In 1988 photographer Ryudai Takano travelled to Shenzhen and the Kowloon peninsula, swayed by stories of its lawlessness. In the eyes of reformist Deng Xiaoping, Shenzhen was an experiment that would hopefully spread throughout southern China, turning a small waterside village into a metropolitan reality. But Takano was curious. Those stories described tales of conflicting order and chaos, wealth and poverty. As soon as he arrived he began taking pictures that would put a face to what he’d read; children playing on bare concrete, clinging to parents, rooftops filled with antenna; half-finished streets and a cavalcade of push bikes and cargo trucks; people drawn to his camera while others passed by lost in a story of their own making. Shenzhen in Post-Mao China was booming and precarious at the same time. And yet a trip across the Chinese border into colonial Hong Kong revealed the even more haphazard and unregulated architecture of Kowloon’s Walled City. The history of colonial rule had been bookended by two Anglo-Chinese ‘Opium’ wars and forged foundations for the Walled City that were largely ungovernable. 50,000 people were crammed into 500 dwellings with water streaming down walls. Everyone from shopkeepers to spiritual advisers and amateur dentists carved out a living through the lowlight and factory smoke. By the time Takano arrived, the ramshackle had been marked for demolition. Guided by someone who spoke Japanese was all he needed to enter the inner sanctum and a dry neutral eye all it took to satisfy his curiosity.
Around the same time, and same age, Toru Yoshikawa was living in the United States, enrolled on a painting course at Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) on the Northwest Coast. The city had been a hub of counterculture in the 1970s but now was less frenetic. It was anathema to Tokyo in more ways than one. Yoshikawa knew this with the likes of Basquiat, Schnabel and Scharf at their most raucous in New York, yet Portland wasn’t isolating. At one point he met the film director Gus Van Sant who even took his photograph. Van Sant as a student had also studied painting then moved to Hollywood, taken a job at a New York ad agency and returned to his childhood hometown in the early 1980s. Soon after college had ended Yoshikawa returned home. Three decades later he was darting through different parts of southern China, stopping for a week in Shenzhen wandering the streets near his hotel after work. Takano and Van Sant would share an affinity for marginal figures. Yoshikawa is the same, aware of how the experience of being marginalised becomes a ticking clock: a way to describe a borrowed place on borrowed time. 1
Send me a postcard
Hong Kong beckoned with Yoshikawa’s Shenzhen hotel a mere stone’s throw away from the Chinese border. Every time he crossed, it was like he was returning home. Shopfronts filled the street and later trips to Taiwan, Macau and Chongqing filled the eye with as much detail and mixed fortune. Photographs from Taiwan were paired with sarcastic shopfront slogans and one-liners like Wish you were here. While Banker wins, Player wins 庄赢・間赢 taunted anyone visiting the gambling capitol of Macau with the knowledge that whatever you win you’ll loose it eventually. The graphic swirl around the lip of each soup bowl he ate from was described as lightning and the character 囍 inscribed at its base was a euphemism for double happiness. Each one of these pieces worked a way into Yoshikawa’s elliptical experience, now pictured as any good painter would; by making light of the more darker moments.
I'd see the masked herbalists, with their medieval weighing-scales and their finger-blackened abacuses tending to their masked, anxious customers. I'd see a half-naked worker from a godown, his ribs and legs bone-white with flour, sitting cross-legged on the pavement sewing rice-sacks, like a specter doing embroidery. I once saw a child with her hands folded into her sleeves, a little masked empress standing alone outside a paper-offering shop, while the flimsy toys for the dead —the shoes, the boats, the food, the cars— floated above her. 2
Returning to Japan, Yoshikawa set about bringing them all together as the country ground to a halt. It seemed ironic he should take photographs somewhere that had been ravaged by its own coronavirus, through Hong Kong and South East Asia in 2003, only for it to reemerge as he worked on these new images. Calling his exhibition ‘Double Happiness’ (April 29 - May 11) was a wink to a strange marriage of opposites as it was a mark of prosperity. Anyhow, twists of personal fate and shared fortune had given the mark an altogether different meaning. In the midst of this new outbreak, vaccinations were slow as authorities became preoccupied with an international sporting event. This baffled everyone. Even the World Health Organization couldn’t escape the doubt being cast over proceedings.
