

Eikoh Hosoe - Calvario de rosas
Eikoh Hosoe – Calvario de rosas #32 / Ordeal by Roses #32, 1961. Colección Per Amor a l’Art © Eikoh Hosoe

The VIVO agency and Provoke Magazine

In 1957, Eikoh Hosoe, Shōmei Tōmatsu, Kikuji Kawada, Akira Satō, Ikkō Narahara, and Akira Tanno showed their works within the exhibition The Eyes of Ten, and that was practically the first public presentation of the six photographers who later founded the VIVO agency in 1959; they were very much inspired by the Magnum Photos agency, and their agenda was socially and politically charged, aimed to deconstruct the conventions of objective photography. They understood photography as a tool for concise subjectivity, so the reality was interpreted as an abstract and concrete space suitable for photographic experimentation. The group quickly became very influential and contributed significantly to the modernization of the Japanese society. VIVO disbanded in 1961.

Seven years later, in 1968, the critics/photographers Takuma Nakahira and Kōji Taki, photographer Yutaka Takanashi, and writer Takahiko Okada, founded the Provoke magazine, with Daidō Moriyama joining the team with the second issue. This publication, subtitled Provocative Materials for Thought, featured an entirely new and quite subversive wave of photography; to be more precise, Provoke was the platform for a new photographic expression aimed to free photography from subservience to the language of words. It was composed of poetry, criticism and photographic theory.

Three issues were produced until 1970, and they featured a specific style known as are-bure-boke (grainy, blurry, out-of-focus). The editorial team was prone to promote the relationships between photography and language, as well as art and political resistance. Photography was perceived as a performative act, a gesture encompassing gaze, thought, and the whole body.

Koji Enokura - P W
Kōji Enokura – P.W. – Nº 20, 1972. Colección Per Amor a l’Art© Michiyo Enokura

The Gaze of Things at the Bombas Gens Centre

The current exhibition is a result of a thorough research made in order to analyze and interpret properly the works of four generations of Japanese photographers.

As it was mentioned, all the works are loans from the Per Amor a l’Art Collection, except the works by Toyoko Tokiwa which belong to the Museum of Yokohoma Urban History, and Ishiuchi Miyako series Endless Night which belong to Colección INELCOM Arte Contemporáneo. Susana Lloret, the vice-president of the Fundació Per Amor a l’Art stated the following:

This exhibition is very special for us since it shows one of the most powerful bodies of work within the Per Amor a l’Art Collection. In fact, it could be said that the selection that is exhibited constitutes the most important collection of Japanese photography of this time, in private hands, outside Japan. We were very much looking forward to sharing it with the general public for a while now, and the day has come.

The Gaze of Things: Japanese Photography in the Context of Provoke will be on display at the Bombas Gens Centre d’Art in Valencia until 2 February, 2020.

Editors’ Tip: Provoke: Between Protest and Performance: Photography in Japan 1960–1975

The short-lived Japanese magazine Provoke, founded in 1968, is nowadays recognized as a major contribution to postwar photography in Japan, featuring the country’s finest representatives of protest photography, vanguard fine art and critical theory in only three issues overall. The magazine’s goal was to mirror the complexities of Japanese society and its art world of the 1960s, a decade shaped by the country’s first large-scale student protests. The movement yielded a wave of new books featuring innovative graphic design combined with photography: serialized imagery, gripping text-image combinations, dynamic cropping and the use of provocatively “poor” materials.

Featured images: Daidō Moriyama – Eros, Provoke Nº 2, 1969. Colección Per Amor a l’Art © Daidō Moriyama Photo Foundation; Nobuyoshi Araki -Teatro del amor / Theater of Love, ca. 1965. Colección Per Amor a l’Art © Nobuyoshi Araki. The Gaze of Things – Installation views, bu Jabali Studio. All images courtesy of Colección Per Amor a l’Art.