How to travel from your room

Jean Loh
Shanghai September 2012

Yuki Onodera’s photography is the opposite of fast foods. In order to fully appreciate her genius, her photographs require some efforts like long minutes of contemplation first and revisiting for deeper immersion and absorption, with relish. If you just happen to pass by and think these are only banal images without interest, then you will walk away having missed the chance of an extraordinary encounter with reality, at least, reality as Yuki sees it. That being said, it is tempting to qualify Onodera as an intellectual photographer, yet she will probably never give you a lecture theorizing on some obscure concept or complex philosophical representation. What is amazing is that one can be deeply moved by her photography, as I had been the first time I saw her “Portraits of Secondhand Cloths” in the mezzanine exhibition hall of the Shanghai Art Museum. That was in 2006, at the first photography exhibition organized by the Shanghai Art Museum, and I can say I had my share of pride for having persuaded the Museum Director Li Lei to give a chance to photography. In that low-ceiling dimly lit mezzanine hall, large prints were presenting black & white images of children cloths shot against a cloudy sky. The disturbing point, or “the punctum” so dear to Roland Barthes, lies in the shape and the fine texture of the cloth molded around an imaginary absent body. For Yuki’s Secondhand Cloths makes you think of the boy or the little girl who have worn them or inhabited them before and who are now no longer there, inviting the reflection on Barthes’ concept of “that has existed” when he remarked on the power of photographic image that can carry two realities at the same time: the picture that you hold in your hands is real but the image inside the picture is a different reality already.
What we have here with this new series of “sign posts in a room” is a refreshing exploration of the “double edge” of reality. A master in the manipulation of appearances, not in the taken-for-granted sense of today’s legion of digital artists, Yuki relies not only on traditional film-based photo-taking and dark room printing techniques, but also often on elaborate fabrication of “props” (like in one of her previous works “How to Make Pearls” the metallic beads – she called them pearls – that she let rolling freely inside her camera to produce random reflection each time she released the shutter). These “props” here are what she calls her “cast”, like actors on a stage with Yuki as the director. The sign boards and sign posts that we see here with a few exception were all fabricated (in both senses of the term) by Yuki herself, they seem to be signs of places written in some obscure foreign languages, and they seem at first to not correspond to any real names nor do they refer to any real places. The truth is, these alien sounding names come from 72 different places or countries and are written in almost as many as languages.
The fascinating and disturbing punctum this time lies especially in the juxtaposition of a confining room with these sign posts which are supposed to direct you to journey on. Even the locked window that lets the light in is looking out to nowhere. Yet the scattered sign boards are here to prevent any claustrophobia-induced panic attack, as we naively believe that they will guide us to some mysterious sight-seeing. How to travel around the world from your room seems to be the proposition of Yuki. In this reinterpretation of “man-altered landscape” the room sometimes looks like a traffic-jammed downtown or a busy shopping district, sometimes like a desolate sparsely-populated crossroad in the middle of nowhere. And the different language signs in apparent (real) Greek or Chinese characters, simili (real) Arabic, authentic (or fake) Russian, all packed together in one room produce a schizophrenic feeling of belonging and alienating, a destabilizing sensation of familiar and exotic, with the blue carpet and the white window frame providing as the only visual anchoring points.
“What she is tracking is the reality of her own singular and poetic world. Because she has spent so many years being a Japanese in Paris, she persists in contradicting her mother tongue. Photography in her hands is no longer a way to capture reality (literal translation of the Japanese word shashin 寫真), it has become a subjective and poetic language she uses to express her own vision of the world”. Explained Alain Sayag, the Pompidou Center’s Curator, in his magnificent essay in2006, when Yuki Onodera received the most prestigious photography award in France the Prix Niepce, Sayag concluded with these words: “Yuki Onodera engages in painstakingly stripping appearances to give us access to another level of reality, making the invisible visible to us”.
I do hope that for the Chinese photographers Yuki Onodera’s exhibition will also provide an occasion to meditate on the meaning of “documentary photography” which is translated literally as “recording reality” 紀實.