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In the city of Kyoto in western Japan, contemporary art exists somewhat in obscurity alongside the countless artisanal stores, souvenir shops and antiques galleries. However, the new international photography festival, Kyotographie, and its theme, ‘Our Environments’, set to integrate photo-based contemporary art among the beautiful streets and shrines for which the city is famous.
‘Our Environments’ worked well to unite various fields of photography—including journalism and fashion as well as contemporary art—with a humanist philosophy of being a part of the universe we live in, instead of being passive observers. Among the most compelling visual essays on this theme was Taishi Hirokawa’s series of photographs of Japan’s numerous nuclear power plants, taken in context of their surroundings. One image, 19 August 1993 Mihama Prefecture (1993), captures a protected beach, populated with families, which sits in the foreground with the power station perched on the cliffs above. The work illustrates the close proximity of the nuclear site to the rest of nature, as well as human civilisation.
The entire series was taken in the 1990s, as Hirokawa considered the dubious future of those sites. Two decades on, after Fukushima’s bases have become synonymous with the dangers of nuclear power plants, these photographs gain more immediate relevance to a general audience. The works were displayed in the green and quiet surrounds of Kyoto’s Shimogamo Shinto Shrine. In the exhibition’s text, Hirokawa is quoted at length explaining his concerns over nuclear energy. At the time of writing, almost all of Japan’s nuclear sites are decommissioned. However, the sites—as well as the radioactive waste created by this controversial power source—will remain hazardous for perhaps a thousand times longer. Hirokawa wonders how the future custodians of this waste will know to stay clear of the radioactivity, and rhetorically suggests that, as in the thousand-year-old Shinto tradition, there could be a sacred rope tied around the dangerous sites to signal ‘hands off’.
Another important element of the festival was a small but rather comprehensive retrospective of Japanese photobooks. Inside a building just off Gion’s main boulevard, the exhibition included one floor devoted to a display of well-known vintage photobooks from the 1960s and ’70s made by iconic photographers such as Eikoh Hosoe, Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Miyako Ishiuchi, and Takuma Nakahira, as well as copies of influential photojournals such as Provoke (1968-70). The second floor was a lounge area for browsing more recent photobooks, from the 1990s onwards, including Rinko Kawauchi’s square-framed folios, Kayo Ume’s humourous takes on everyday life, Kyoichi Tsuzuki’s images of messy Tokyo apartments, Yurie Nagashima’s riot grrrl era self-portraits and Masayuki Yoshinaga’s portraits of motorcycle gangs. Despite global trends, the Japanese publishing industry, including its vibrant array of photobooks, remains strong.
Smaller exhibitions popped up in old machiya, or traditional town houses, like the highly rendered studio portraits of animals by Tim Flach. His extremely crisp, anthropomorphised images of majestic animals, such as tigers, apes and birds, are compelling arguments that humans are not as unique as we think we are. Inside a nearby teahouse, within a tranquil garden, some current leading Tokyo photographers offered their ideas of nature in their city. A small café, down a well-preserved alley, housed emerging photographers chosen by the French fashion house agnès b. On the theme of environment, Risaku Suzuki had two delicate photographs from remote snow country in Japan. And, from the top level of the enormous station building, large-scale works by Sohei Nishino were displayed next to open, panorama views of Kyoto. The aerial view collages, made to represent cities around the world such as New York, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo, are laid flat and only slightly elevated above the ground. Viewers can recognise major landmarks, but Nishino also includes his own touches, such as his favourite galleries, shop signs and portraits of local residents.
The grand centrepiece of the festival were photographs of Mars selected and printed by the French publisher Xavier Barral. Using images taken by NASA’s MRO probe in 2005, the photographs have a resolution of unprecedented quality. Towering over the gallery space was a six metre LED screen. Shiro Takatani, best known for his work in the 1980’s artist collective Dumb Type, collaborated with Barral to create a media installation. In the video, images appear to be transmitting live from outer space, millimetre by millimetre. From pictures of those we share the Earth with, to new ways in which to map our surrounds, ‘Our Environments’ finally took an awe-inspiring, extreme wide-shot of our universe.
Taishi Hirokawa, 19 August 1993 Mihama Fukui Pref. © Taishi Hirokawa.
Shiro Takatani with Xavier Barrai, Barkhanes in the crater zone, from Mars, a photographic exploration. © NASA/JPL/The University of Arizona/ Éditions Xavier Barral. From video installation by Shiro Takatani.