Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 12 May - 7 August 2011
Born Toshihio, post-war Japanese photographer Eikoh Hosoe later changed his name to signify a 'new Japan', after being evacuated as a youth from Tokyo during WWII. It is telling that Hosoe grew up witnessing Japan as it was chewed up and spat out, first by the nuclear bomb and then the subsequent Allied occupation (the only occupation in Japanese history) and democratisation. From the rubble a new nation rose. Destruction, to Hosoe, became a creative force, iconoclasm a necessity.
Counter to these deeply-felt modernising currents, Hosoe's work returns to the wild and anarchic world of Shinto folklore; the allegorically-loaded Tohoku countryside of his youth spent in internment; and the pioneers of unique and evolving forms of Japanese expression, namely Butoh performers Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno, as well as infamous novelist Yukio Mishima.
Through these portals the fleshiness of the human condition, its sexuality and nakedness, its dance and movement, becomes flat and inscribed with narrative through his lens. Much is said of Hosoe's pseudo-documentary style, but as he readily admits, the touted objectivity of the medium has been firmly relegated to the white walls surrounding the washi-printed 'image scrolls'. Each is a film board-like sequence of story, allusion and myth, ironically rendered graphic and inert despite the subject matter: Butoh dance, erotica, the wispy shivers of fable, the physical passing of time on bodies, skin, lips, hands.
Kamaitachi (1965-1968) is the name for a weasel-demon, as well as a term for being 'cut by the wind'. As he notes on the scroll that encloses the images: When we are photographed, our bodies and souls become the victims of sacrifice. The body is implicated in the landscapeâ€“dancer Hijikata, a 'nominal' body, a performing bodyâ€“and simultaneously sacrificed for the recorded image. In haunting yet humorous scenes, the kamaitachi leaps above gaping children; sits with rice paddy workers; hovers over a bride holding a ceremonial sake cup; and impishly mimics demon horns with his fingers. The demon and Hijikata are tiny furies of energy: destructive, silly, necessary to put a skip in your step as you pass something that frightens you, be that a new Japan, a marauding external force, an unnamed and banal terror.
Similarly, the figure in The Butterfly Dream (1960-2005), a series which charts a decades-long relationship with Ohno, is a site of transformation (sometimes, a grotesque one). Ohno's gnarled hands mingle with twisted tree trunks; his face is a painted white mask that grimaces; in many he wears the operatic dress of Western women. Symbolism, even the formal signs of portraiture, becomes another layer beneath which to bury the body. It emerges as an archetype: of grief, solitude, levity, neuroses.
The final room of Ukiyo-e projections (2003) fittingly makes literal these connections. Dancer bodies from the Butoh studio Asbestos become the canvas for projected Meiji era woodcut prints, often carnal, always lurid. Just as the ukiyo artists captured the floating, demimonde world of courtesans, tea-sellers and merrymakers in graphic and interchangeable planes, Hosoe and the dancers carve a narrative out of interchangeable flesh, flattened. You cannot tell where bodies begin and end. The poetry accompanying the scroll speaks of limitless moments, instantaneous claps, spurting and bubbling. Hosoe's bodies and the stories they tell are written in image and committed to a meaningless and beautiful history.
References Art2art Circulating Exhibitions, n.d., Eikoh Hosoe: Ukiyo-e projections, Retrieved fromhttp://art2art.org/exhibit_hosoe.htm Art Gallery of NSW, 2011,Eikoh Hosoe: Theatre of Memory (exhibition catalogue), Retrieved from http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/eikoh-hosoe/