Dispatches from Daegu: Part 1

Thoughts about Rinko Kawauchi’s exhibition in Daegu Photo Biennale

I take my chance of a little breather this weekend from the Singapore International Photography Festival, to reflect on my experience at the 4th Daegu Photo Biennale, which ended its month-long run recently on October 28, 2012.

My recount would unfold in 3 parts: first by casting a broad perspective of the main exhibitions against the backdrop of South Korean contemporary photography, second by zooming in onto Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi’s solo showcase, and then ending off with a personal observation comparing emerging artists featured in DPB and SIPF. Ideally the writings should be published and read in that order but I chose to turn against that rational sequence. Forgive me – the anxiety and impulse to capture Rinko’s iridescent and effervescent images in words is far too hard to quell. I’m just afraid if I leave them to later, they might disappear.

In my sleep. Lost between the worlds of the conscious and unconscious.

Rinko Kawauchi (b. 1972)’s exhibition in DPB featured almost 30-40 works from her latest series Illuminance, 2011. The project, the first of her works to be published by Aperture outside of Japan, marks a ‘coming of age’ in Rinko’s career since her trepidatious entry into the international stage almost a decade ago.  The exhibition comprised of three strands of visual display: one comprising of diasec images in different sizes arranged in a scrapbook format, opposite them were regular, framed ones and finally a dual-channel video projection in the centre, linking them all together.  It was the first time I have ever encountered her images displayed in three-dimensional and four-dimensional form, and it hit me instantly how the concept of time and space can cleave such a huge difference between presenting images in a physical exhibition as compared to laying them out on book pages.

Images from Rinko Kawauchi’s series Illuminance (2011) at the Daegu Photo Biennale 2012

The exhibition set up – framed images on the opposite wall.

I feel a great part of the power of Rinko’s images lies in co-relation. When looked upon individually, her pictures hook you. But when viewed upon collectively in a curated sequence, specifically side by side, the images interweave in a dialectical process that unites each and every element in a seamless narrative. The magic of her imagery is tied so much to the photo book format. Design, layout, sequencing and visual rhythm – these terms may sound trivial, but they are in fact conscious and deliberate orchestrations of the artist’s voice. Perhaps Gestalt systems theory: “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts” can be one way to describe her work.

Cover photo of Rinko’s photo book “Cui Cui” (2005)

I vividly recall the first time I encountered Rinko’s images almost five years ago. I was working as an assistant at a friend’s commercial wedding photo studio, and caught a fleeting glance of her book “Cui Cui” on my boss’s table. That book happened to be the only material my school library had of the artist back then, and it was catalogued under the ‘social and current affairs’ section, not the ‘art’ section. Was it human error or a mediated decision? In retrospect, this incident could just be the perfect summation of Rinko’s vision as an artist and how she traverses various dualities of art and science, personal and universal, objective and subjective. With its minimalist subject matter suffused with sublime light, that particular series, a quaveringly beautiful one, is like temporal anesthesia forestalling a crescendo of lurking pain. As we progress through the pages of “Cui Cui”, we witness an unflinching documentation of life stripped down to its inevitable rituals of birth, illness and death.  While these are intimate memories of Rinko’s family which she has been shooting for 13 years –shots of family gatherings, weddings, death of a grandparent, birth of a new life-  it could well be anybody’s family album.

Yet that was not the work that launched her fame. 2001 marked her biggest breakthrough with the simultaneous publication of three photobooks–Utatane, Hanabi and Hanako. Trailing close, were Aila (2004), The Eyes, the Ear(2005) and Semear (2007), which helped her ride upon the wave of young, emerging female Japanese photographers such as Yukie Nagashima, Hiromix and Mika Ninagawa.  Diverging on style but converging on subject matter –snapshots of daily life at its most mundane- they collectively challenged the male dominated photography industry with their own visions of female sensuality. If Hiromix’s work was fire and ice, Rinko’s would be the gentle stream.

That being said, I feel her works didn’t really suffice in an exhibition setting. In my opinion, there was a pronounced loss in control over the rhythm and narrative flow of images in 3D space as compared to a book setting, where viewers are somewhat compelled  to follow a certain viewing order. Somehow when one entered the room, there was a feeling of being overwhelmed by having too much to see all at once. This contradicted the mood evoked in her images – one that encourages you to slow down, breathe and immerse. A silent dual channel video was playing at the centre of the room, showing paired images that dissolve into each other.  Very possibly, just having only the video in a darkened room and letting the solitude and calm sink in might be good enough.

The dual channel video installation at the centre of the room, connecting both strands of images on the wall

Nevertheless, curating an exhibition for Rinko has its challenges. How do you translate 2D to 3D? How can you bring fresh perspectives in a new setup to an audience who are already so familiar with what sealed her fame – the photobook? How do you also converse and connect with audience who may be seeing her work for the first time?

And finally one question that I have been mulling over recently. Is there a cultural context to reading Rinko’s pictures and was that a consideration in the thought process of curating and presenting her work? I risk oversimplifying the issue, but if we were to analyse Rinko’s pictures using cultural semiology, how much of Roland Barthes’ signs, signals and signifiers could be applied in illuminating the answers? According to Barthes, in order to fully comprehend all of the implied meanings in an image, one must understand the cultural ideologies embedded. Arguably, when placed under the microscope, there are many limitations to Barthes’ structuralist theory of explaining images and representation. Can there be a ‘universal’ cultural ideology? Where does the subjectivity of the viewer come in?

The questions are endless, but perhaps that is inconsequential. For in Rinko’s gentle images, never is there an answer demanded for every question it raises.

Rinko Kawauchi, Illuminance (2011)

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