The 1970s marked a shift among Japan’s artists from modernism to more experimental and conceptual explorations. Spurred by a cross-pollination between photography and art worlds, Japanese image-makers were propelled into conversation with global art and photography. “For a New World to Come: Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968-1979,” a new exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston curated by Yasufumi Nakamori, reveals this important period in Japanese art history through the work of photographers like Daido Moriyama, Nobuyoshi Araki, Shomei Tomatsu and Takuma Nakahira.
The exhibition presents the work of these and other photographers in concert with those of Japanese artists of the time, who utilized the camera to express their ideas. Among them is Miyako Ishiuchi, who in 1979 became the first woman to receive the prestigious Ihei Kimura Prize for photography. Many of the works in the exhibition and accompanying catalogue, published by Yale University Press, have only rarely been seen outside of Japan. Among the featured works are Tomatsu’s images of the American military presence in Okinawa; Araki’s Xerox photobooks; and Ishiuchi’s highly personal black-and-white images of postwar apartment complexes in her hometown, which “explore the fiction of memory.”
The accompanying essays by Nakamori and other scholars include discussions of important magazines, exhibitions and influences that shaped the period. A landmark 1968 exhibition on the history of Japanese photography through the end of World War II, for instance, led two intellectuals to create Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought, a journal that over just three issues created an “edgy and radical discourse on photography” that sought to deconstruct previous notions about the medium, Nakamori writes. Interestingly, the journal’s manifesto proposed a belief in “the potential of photography in place of language.” This stemmed from a theory that language was losing “its reality” during turbulent times marked by political and social upheaval in Japan and abroad. “What we the photographers can do is to capture with our own eyes fragments of the reality that cannot be grasped by the received words,” wrote the magazine’s creators.
— Conor Risch
“For a New World to Come, Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979” runs through July 12, 2015 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The 256-page accompanying catalog, For a New World to Come, Experiments in Japanese Art and Photography, 1968–1979 by Yasufumi Nakamori with Allison Pappas is available through Yale University Press.