Shotgun Reviews

Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now at SFMOMA

Shotgun Reviews are an open forum where we invite the international art community to contribute timely, short-format responses to an exhibition or event. If you are interested in submitting a Shotgun Review, please click this link for more information. In this Shotgun Review, Max Blue assesses Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now at SFMOMA.

Tsunehisa Kimura, Americanism, 1982; photomontage; 15 1/4 x 19 1/4 in. (38.74 x 48.9 cm); promised gift of a private collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © Estate of Tsunehisa Kimura

Tsunehisa Kimura. Americanism, 1982; photomontage; 15 1/4 x 19 1/4 in. Promised gift of a private collection to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. © Estate of Tsunehisa Kimura.

When viewing any retrospective of work, patterns emerge. Visiting Japanese Photography from Postwar to Now, it was starkly apparent how entrenched the residual effects of World War II remain in Japanese culture. Indeed, much of the work in the exhibition evoked Americana. Fetish, in the sexual sense, emerged as one noticeable pattern in the exhibition, such as in Kiyoji Ostuji’s Objet, which portrays a faceless, nude woman, her body-as-parts isolated and fetishized, and Nobuyoshi Araki’s series, KaoRi by 20 x 24 Instant Film, which read, on a certain level, as glamorized pinups. What does this fetishization show us about the intersubjective gazes of artists and beholders in postwar Japan?

The exhibition positions photography as an index of Japanese culture after World War II, one rife with the traumas of military violence, which have become as inscribed as the patriarchy under which those traumas persist. Photography, as a medium, lends itself to laying bare the psychological topography of photographers as they curate the environment that they choose to depict, including and excluding elements of the world. Oppressive military and patriarchal infrastructures are not so far removed from one another, and in this exhibition we see photographers inhabiting and responding to those structures.

Shomei Tomatsu’s Coca-Cola depicts a bottle of Coca-Cola resting beside a pair of scissors on a stack of newspaper on the carpet, while a woman’s face wrapped in her own black hair consumes the foreground, her mouth stretched wide in an ambiguously orgasmic or terrorized moan—perhaps both. Coca-Cola suggests a relationship between personal sexual submission and dominance and the systemic structures at play in cultural relations between Japan and the United States after the war, the pop bottle itself operating as disruptive phallus in the photograph’s composition. Much of Tomatsu’s work revolves around the intersection of Americana and cultural and political power dynamics, including a series titled Chewing Gum and Chocolate, two significantly Western treats brought to Japan by U.S. troops, and photographs such as Bottle Melted and Deformed by Atomic Bomb Heat, Radiation, and Fire, Nagasaki.

Tsunehisa Kimura’s photo collage, Americanism, calls the values and morals of American wartime life into question. The piece, collaged from WWII-era half-tone photographs, depicts a smiling couple sitting with their arms around each other on a hillside, sipping Coca-Cola and watching a nuclear detonation in the distance. This is no celebration of American ideals, but a brutally ironic critique in which weapons of war disrupt the idyllic lovers’ sense of security.

As I walked throughout the exhibition, taking notes and seeding the ideas that grew into this piece, I felt that I too, alongside the military and psychological occupations of the United States and the male gaze, was acting without consent, as a voyeur. Perhaps these photographs are intended to subvert Americanism; if so, in what ways does the celebration of such imagery in a “white” space, at an American institution, support or undermine the work? To fetishize these works in an American museum setting at the hands of a capitalist market perpetuates some of the very power structures the photographs seem intended to question. Would it be immoral to say that I liked it?

Max Blue is in his third year at the San Francisco Art Institute, working toward a BA in the History & Theory of Contemporary Art, with a minor in Photography. He is a poet and critical-theory enthusiast.

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