I'd looked at the front pages of the newspapers, English and Chinese, in which the World Health Organization was constantly quoted, and what I saw was a single word in capitals: WHO, WHO, WHO like someone shouting a question about identity. 3
Each image in ‘Double Happiness’ was made from sets of photographs of Shenzhen, Taiwan, Macau and Chongqing, one above the other. A white graphic pulled from found graffiti was laid on top. In once instance, the overlaid marking came from Pablo Picasso’s Marie-Thérèse accoudée, 1939. In another, it was Funny Face, a sardonic character from Coney Island that described the atmosphere of carnival filled with happiness one minute and horror the next. Yet more telling was the Allied insignia of the Ghost Army of the Second World War. The 603rd Engineers Camouflage Battalion was an infantry unit of 1,100 men whose main purpose was confusing the enemy with a mixture of visual, sonic, and atmospheric deception: Inflatable trucks, fake radio broadcasts and scripted pretense all mislead the enemy to the whereabouts of Allied troops. Soldiers were even recruited from art schools and ad agencies with the sculptor and colour-field painter Ellsworth Kelly also drafted as an artist-soldier. Alongside Funny Face, these were decoyed markings trading in a latter-day deception.
The outline of Marie-Thérèse accoudée was not without reason. Picasso’s lifelong mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter is said to also feature repeatedly in his antiwar painting Guernica, 1937: as a figure running in the foreground; as a face emerging from an open window; as a grieving women hovering over the dead body of a child. With the Cubist painter considered the first modern graffiti artist Yoshikawa placed an outline of Marie-Thérèse over each photograph obscuring the sight of pigs feet and a sex shop window. Funny Face sat screen-printed on top as the final mark of deviance, one face slapped on top of the other.
“Draw a line, erase it then draw the line again. Repeat until you find every line.” Yoshikawa whispered his own oblique strategy for pushing out new images in place of old ones, just as Takano described an odd warmth to the face of communist China and its economic boom. Perhaps these images shared an awkwardness with postwar places like Kawasaki and Tokyo. Van Sant even filmed the mindfulness of the outsider, mastering small things and the disciplined greatness of D.E. described as doing easy by William Burroughs in his short story of the same name. Even this seemed to reverberate. Yoshikawa knew only too well how places reversed in fortune pulled people together as quickly as forced them apart for the sake of social distance. None of this made any sense however. All he could do was keep looking. “Repeat until you find every line.”
Yuu Takamizawa response to the lingering lockdown was to ask the question, what now? Gone were the oblique strategies and references, the strange connections and distant events. While things were serious they weren’t much to look at either. Neutral was a new word used to describe unglamorous and otherwise utilitarian things; a washing machine bought online (untitled, 2021); a flattened cardboard box used to transport Takamizawa’s stuffed raccoon (untitled, 2020), the patron saint of mischief and misfortune; a pair of used socks (untitled, 2019). The washing machine held sway over the abject display as it scrutinized itself from afar. A ceiling hung security camera broadcast images of the appliance, unplumbed and powerless, to a monitor on the other side of the room. There was something terminal about a washing machine with nothing to do but stare at itself in the hope of being switched on.
