In Praise of Mad Shadows: The Photography of Tokihiro Sato

    I first encountered Tokihiro Sato’s photos by chance in a Japanese art magazine in 1997. “Haunting” is the cliche of choice to describe his photos, but they really were haunting, and I just had to interview him. The article appeared in ART AsiaPacific (defunct, but later revived) in 1999. Taken just before digital photography became the norm, Mr. Sato’s photos are also an homage to the beautiful of film photography.   


    “Such is our way of thinking—we find beauty in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness that one thing against another creates”1 is how Junichiro Tanizaki, one of Japan’s most famous modern novelists, defined beauty in Japanese architecture. For Tanizaki, good architecture filters real light into a diverse pattern of shadows. Tanizaki’s views draw on a long tradition of preference for indirect light and shadowed spaces in the arts in Japan.

    Tokihiro Sato is the most recent inheritor of this tradition. In a continuing series of photographs, each with its own number, entitled “Photo-Respiration” Sato manipulates light to create patterns of shadows in large black and white photographs. Although contemporary Japanese architects, such Tadao Ando, capture light to create interesting shadows, Sato is only photographer who explores the possibilities of light and shadow in his work. In doing so, he bucks the trend toward colorful narrative pop images that started by Nobuyoshi Araki and Yasumasa Morimura in the 1980s. The emerging contrast between Sato’s work and that of Araki represents a return to the division between “high” contemplative arts and “low” ribald arts in Japanese culture. The growing doubts over the value of consumer culture and the post-World War II “Japan system” that created it have stimulated the growth of ribald arts with Araki as one of its leading exponents.

    Tokihiro Sato was born in Yamagata Prefecture, a small landlocked prefecture in northern Japan, in 1957. He followed the traditional route of entry into the Japanese art world and entered the Department of Sculpture at Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music, Japan’s leading art school, in 1977. During art school and immediately following graduation, he was interested in becoming a sculptor. Sato used steel to create large sculptures that directed the flow of light and water.

    As time went on, Sato found himself more interested in light and shadows than in making large sculptures. He had always liked photography and was fascinated by its potential to explore light and shadow. After a period of experimentation, Sato developed a technique to capture the movement of light over a period of several hours.  For interior and night photography, he covers the camera with a dark filter and leaves the shutter of the camera open for three hours. While the shutter is open, Sato makes vertical motions with a penlight in chosen areas of the set. For outdoor photographs, Sato leaves the shutter open for an hour and uses a mirror to reflect sunlight toward the camera for a few minutes, creating a bright ball of light in the photograph. Sato chooses a variety of points in the scene and conceals the mirror as he carries it from point to point.  Sato’s body and his movement from point to point do not appear in the photograph because they are too dark and too fast to penetrate the darkness of the filter.  The result is an eerie scene besprinkled with balls of light.

    Sato also experimented with new ways of display during these years. Influenced by his training in sculpture, Sato turned his photographs into photographic sculptures. Sato uses eight-by-ten inch negatives that allow him to blow his photographs up to cover the entire wall of a gallery. For smaller works, the large negative prevents excessive graininess and distortion of the image. Some of Sato’s largest works fill huge Plexiglas boxes on the gallery walls; others printed on translucent plastic hang from the ceiling or back lit while being suspended from the gallery walls. In a gallery, Sato’s photographs function as portable room dividers that define spaces and alter the flow of light and traffic.

    Sato’s first group of works using this technique, entitled “Breathing Shadows,” debuted in 1988. All photographs in this group were taken inside buildings or at night. The vertical motions of Sato’s arm created fine squiggly lines of light that filled the halls and staircases of the buildings. Most of the lines are bright at the top and slowly fade in intensity as they fall to the floor. The uniformity of direction with slight variation for intensity and shape suggests the conformity of contemporary urban life in which individual expression is limited to details amid a larger sameness. An excellent example from this group is Photo-Respiration #22 (1988), which shows thin vertical streams of light ascending (or perhaps descending) a staircase. The streams of light amid the darkened bulk of the stairwell recall the Tanizaki’s praise for the alcove in a Japanese room: “The light from the pale white paper, powerless to dispel the heavy darkness of the alcove, is instead repelled by the darkness, creating a world of confusion where dark and light are indistinguishable.”2 For these works, the site was important in forming the flow of light into an interesting pattern, rather than for their symbolism.

