Best known best for his black and white photos, Daido Moriyama is one of the leading photographers in Japan, his work focusing primarily on the country’s post-war experience of the breakdown of tradition and subsequent influx of modern values. The show, at the Cartier Foundation, exhibits a large portion of Moriyama’s work in colour, an element of his photography which has been largely unobserved throughout his career. The show ultimately strives to demonstrate what Moriyama describes as the “confusing interaction of people and things in the contemporary city” in both parts of the exhibition: Daido Tokyo – his colour work; and Dog and Mesh Tights – an audiovisual installation that presents his better known black and white works.
Daido Tokyo presents a body of work which demonstrates Moriyama’s apt eye for colour. His shots that are visually very “busy” (showing larger scale urban areas/ lots of colour/ multiple visual elements, objects and subjects) appear to work best; high focus resolutions with compelling colour contrasts such as a wide shot of a snowy Tokyo street with a large bright red vending machine at the centre of the image. The vending machine takes a strangely unnerving stance, its bright red colour and artificial look making it seem misplaced on the soft, snowy street. Both bleak and beautiful, the image captures a moment in modern Tokyo with a sad sense of nostalgia. What adds to this unnerving and slightly uncanny quality is that Moriyama doesn’t reveal any of his photographs’ contexts. For example, a shot of the bottom of a stairwell patterned with bright red leaves which clash with the purple wall, capture a dinginess which evokes the seediness that you might find in a brothel, a fact that is neither confirmed nor denied. In fact, there is no information next to each photograph: no title, subtitle, label or description; his work is inherently mysterious.
Unfortunately, the gallery does Moriyama a disservice by presenting his photographs in a jumbled formation that makes them difficult to focus on or follow; being arranged in 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s and 6s, edge to edge and without borders. Arguably this deliberately reinforces Moriyama’s idea of confusing interactions of the city – perhaps the presentation is a meta-visual tool that sees the works themselves inhabiting the confused landscapes of the artist’s photographs. Nonetheless, the photos are hard to look at, sometimes becoming distorted by their presentation.
Photos that stand out from the jumble are portraits that provide an interesting insight into city life. The most dramatic of these features a blurred street at night-time as a backdrop with a woman’s face in the forefront, her eyes dark with kohl which is slightly running round her eyes. It’s hard to say whether her expression is unnerving or endearing but it’s thought-provoking and beautifully composed nonetheless, conjuring images of loneliness and vulnerability which are up against the great magnitude and darkness of the city. Another shot which is particularly absorbing shows a group of women moving through a market. Those in the background are out of focus, bringing the woman at the front to our attention who has a candidness in her expression that makes you wonder if she knew she was being photographed. This, along with the blurred movement in the photograph creates an image whose subjects are fleeting and mobile, evoking the fast-pace of an urban environment.
Dog and Mesh Tights takes a different approach to its colour counterparts: an audiovisual piece installed in a dark room comprised of four 10 ft screens providing a slideshow of Moriyama’s vast body of black and white work. The audio adds an interesting extra element; often involving people talking in groups (in Japanese) and moving around busy public spaces as well as the clattering sounds of restaurants and communal eating. Moriyama knows that most of his French audience won’t understand the Japanese audio; this assumed unfamiliarity is another meta-artistic demonstration of Tokyo’s “confusing” urbanity.
In Dog and Mesh Tights, the photos on display suggest that the “confusion” Moriyama speaks of involves Tokyo being in a limbo state, uncomfortably wedged somewhere between the old and the new. Symbols of modern pop culture such as glittered lips on an airbrushed face or the iconically branded can of Coca Cola stand juxtaposed with banal images of human habit – a sellotape dispenser, toilet roll and paperclips. The clash between habit/ tradition and new/ contemporary are central ideas in both parts of the show and are, unsurprisingly, left unresolved as if to say that Japan is still attempting to forge its post-war identity. Whilst Moriyama explores these ideas with thoughtful detail, it is a shame that the gallery itself couldn’t have dealt with the presentation a little more thoughtfully. This ultimately left me with a sense of incompletion – a feeling that the show lacked the coherence that Moriyama’s work really deserves.
Daido Moriyama, Daido Tokyo is on view at The Cartier Foundation, Paris through June 5, 2016