Japanese photographer Mamoru Tsukada’s early work was visibly rooted in conceptual practice. His series, ‘The Fact That We Are Compelled To Look Out Beyond Our Sensible Representations’ (2003), for example, which borrowed its title from Immanuel Kant, featured images of blind people and was reminiscent of Sophie Calle’s series, ‘The Blind’ (2000). Tsukada’s work took on another dimension when a film crew began documenting the production of this series: in turn, the artist began shooting the film crew, integrating the filmmakers into the photographs and generating images of both real and imagined scenarios.
The preoccupation with the real and the fictional, the seen and the unseen, remains central to Tsukada’s concerns. But, as this recent exhibition at Tomio Koyama’s new space in Kyoto demonstrated, the conceptual frameworks the artist previously employed have been replaced by a more fluid methodology. Tsukada’s recent photographs are almost painterly; the theoretical concerns, meanwhile, have been replaced with broadly described thematic groupings.
The new images are liberally populated with masks, deities, rituals and vaguely New Age references. A large-scale series, ‘Cave Painting’ (2008), which was produced during a stay in India, uses shots of goat blood, milk and cobras to create expressionistic textures. Meanwhile, ‘Specter’ (2006) features a set of photographs taken from inside a group of ghoulish masks; the image’s point of identification is with an unknown, unidentified mask wearer.
The connection between old and new work is Tsukada’s long-standing interest in the meeting point between two worlds. In his series from 2003, ‘Identical Twins’, adult brothers are pictured dressed in clothes from different eras – one contemporary, one in historical military garb. The resulting photographs represent not only a politically loaded exploration of Japan’s militaristic past and its hold on the present generation, but stage a haunting of sorts: a juncture between past and present, dead and living.
In the new body of work, Tsukada looks at the point where the dividing line comes undone. A crucial image in the exhibition from the series ‘Love Transformer’ (2008), overlays Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23), with an anonymous male portrait. Here, it is the art historical, rather than the socio-political, that weighs against the present. But instead of two distinct worlds sharing a single frame, as in ‘Identical Twins’, the sense here is of a single, and singularly reimagined, worldview.
That world returns in the ‘Specter’ series from 2006. The idea of the boundary is again prominent: the interior warping of the mask that covers the lens, and the literal border between internal and external realities, occupies as much of the image as the world outside. But there is a distinct airlessness to these images and, in the best of them, the world beyond the internal world of the mask is revealed to be a mirror reflection of the mask itself. With its reliance on staging and masks, and its interest in subjectivity, ‘Specter’ recalls the work of filmmaker David Lynch, in particular the hallucinatory world of his movie Inland Empire (2006). There are many shared concerns: the melding of reality and dream and the exploration of a subjectivity in which the pressures of the socio-symbolic world are felt rather than literally or directly depicted.
Strikingly, Lynch repeatedly employs meta-narratives, and is as concerned with staging as Tsukada. The question of why staging and artifice should be so crucial to expressing subjectivity is at the core of Tsukada’s work. That theatricality is, in a sense, the starting point, from which an apparently coherent reality begins to dissolve; the world of masks and theatre acts as an incantation of sorts. It is a point of departure, and a ritual whose primary role is not to depict, but rather to undo, the seemingly solid edifice of social reality.