    A few years later, Sato presented his “Breathing Lights” group of outdoor photographs.  For this group, Sato dotted scenes of trees, rivers, and coastline with bright balls of light. The brightness and intensity of the balls of light make them seem as if they are floating slowly around the scene for some inexplicable purpose. To Sato, light represents essence of life and the human soul. In a work such as Photo-Respiration #149 (1992), the floating balls of light thus represent the life of the rice paddy, be it the farmers who work there or the animals and insects that live in them. Although the lights are intense, the balance between light and dark is similar to night photographs because there are fewer falls of light than there are streams of light. The dark filter on the camera gives the daytime sky a dark shadowy tone as in Photo-Respiration #63 (1990).  By turning lightness into shadow, Sato’s filter acts like the paper on a shoji screen in a Japanese house: it conducts light but is “powerless to dispel the heavy darkness.”

    The early 1990s brought an abrupt end to the booming bubble economy that gave Japan great buoyancy throughout the 1980s. In the wake of the economic wreckage, Japan was left with a number of huge construction projects that took architectural experimentation to its limits. The bursting of the bubble caused Sato and many other Japanese artists to look at the cultural consequences of those heady years. Sato decided to include symbolic meaning to his work by setting his photographs in places that represent various sides of “bubble culture.”

    The group of photographs entitled “Tokyo I” appeared just as the bubble was bursting in 1991. The photos in the group show busy areas of Tokyo in middle of the workday, but with no people or traffic. The dark filter and long exposure time turn the constant flow of people and traffic on the streets of Tokyo into a creamy mist that levitates above the ground. The most famous photograph from this group is Photo-Respiration #87 Shibuya (1990). The photograph is a panorama of the street scene of Shibuya, a trendy fashion and entertainment area in Tokyo, from the square in front of Shibuya Station.  The area is crowded day and night with fashion-hungry youth, but it looks abandoned and forlorn in Sato’s photograph. The people waiting to cross the street in the foreground have turned to ghost-like clouds and the traffic has turned into a thin layer of fog. All we see are faint shadows of what we know is there.  Except for the balls of light, nothing in the photograph is white, and except for a dark circular mark on the sidewalk, nothing is black.

    As part of this group, Sato experimented with color, but found it unsatisfactory because, as Tanizaki argued, it took away the shadows that make color beautiful. Of light and color, Tanizaki said, “A phosphorescent jewel gives off its glow and color in the dark and loses its beauty in the light of day. Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.”3 In the color photographs, Sato’s pen light comes off as red and gold squiggles that illuminate the grass and objects around them.

    In the mid-1990s, Sato turned his attention to what the Japanologist Gavin McCormack calls “the construction state” that includes the massive bubble-era developments and public works projects. According to McCormick, Japan spends more on public works than the United States does on defense; if private construction is included, Japan spends about 19% of its GNP, or 900 billion U.S. dollars on construction.4 The “Yubari” and the “Tokyo II” groups of works focus on the cycle of destruction and reconstruction that feed the construction state. The “Yubari” group concrete industrial buildings in the countryside as a setting for photographs. Works, such as Photo-Respiration #155 Mayachi (1992) show the wreckage of an abandoned coal mine. The balls of light that surround the mine shaft evoke the image of the workers who once gave life to the mine and who depended on it for their livelihood. A work, entitled Photo-Respiration #161 Shimizusawa (1992), shows a typical dam in the countryside with balls of light packed densely along the top of the dam, which suggests a crowd of spectators or perhaps slow moving traffic across the dam.

    For the “Tokyo II” group, Sato returned to Tokyo to investigate the construction state there. Works in this group focus on residential architecture, neighborhood street scenes, and the extravagant bubble-era construction projects in the Tokyo Bay area. Work Photo-Respiration #283 Dojunkai Apartment House (1996) shows balls of light floating on the room and from the windows of an old Tokyo public housing unit shrouded in trees. This work is interesting because the balls of light have a clear corona that makes them look like bright stars. Clear bright sunlight in low humidity, which is relatively rare in Japan, produces turns the balls of light into bright stars. With Photo-Respiration #270 Minato-ku Daiba (1996) Sato returns to using his penlight for nighttime photography. This work shows one of the main bridges in the Tokyo Bay development project in the back ground with thin swirls of light in on the opposite shore in the foreground. The long exposure time turns the lights of the bridge into a white glow in the background that contrasts with the black rocks in the water and the pale, almost faint, thinness of the swirls in the foreground. Taken together, these works reflect Sato’s growing interest in social engagement in his work.

