There are seven of them, representing four nationalities, including two Japanese, and all based in Belgium. At one time or another, they fell under the spell of Japan. These photographers zoomed in on the land of the rising sun, for the sake of experimentation or because it is their native soil. In an exhibion entitled Impressions japonaises, Contretype has invited them to exchange views of Japan. We focus on an encounter commemorating 150 years of diplomatic relations between Belgium and Japan.
We start with Jean-Paul Brohez. Having left his Belgian village, he arrived in Tokyo some ten years ago. In his photographs, he captures what surprises him, seizing even fleeting moments, with an inquisitive eye full of wonder. Brohez likes to celebrate discovery. The joy and merriment it holds. Our gaze is caught by the freshness of this personal pilgrimage, by those sequences which the artist purposefully shaped into a visual haiku.
A native of Verviers (Belgium), Frederic Materne shows the space where he was living during his stay in Nishi-Funabashi: a 15 m² room. Hence the title of the series. He expresses himself in a delicate poetry in soft blacks, greys and whites. A little too dark, these images are bathed in silence. The result is both strange and melancholy. Hikari means light in Japanese. Indeed, this is the word that comes to mind, as Materne plays on its absence or its interstitial presence, and stands out in the contrasting shadows and light. By focusing on materials and fabrics, he reveals the fine details and the atmosphere of a limited universe. Everything happens behind closed doors.
In the next section, Michel Mazzoni also drew inspiration from his trips to Japan to explore the medium of photography further. The result is as subtle as it is elegant. A French national, Mazzoni approaches photography as a visual artist, with image manipulation and processing. Further on, Sélim Christiaens (Belgium) takes us on a tour. He explored and documented the small world of Kodomokyojin, a Japanese theatre company that he followed during its European tour. He portrayed a backstage community going about its daily life, capturing fleeting moments of such an alien lifestyle. Whilst the other photographers stayed in Japan, Sélim remained in Europe. Yet, each one of them, in his own way, reaches the same point. The work produced is sensitive and very personal, while conveying great serenity in terms of aesthetics.
It is worth noting that photography is an important medium in the Japanese cultural landscape and that it is associated with the concept of modernity. The body, the city, society, disasters or nuclear accidents are recurring subjects. The three series displayed in the basement are arranged along those lines. Echoing the aftermath of Fukushima, Bernd Kleinheisterkamp (Germany) describes a society in crisis which is experiencing major changes. He spent two months travelling with the dancer and choreographer Lida Shigemi and her troupe, going through cities and countrysides. Again, black – as black as ink – and white. Shades which are as contrasting and powerful as his beautiful and moving portraits. Probably the strongest, the most striking work in this exhibition, his photographs seem to have achieved a certain transcendence.
We switch lenses to look at the work of Satoru Toma. He frames the places where he spent his childhood, in the outskirts of Takasaki. Those areas have changed a lot since then. So, he prefers unoccupied spaces, vacant lots, empty plots. Is this a way to escape the oppressive presence of an overpopulated and rapidly sprawling urban environment? His work often connects the inner and exterior landscape. Kumi Oguro is the only woman whose works are shown here. Noise: almost an installation, her lifesize photographs are revealed in a darkened room. She takes pictures of female models, often only showing part of their bodies. They hold unnatural positions, in a half-revealed intimacy, almost staged. In all likelihood, cinema has influenced the way she expresses herself. She takes us to another world and we imagine film scenes or set stills. Her enigmatic and disconcerting prints are imbued with surrealism, aesthetics and sensuality, which are characteristic of this modern Japanese medium. The result, which lies in the beauty and especially the mystery of the images, is splendid. Who are these women? What are they doing?
In addition to reflecting very personal worlds, the exhibition shows key codes in Japanese art. Nihon Shashin can be translated either by Japanese photography or photography in Japan. Here the gaze of Europeans and Japanese sensitivities overlap. The exhibition is designed in a way that seamlessly takes us from one artist to the next. All we have to do is follow the natural flow of the images. Be sure to pin this visit in your diary!
4 A Cité Fontainas
Until 27 March
Wednesdays – Fridays, from 12:00 to 18:00; Saturdays and Sundays from 13:00