Dana Friis-Hansen / Director of Austin Museum of Art, Texas.
It has been said that the development of photography enabled nineteenth-century painters to untether themselves from the mantle of representation their medium once shouldered, allowing their work to become more abstract and intellectual. For a while photography was a dutiful recorder of reality, yet observers soon realized that the road any photographer takes can be as straight or as indirect as its driver chooses.
When we walk into one of Yuki Onodera’s exhibitions or open a book such as this, her work seems closer to the straightforward end of the spectrum. Recognizing the landmark imagery of certain genres – the figure (alone or in groups), domestic still lifes, or landscapes – we quickly find our artistic bearings, and her photographic approaches seem to fall into one of the contemporary grooves of conceptual photography, including set-ups, motion shots, extreme close-ups and manipulated street photography. With these qualities alone, Onodera’s work takes us far enough to hold our eye and carry our imagination, yet to stop there would be a mistake. As we carefully consider the second-hand clothes, birds in flight, tumbling tin cans, and houses at night, what is missing becomes just as important as what we can see. Onodera complicates — and enriches — her art by making presence and absence the dominating tension that runs through all her work.
As with her previous work, the exciting new transvest series does not quickly nor easily divulge its full power to please and provoke until after our eyes have adjusted to the darkness and our minds have started to churn. When we first encounter her stark and stylish silhouettes, we read them as iconic figures, emblems of particular archetypes. A self-assured soldier, a fashion model from the Thirties, a flamenco singer, Alice-in-Wonderland, a boxer, a mother and child, a scuba diver, a Chinese interrogator, and a tap dancer are just some of the characters that appeared in my imagination. Indeed, the artist has explained that shaped figures are selected for their evocative capacity, intended to give us a sense of “déjà-vu”. It is true – we cannot resist filling in the contours of Onodera’s silhouettes with details and texture, projecting our own experiences onto the players on her stage. Heroic, cinematic, shadowy figures, like those in Plato’s cave, have been blown up larger-than-life. These silhouettes began as clippings from contemporary magazines, and were then stiffened and set upon a glass platform. Back-lit to obscure the details of their identity, she has posed them singly and in groups, to draw out their narrative power. These are rich and vibrant personalities, with far more individualism than the figures implied in Onodera’s 1994 series, Portrait of Second Hand Clothes where empty garments stand stiffly like haunted scarecrows against a sky, or the dull, gray, distorted faces of “P.N.I. (Personne Non Inconnu?)” from 1999. Yet once our eyes adjust to the darkness, we see very different pictures as we tumble down the rabbit hole into an information wonderland. Using both traditional cut-and-paste methods and the slicker tools of our digital age, Onodera has made collages not only from images she has taken herself but also from newspapers, books, magazines, video, and other media. “The body takes in the universe. There are satellite photos, baroque decorations, mountain slopes, the ripples of a lake’s surface, candy, ruins, the tattoos of an Indian, night-time scenes of a harbor, crowds, cars, insects, festivals, the moment a balloon bursts, everything from the microscopic to the enormous is collected on the surface of darkness, between the visible and the invisible”.
We drop several orders of magnitude, from the mere outline of an individual to collected memories or total consciousness. Again, we come to the lofty issue of presence and absence, what a camera can and cannot record, and how the artist ovecomes such limits to address the question of what can be perceived — through our eyes or through the camera – and what we know is there, but still must conjure up from within ourselves.
(All quotes are drawn from correspondence with the author, January 8, 2004).