Visual culture has changed form. It has become detached from human eyes and has largely become invisible. Human visual culture has become a special case of vision, an exception to the rule. The overwhelming majority of images are now made by machines for other machines, with humans rarely in the loop. The advent of machine-to-machine seeing has been barely noticed at large, and poorly understood by those of us who’ve begun to notice the tectonic shift invisibly taking place before our very eyes. 4
At the heart of Takamizawa’s show at 4649 in Sugamo was a more probing question: what is an object without an audience, stored in boxes or held in transport is it artwork or is it something else? 5 Shifting eyes and social distance had skewed perspective. It’s one thing to picture, say, a machine through human eyes, it is quite another to imagine machines picturing each other. But the question failed to account for the new pictures forming out of sight, built from algorithms that track habits, influence ethics and bend the will and finger-flick of choice without a second thought.
The mastery of small things and greatness pulled from Burroughs’ short story in Exterminator! and adapted by Van Sant in the late 1970s parallels Takamizawa’s world of ordinary, unremarkable objects that daydream. Objects stared at each other as the current State of Emergency pivoted between each piece while the gallery remained closed, left to linger in the darkness. Spaces such as 4649 remain closed for now but given how exhibitions everywhere have moved to virtual rooms there is a sense Takamizawa thinks the world beyond the gallery is made superfluous, killing time while ‘art’ fathoms an unfathomable situation. As situations go “it’s a total privilege”, to quote another artist. “It’s totally useless.” 6
While objects are left to ponder in storage or the dark corner of a closed gallery, both artist and artwork become a part of the record they keep, as works looking for and finding inspiration elsewhere. In the case of Korean painter Kwon Young-woo, he rediscovered it. In 1978 Kwon moved to Paris. He was part of the Korean Dansaekhwa movement and used hanji paper pulled from the Korean mulberry tree. Paris reintroduced colour to monochromatic work for the first time since painting as a student. But this time pigment was left to bleed and absorb through the paper without interference. He had used paper as ‘paint’, treating the ground as fluid and expressive. Paper was affordable then and could be used to make and easily repair a board. Tears and marks from one piece of paper were pasted onto another, while colour was applied from behind, naturally absorbed and pulled gradually to the front of paper canvas. Kwon was far from figurative, instead observing the slow process that explored materials as well as himself.
Exploring the self, measuring a moment of expression, the precision of study, and focusing the act of doing the same thing over and over again, works […] reveal a material focus, realizing instead of simply rendering the unknown. 7
Artworks drew themselves. They picked up where the author left off, whether it be as material or as geography. Takamizawa’s works talked amongst themselves, speculating on their collective isolation as they built other pictures around Takamizawa’s scrolling habits in online auction sites. Yoshikawa meanwhile had drawn from and drawn on pictures from other countries, acquaintances near and far, and a sea of troubled water. Eventually, the question they each faced was how best to describe the space between them and the works they made. The real answer felt more like a postcard moment described best by Yoshikawa himself: “Compare and contrast, next to each other, in front and behind, and all the air between.”
Ryudai Takano, “Hong Kong–Shenzhen 1988″ at Zeit-Foto Salon, Tokyo (Nov.21–Dec.21, 2013)
Toru Yoshikawa, “Double Happiness” at TETOKA, Tokyo (Apr.29–May 11)
Kwon Young-woo at Blum & Poe, Tokyo (Apr.3–May 22)
Yuu Takamizawa at 4649, Tokyo (Apr.25–June 20) *Due to the present State of Emergency, the gallery is closed from April 26 until May 31.
Toru Yoshikawa, Hong Kong Daily『香港日常』(Self-published, 2018)
Fionnuala McHugh describing Daniel Defoe’s A Journal for the Plague Year set in 1665 London, from “Being Observations or Memorials, of the Most Remarkable Occurrences, as well Public as Private, which happened in Hong Kong during the Great Visitation in 2003” in A Journal of the Plague Year (Para Site / Sternberg Press, 2015: 78)
Fionnuala McHugh (2015: 79)
Trevor Paglen, “Invisible Images (Your Pictures Are Looking at You)”, New Inquiry (December 8, 2016) https://thenewinquiry.com/invisible-images-your-pictures-are-looking-at-you/