Oddball world of Yuki Onodera develops in black and white

Herald Tribune/Asahi

It is Yuki Onodera’s combination of a rough, grainy, black-and-white format with intriguingly odd subject matter that has been both the hallmark and strong point of her photographs to date. Grainy monotone brings to mind documentary or reportage photography–with its associations of straight realism. So when such a format is used to depict clothes apparently standing by themselves, or tin cans flying through the air, or soccer games where there are two balls, the effect is immediately startling.

Those three sets of works–titled “Portrait of Second-hand Clothes” (1994-7), “C.V.N.I.” (1998) and “Watch your joint!” (2004)–are just some of the photographic series that have propelled Onodera to the forefront of the Japanese contemporary art world.

Last year, she had a major solo exhibition at the National Museum of Art, Osaka, and during the few months remaining in 2006 she has four solo shows in France, where she has been based since 1993.

However, if you want to see her most recent work, you need only go to the Zeit-foto Salon in Tokyo, where 12 photos from two new series, “Eleventh Finger” and “Below Orpheus,” are making their international debuts.

During a recent interview at the gallery, Onodera explained that she took the photos in “Eleventh Finger” with a hidden camera.

The angle of the shots–taken at chest height–and the proximity of the apparently unknowing subjects plainly suggest photos taken on the sly during walks through the streets of Paris.

A woman with a hand raised dramatically, two men standing in the same pose: The moments she has captured would please any Cartier-Bresson fan.

For Onodera, their attraction obviously lay elsewhere, for she has seen fit to cover the faces of her subjects with delicate white patterns.

“When you take photographs of people, it is generally the faces that dominate the composition,” she said. “I wanted to focus attention on the bodies of the subjects, so I covered their faces with patterned paper during the printing process.”

In this way, “Eleventh Finger” carries on from the soccer series. In that work, it was the crafty addition and relocation of the soccer balls that brought into relief the odd bodily movements of the players. Suddenly they seemed ridiculous, yet beautiful, as though partaking in some foreign, but highly regimented dance.

Only two photos from “Eleventh Finger” are on display in this exhibition, and Onodera said she will continue the series for a while to come. “Taking good shots is difficult–not everyone moves in the way you want them to!” she said.

The other new series, “Below Orpheus,” is in two parts. The first set of photos was taken in a hotel room in Madrid, the second in New Zealand.

Onodera was interested in the idea of movement, and when she found an article about a person who mysteriously vanished while staying at a Madrid hotel, the idea for the work was born.

“We’re inclined to think that the farthest point away from us is that which we can barely see on the horizon, but it is not; it is the point directly below us, on the other side of the world,” she said.

Onodera discovered that according to a Maori legend, 280 years ago, on the spot on the Earth most far from the Madrid hotel, a strange prophet, one who predicted the arrival of the Europeans, had suddenly appeared from underground.

This story, which is presented to visitors via a short text at the gallery entrance, provides her work with its context and its punch. The photos themselves are deliberately neutral.

The hotel room is taken from on high, resulting in oddly angled views of a bedside table, a closet and a chair –as though some hovering drone had randomly cased a crime scene. The addition of the room’s precise latitude and longitude heightens this sense of machine-made randomness.

The New Zealand photos are objective in a different way: Polaroids of nondescript patches of grass or trees.

“I wanted to delete any trace of the artist from the photographs,” she said.

She succeeded. The only problem is that the gap created by her withdrawal has been filled by something external to the photos: the somewhat gratuitous story of the vanishing hotel patron and the Maori soothsayer.

To some viewers, these tales of hearsay and legend, combined with hard, photographic fact, will create a strangely attractive resonance. For others, they will come across as a feeble crutch to pictures ultimately lacking in character.

In “Eleventh Finger” the artist’s presence, her attractive, half-lunatic black-and-white vision of the world, is still palpable. In “Below Orpheus,” she has been a bit too successful in tempering herself.

Yuki Onodera’s “Below Orpheus” is on display through Oct. 7 at Tokyo’s Zeit-foto Salon (03-3535-7188), near Kyobashi subway station. Admission is free. Open 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. (until 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays). Closed on Sundays, Mondays and public holidays. (IHT/Asahi: September 15, 2006)

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