    From the mid-1990s, Sato has also gone overseas to find settings for his photographs.  In 1994, he arranged photographs taken in Europe into a series of triptychs. The Flag of the European Union (1994) shows three photographs placed closely in a row. In the middle, is a vertically long photograph showing twelve apples with swirls of light around them. On each side of this representation of the flag of the European Union is a daytime photography of Potsdamer Platz in what was once East Berlin. The dark sky, the buildings in the distance, balls of light in the empty field, and the lone construction crane create a lonely gray space that suggests the insecurities of post-cold-war Europe.

    In 1997, Sato was one of the few Japanese artists to participate in the Havana Biennale.  For this exhibition, Sato photographed public squares and open spaces in Havana in the noon sun. He then printed these on translucent plastic and hung in a courtyard colonnade in a colonial period building that was used as an exhibition hall for the Biennale. The sunlight pouring into the courtyard illuminated that photographs creating a pale white glow that Tanizaki so admired in the shoji screen. The taut, delicate appearance of these wall-sized photographs suggests the texture of Japanese paper that is used to cover the shoji screens. Plaza de la Revolución (1997) shows a number of white balls floating in what is a busy open space in Havana, which focus attention on the Spartan square shapes of the modernist government building, with its complete with socialist-realist decoration, in the background.

    Despite the evolution of Sato’s work to socially relevant subject matter in recent years, he periodically turns to nature for aesthetic stimulation. The “From the Sea” group of works is an example of this. For works, such as Photo-Respiration #299 Hattachi (1996) Sato carried his mirror into shallow waters of the ocean and reflected it back toward the camera on the beach. Most of the scenes have rocks or concrete breakers that give texture to sea. During the long exposure, the waves turn into a thin layer of mist that obscures the ocean. The mist coming off the ocean weakens the reflections from the mirrors, which creates faint coronas around the balls of light.

    In the conclusion to his seminal work on photography, Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes asked himself a simple question: “Mad or Tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits (to leaf through a magazine at the hairdresser’s, the dentist’s); mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.”5 To this definition, Tokihiro Sato’s work is tame on the surface, but mad inside. It explores Tanizaki’s aesthetic of shadows and updates it in the photographic realm. The result is a “beautiful” pattern of light and million shades of gray.  This soothing aesthetic from “old Japan” makes Sato’s work tame and decorative at first glance.

    Sato’s work turns mad on the level of “meaning” because the realism of the work is stark: material things appear barren as life is reduced to the primal energy that created it. By exposing the reality of shape and energy behind any image, Sato touches a deeper reality that few photographers reach. He strips the layer of color and garish laughter of Nobuyoshi Araki’s photographs away to reveal the world as it is: souls suspended in time and floating aimlessly in any given space. As Barthes put it, “I always feel … that in the same way, color is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph.  For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to pain corpses [emphasis original]”6 “Photo-respiration,” thus, refers to the viewer’s altered understanding of reality from the mad state of “photographic ecstasy.” Tanizaki would be happy because madness is another Japanese aesthetic that creates beauty from what it keeps out.

    1. Junichiro Tanizaki, trans. Thomas J. Harper and Edward Seidensticker, In Praise of Shadows (New Haven, Connecticut: Leete’s Island Books, 1977), p. 30.
    2. ibid, p. 22.
    3. ibid, p. 30.
    4. Gavin McCormack, The Emptiness of Japanese Affluence (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1996, p. 33.
    5. Roland Barthes, trans. Richard Howard, Camera Lucida (New York: The Noonday Press, 1981), p. 119.
    6. Ibid, p. 81.

    Original Article: Fouser, Robert J., “In Praise of Mad Shadows: The Photography of Tokihiro Sato,” ART AsiaPacific, No. 21, 1999.

    © 2015 Robert J. Fouser

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