Yuki Onodera: Ethics in photography

Michael Lucken

The mysterious, surreal and original nature of Yuki Onodera’s work has often been noticed. I would like to highlight its ethical dimension, the powerful poetry which emanates from her photographs which is subordinate to her moral outlook for both technique and imagery, and how the way in which she articulates ethics and poetics can be used as a model for contemporary creation.

A crowd irradiated by a black sun. In her series How to Make a Pearl (2000-2001), the artist inserted a glass marble into her camera. When she clicks the shutter, the camera is unable to fully capture the scene and throws back the reflection of the tumor inside. By inserting a foreign object into the core of the camera, the artist violates the manner in which the device is supposed to function. If the camera was a text – and cameras are also texts – one could speak of interpolation. This disruption of the photographic process can be found in several other series: in Camera of course, with two lenses facing each other, but also in The Bee, Roma, Look Out the Window, as well as in her most recent work (Muybridge’s Twist) where she compiles pieces of images into compositions which exceed the size of the largest prints. This is what Onodera refers to as « counter-photography » (han-shashin) by which she discreetly associates herself to the counter-culture movement of the 1960s.

There are few examples of these series in the current exhibition as they have already been exhibited previously, however it is important to reference them as they provide the initial basis of Onodera’s work: the manner in which the camera is used must be challenged. Before any « perspective » on objects, before the « encounter » of any given subject, the desire to challenge the device by disrupting it, by « defying » it, is the first requirement for artistic creativity in photography. As a result, photography is not only the art of representation, it also provides the hint of a performance. It not only urges the viewer to see and to feel, but also to understand and redo. It suggests a certain connection to the technique, which passes through apprehension and intervention, far from the ergonomic and performance standards extolled by manufacturers.

In 1993, Onodera gathered second-hand clothes used by Boltanski for his installation Dispersion. They were then hung and photographed, producing one of her most well-known series, Portrait of Second-hand Clothes. Whereas Boltanski piled shapeless remains as a kind of requiem to human society, Onodera bring them up one by one, not to « breathe new life » into them but in order to focus for what they symbolize: a former owner, a generic body, a certain culture of clothing. This concern to restore the images « back on their feet » is recurring in the artist’s work. When advertising and a consumerist society lower them, she lifts them up again. In the series Transvest and PNI, the clippings of models from magazines are no longer advertising material but the human form of an opening towards complexity; in Eleventh Finger, the stolen image redeems its original act by a meticulous work of cutting; in Watch Your Joints!, the fleeting and vain gestures of football players on TV gain a grace of sorts.

A Japanese word conveys the action of putting emphasis on an image: mitate. The contemporary meaning of mitate indicates a work that refers to another, often in a parodic manner, however in this case it is not the intended meaning. The primary meaning of the verb mitateru means « look » (mi-) and « raise » something (tateru). In other words, to choose, or more precisely, to erect as a model. From this perspective, to create a mitate entails the recognition of the relative nature of art. We do not create anything ex nihilo and instead of pretending, the images we have chosen should be enriched, magnified, transformed. In Onodera’s work, there is a practical understanding of the beauty of shapes, which confronts the idealized approaches to art. It is not meant to be cynical; on the contrary, it is intended to restore the human outlook in an enlightened awareness. This is why there is no trace of a preconceived or artificial Japanese identity in her work, but an attention to detail and workmanship which reflects the true history of artistic practices on the archipelago.

Ethics of action and ethics of shapes. Denial of ostentatious postures and idealized traditions. This double movement – one positive, the other negative – opens the narrow path of a modernist poetry, both critical and non-violent, redeeming and inspirational. Onodera’s work has recently evolved towards a sort of photographic cubism, suggesting that this development is in part intentional. With no doubt, it is also the reflection of a political positioning at a time when the world, and East Asia in particular, are facing the rise of nationalism and the spectre of war.

Text : Michael Luken
Catalogue of solo show, Yuki Onodera, Pierre-Yves Caër Gallery, Paris, 2017.


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