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ART REVIEW

A Vision of Japan's Past and Beyond

February 26, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

Tokihiro Satoh's black-and-white photographic triptych "Sainsbury's Mayonnaise Bottles From Photo-Respiration" (1995) is immense--nearly 8 feet high and 28 feet long. In its conflicted but nonetheless distinct appeal, it might also be somewhat emblematic of "Photography and Beyond in Japan: Space, Time and Memory," a sizable exhibition of work by a dozen Japanese photographers that has newly opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Satoh's three elegantly produced silver prints are linked by formal composition and artistic intervention. At the left is a ring of brick cooling towers at a nuclear power plant; in the center is a circle of mayonnaise jars, photographed before a black background in a studio setup; at the right is a circle of stones in an open landscape. All three scenes are inflected with mysterious glowing dots or lines of intense white light, which signal photographic manipulation by the artist's hand.

The dots and lines were made with a mirror reflecting sunlight outdoors or a small flashlight used indoors. Satoh opened his camera's shutter for a very long exposure--in this case a few hours--and then moved through the two landscapes with his mirror or traced the outline of the mayonnaise jars with his flashlight. With light as an obvious metaphor for vital energy, the film recorded the artist's presence in the scene, but not his body.

A continuity of ancient, animating spirit is felt, while the nuclear power plant, the commercial foodstuffs and the ritual site each evokes, in very different ways, both energy and deadness. Grave ritual, eccentric humor and inevitable associations with science fiction collide--uncomfortably so. The pictures are oddly resonant yet overly ambiguous.

Most of the show is like that: often intriguing yet finally flat.

Some works seem pretty old-fashioned: Hitoshi Nomura's poetic "Moon Score" (1980-84), which uses the position of the moon in the night sky to plot notes on a musical staff, fits neatly within a long-established tradition of chance selection exemplified by Nam June Paik and the late John Cage; Yasumasa Morimura's amusing self-portraits in the guise of numerous famous paintings are Mannerist relatives of Cindy Sherman's more famous--and more profound--pictures of herself; Miran Fukuda's "Tablecloth" (1990), which encircles a landscape photograph of the Swiss Alps commercially printed on plastic with a hand-painted continuation of the same postcard scene, recalls any number of technically adept, conceptually obvious Photorealist riffs from the 1970s.

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Tradition is important to Tadasu Yamamoto's series of "Falling Water" pictures, dating from 1988 to 1994. Two views of assorted waterfalls are stacked atop one another, then framed with steel plates and leaned against the wall. The method reads as an unconvincing effort to use commonplace, post-industrial strategies to give material heft to the traditional format of a Japanese scroll. It's achingly style-conscious.

Likewise, Hotaro Koyama's big "Space, Cavern, Sight No. 1" (1993), which is composed from a grid of a dozen large pictures taken inside a cave looking out, might be called an Abstract Expressionist photograph. In the scale of a mural, its apparently bleached, scratched and abraded image means to fabricate a material evocation of The Void.

Many of these photographs seem intent on finding unusual or up-to-the-minute styles and techniques with which to record anew ideas long since firmly embedded in modern culture. Ironically, it's the most unassumingly conventional photographs in the show--Toshio Shibata's large, exquisitely printed landscapes--that are also its most beautiful. They do their compelling work with no muss, no fuss and no self-consciously arty pretense (although they could also do without their ugly plexiglass frames).

Shibata photographs those ubiquitous places where the natural and man-made environments suddenly abut--where an imposing concrete dam meets a river, for example, or a brick retaining wall comes up against a stone cliff. He fills the frame with the lush, richly printed landscape; no horizon line--no meeting of earth and sky--is allowed to muddy the earthly meeting he wants to expose.

When both its power and fragility are coaxed into view, nature seems at once threatening and benign, as does a dam or wall. An unusual photographic equivalence between nature and culture is carefully established. The photographs shimmer with ambiguity. Through entirely conventional means, the ordinary is made far more mysterious and otherworldly than Satoh is able to evoke, with all his clever pinpricks of light spreading out before a nuclear reactor.

Organized by Tokyo's Hara Museum and chosen by American guest curator Robert Stearns, "Photography and Beyond in Japan" is the first large museum survey of its subject in 20 years. Its 108 selections span that period, while emphasizing the 1990s.

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