Daido Moriyama is a digital flâneur, a street photographer who doesn’t look through a viewfinder, but through the small screen on his camera. Writing in the exhibition catalogue of ‘Daido Tokyo’, his current exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, the eminent Japanese artist describes his extreme sensitivity to place: walking in Shinjuku by night, ‘I find myself flinching for some reason, even though nothing particular has happened. Shadow-spirits squirm amid the darkness of the back streets, under the lights and neon signs. The sight line of the small camera in my hand picks up the sensitive, insectile reactions of these wraiths, like electrical impulses.’
‘Daido Tokyo’ translates these instincts into two series of photographs – one in colour (‘Tokyo Color’, 2008–15) and one in black and white (‘Dog and Mesh Tights’, 2014–15) – in a fascinating study of the properties of each. Although Moriyama has worked in colour photography since the 1970s, this is his first major exhibition devoted to the medium. After photographing his native Osaka, Moriyama decided to turn his lens on Shinjuku, a red-light district in western Tokyo filled with bars and strip clubs, which he calls ‘a formidable den of iniquity’; though he can’t admit to loving the place, it has an undeniable hold on him. ‘The more chimeric and labyrinthine it is,’ he writes, ‘the more powerfully its enigmatic magnetism captures me.’
‘Tokyo Color’ is a series of 86 chromogenic prints in smudgy, saturated tones, presented unframed on large pieces of poster-board, highlighting the impressionistic, anti-technical side of Moriyama’s practice. He has an eye for the industrial sublime: the rust stains on the side of a stucco building, silver air-ducts snaking down its facade (making the Centre Pompidou look like a sanitized Playmobil piece by comparison); the baroque, almost abstract, snarl of wires on a telephone pole, of all colours, patterns and sizes. Looking at it, you have to wonder: how does this mess form a system or make possible any kind of communication?
These images of urban decay and disarray are juxtaposed with images of nature – tangled tree branches next to furry yellow fruit; ivy climbing a building above a junkyard of discarded refrigerators, ovens and other large appliances. Some of the images are lurid, even sensationalist: a woman removes her jeans to reveal her thong, a man is seen in dark profile against a red background; the works self-consciously announce themselves as ‘photos of Tokyo’s seedy underbelly’. Far more difficult to parse is the small bathtub filled with neon purple water, or the giant gold (fake) spider behind a window, looking set to devour the city.
‘Dog and Mesh Tights’ forms the second part of the exhibition. Black and white photographs converted from digital colour, the series is here projected in four floor-to-ceiling panels, with the photographs changing every five seconds or so, from left to right, like pages being turned in a book. As in the colour photographs, Daido plays with surfaces and networks, occasionally capturing the (often deprived) people who live within them. Soda machines, backs of buildings, forgotten Christmas decorations – the city offers the camera a rich landscape of textures. In the background is a lively soundscape; occasionally, it goes quiet and all you can hear is bird-call, a five o’clock song that echoes across the four panels, unifying these different spots in the city. But the constantly shifting series of photographs means you can never dwell on anything for long; Daido’s lens momentarily captures parts of the city that are hard to look at but his gaze quickly shifts us on to the next image. It’s a cruel mirror of the way we live in cities, seeing more than we want to, forever looking away.
First published in Issue 179