Towards the end of Camera Lucida (1980) Roland Barthes wonders if the little boy Ernest, the subject of an André Kertesz photograph from 1931, could still be alive. In considering this question Barthes is led to ponder his own existence: 'Why is it that I am alive here and now?', he asks. Yuki Kimura's photographs take this question, which lies beneath all photography, and bring it to the surface. Her subjects, caught in the present moment, break the illusion of their stillness, their assuredness, to remind us, with sly humour, that they were born and will die. Life-size Lives (Resemblance) #1-3 (1998) is a triptych of portraits of three young men. Dressed identically in jeans, T-shirts and blue felt hats, the men gaze confidently into the camera. Yet despite their youthful vitality we immediately leap ahead in time and consider their inevitable deaths. Why? Because the texts on their shirts read, sequentially: 'One of the three is to die first', 'One of the three is to die second', 'One of the three is to die third.' As they were taken five years ago, I wonder if perhaps one has already died, and by extension I must ponder, like Barthes, my own place in the continuum of things, my own death.
With or without us everything continues. This is the theme underlying all of Kimura's photographs. She places both her subjects and the viewer in the midst of the wide network of historical, social and biological forces that form and inform us. Looking both forwards and back, her photographs not only confront the inevitability of our own death but also marvel at the continuation of life. In her slide-projection piece Will Children Have Children? (1999) we are shown a series of 40 images, all pairs of young Japanese boys and girls. Each image appears almost identical. The people wear the same clothes, have the same hairstyles and are posed similarly against the same background. Yet as we look from image to image it quickly becomes apparent that no two couples are quite alike. Kimura defies our desire to distinguish and to be distinguished. Further complicating the matter is the fact that of the eight individuals Kimura used in combinations for the series three pairs are actual siblings. Directly challenging the viewer, the shirt worn by the person on the right in each of the photos bears the text: 'How many real brothers and sisters do you reckon there are? And anyway, we were born because our parents had sex!'
Returning us to the primal scene, Kimura asks us to stop and consider the mystery of our origins, how it is we became who we are. In doing so she places herself firmly in a genealogy that stretches from Diane Arbus to Cindy Sherman to Jennifer Bornstein. Like Arbus, Kimura's photographs reveal a fascination with genetics, with how two people can be so alike yet so different. Couples and the act of coupling, copulation and procreation come up time and again in her work. Indeed, Arbus' own recurrent images of twins and triplets are echoed in works such as Will Children Have Children? while her photographs of expectant mothers and babies become, in Kimura's hands, a series of diptychs of apparently pregnant Japanese women whose bulging stomachs are revealed, in the second image, to be basketballs placed under their dresses and sweatshirts. Making literal sport of the dark 'flaw' Arbus saw in her subjects, Kimura's models are infused with lightness and beauty, even in the face of death.
Self-reflexive and charming, funny and perplexing, Kimura's photographs, on a further level, interrogate the very way we perceive images. This is true both of the portraits and of her lesser-known series of landscape and travel photos, which were the subject of this small show in Los Angeles entitled 'Deep-Take'. Playing off the word 'diptych' as well as the filmic techniques of deep-focus and long-take, Kimura presented pairs of images that compelled the viewer to look twice. On separate walls were similar photographs of a man in a red sweatshirt fishing on a beach, taken just seconds apart; only the waves crashing over the jetty reveal the passage of the brief moment of time. This rupture between the two images, the absent space-time sliver, becomes Kimura's point of focus. Her strategy of repetition and doubling emphasizes the photograph's place in a continuum and makes it but a single step in a greater voyage. Which is why the docked ship in Passing Backgrounds (1999) is significant. Awaiting the start of its voyage, Kimura reveals its stillness to be deceptive. Looking from one image to the next, we cannot help but be struck by the simple truth that, while the ship may not be moving, everything around it is.
First published in Issue 74