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Here and There :

Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries and museums around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest. The writer claims no art expertise, just a subjective viewpoint acquired over many years' residence in Japan.

Shards of Silence: Masao Yamamoto at the Mizuma Art Gallery
Alan Gleason

"#3041, Free at last," gelatin silver print, 560 x 450 mm. © Masao Yamamoto

  "#3042, Reborn," gelatin silver print, 560 x 450 mm. © Masao Yamamoto

Since opening in Aoyama in 1994, Tokyo's Mizuma Art Gallery has moved around a bit -- first to Nakameguro and then, in 2009, to its present location. Occupying spacious quarters on the second floor of a new warehouse-style building across from the Sotobori moat, it sits conveniently between Ichigaya and Iidabashi stations right in the middle of town.

In the course of its perambulations Mizuma has evolved into a flagship gallery for contemporary artists from Japan and elsewhere in Asia, where it has established a solid foothold by opening branches in Beijing (2008) and Singapore (2012). With celebrity artists like Makoto Aida in its stable, it ranks with Tomio Koyama among Tokyo's most successful purveyors of contemporary art. Though it's hard to pin down, Mizuma seems at least nominally the less commerce-oriented of the two enterprises, favoring artists whose work contains a dollop of satire and social commentary.

"#3038, Untitled," gelatin silver print, 450 x 560 mm. © Masao Yamamoto

The current exhibition (on display till February 7) does not really fit that mold, however. Photographer Masao Yamamoto's Shizuka=Cleanse series offers high-contrast monochrome closeups of small clumps of nature -- specifically, roots and rocks. Carrying no weighty messages, they simply exist on their own terms. One would not be surprised to find these prints untitled, but Yamamoto has given them names, in English no less, that rarely appear to have anything to do with the object presented: Dust, Ephemeral, Reborn, Mamma, Hop, Unite. How to relate these images to their appellations is clearly up to the viewer. Granted, a few are evocative -- Torch, Hunter, Monkey Stone -- and Pegasus, a jagged snag of tree root that really does look like a flying horse.

Installation view of "#3011, Hunter - going home," 558 x 446 mm (left), and "#3009, Torch," 560 x 450 mm (right), gelatin silver prints. © Masao Yamamoto

Until recently, Yamamoto has shown a preference for the unpremeditated snapshot: cityscapes, landscapes, and instants of human or animal behavior generally captured out of doors. His affinity for nature has grown deeper, apparently, since he moved out of Tokyo to the foot of Mt. Yatsugatake, a volcanic massif in central Japan surrounded by an expanse of grassland and forest. On his long daily walks, he says, he comes upon strange rocks and root formations that he digs up and carries back to his studio. There he arranges them against a black background and illuminates them from various angles. The complex lighting is a sort of "sculpting" process that shapes the object and brings it to life. As one visitor noted, these silent fragments of nature have spent long years buried in the earth, brimming with pent-up energy but unable to release it. Now liberated from their confines, the roots and stones radiate a nearly visible life force, akin to a flower blooming. This notion is reinforced by at least one of his titles, "Free at last," given to a powerful shot of a root mass that virtually explodes with sharp spikey protrusions.

Shizuka=Cleanse installation view, Mizuma Art Gallery, 2015. A selection of Yamamoto's past work fills a glass case in the center of the main exhibition room.

These photos hang on the walls of Mizuma's main gallery, a high-ceilinged white cube. In the center, a table displays an array of earlier prints by Yamamoto. The stylistically helter-skelter montage provides puckish contrast to the meticulous, controlled methodology of the works on the wall.

Installation in the Mizuma Art Gallery tokonoma, including "#1628, Reversed Moon" from Yamamoto's Kawa=Flow series, shown in close-up below. © Masao Yamamoto

One of Mizuma's endearing quirks is the presence of a bona fide tokonoma alcove in the small gallery off to the side. With blue-gray tatami flooring and a metal pillar in lieu of the usual wooden one, this is definitely not your traditional tokonoma, but according to the curator, the space encourages many exhibiting artists to try their hand at installing something there in a wabi-sabi vein. Yamamoto has risen to the bait by hanging a luminous black-and-white photo of a solar eclipse where a scroll might ordinarily go. The concentric rings of sun and moon ingeniously evoke the single circular brushstroke of many a Zen painting. Below, instead of a flower arrangement, Yamamoto has placed an actual tree root (the subject of one of his photographs), atop which sits a candle supported by an antique Japanese candlestick.

Then comes the kicker. Atop the tree root, Yamamoto has also balanced a tiny figurine -- a little man, wearing something akin to a top hat and tails -- which he picked up at a souvenir shop in a resort town near his home. What are we to make of this? Is it the artist himself, posing on one of his favorite natural formations? Or just a dig at his viewers, admonishing us not to make too much of this Zen stuff? All one can tell for sure is that, his communing with nature notwithstanding, the photographer has retained his street-smarts -- a sense of the ironic that refuses to take the metaphysical tinge of his recent work too seriously.

Shizuka=Cleanse installation view in the smaller of the two exhibition rooms, Mizuma Art Gallery, 2015

All images are courtesy of Mizuma Art Gallery.

Masao Yamamoto: "Shizuka=Cleanse"
  Mizuma Art Gallery
  14 January - 7 February 2015

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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for 28 years. In addition to writing about the Japanese art scene he has edited and translated works on Japanese theater (from kabuki to the avant-garde) and music (both traditional and contemporary).
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