Critical Fieldwork 45

Beyond trompe l’oeil – how Shunsuke Kano learns from the past

Inspired by the “1968 – Japanese Photography” exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, it seems I devoted a few too many columns in the second half of last year to photography of the 1970s and Shigeo Gocho. As most readers will be aware, Japanese art and photography of the 1970s is currently attracting a great deal of attention from overseas, and as if encouraged by this, art museums all over the place are belatedly reassessing and reexamining the artists of this period. So if you’re a Japanese artist, it pays to live a long life, I suppose. I have no objection to the reassessment of “past masters” or the enrichment of Japanese contemporary art history as such, but the plans these museums come up with are basically nothing more than academic supplementary exercises, whose pre-established harmony, designed to satisfy artists, curators and audiences and offend no-one, is as boring as school on Saturday. As well, the way they conjure a vague sense of nostalgia for the period of high economic growth to snuggle up to contemporary audiences in particular is also reactionary. “I didn’t know artists like this existed,” “Their work was ahead of its time,” “Even now it seems fresh,” “They’re gaining greater recognition in the West, too.” Of greater concern is that in the shadow of such small talk, opportunities for group shows featuring new artists and solo shows featuring artists of medium standing are getting fewer and fewer.

To date, this column entitled “Observations on Contemporary Art in Japan,” has dealt with Yasuo Kuniyoshi (painting), Shomei Tomatsu (photography), Shigeo Gocho (photography; along with the former two deceased), Takuma Nakahira (photography; b. 1938), Daido Moriyama (photography; b. 1938), Hiroshi Sugimoto (photography; b. 1948), Kohei Nakamura (ceramics; b. 1948), Seiichi Furuya (photography; b. 1950), Jun Aoki (architecture; b. 1956), Taiji Matsue (photography; b. 1963), Naruki Oshima (art; b. 1963), Nobuya Hoki (painting; b. 1966), Yuki Kimura (art; b. 1971), Tamotsu Kido (photography; b. 1974), Teppei Kaneuji (art; b. 1978), Masanori Handa (art; b. 1979), Lieko Shiga (stage production; b. 1980), Yuuki Matsumura (sculpture; b. 1981), Masahiro Sekiguchi (painting; b. 1984), Katsuyuki Shirako (lacquer art; b. 1984), Keisuke Matsuda (painting; b. 1984) and Akira Miyanaga (video; b. 1985). My dear readers, I beseech you to continue to focus your attention on these artists. For my part, after reflecting on last year, I will endeavor to concentrate this year on artists who are new or of medium standing.

Shunsuke Kano (b. 1983), who is at the forefront of the post-naughties generation of artists, received an honorable mention at the New Cosmos of Photography awards in 2011 and has shown work in Kyoto (eN arts, Social Kitchen, Gallery PARC) and Tokyo (island MEDIUM, NADiff window gallery, JIKKA) while actively collaborating with other artists of the same generation. In January 2013 he staged a solo exhibition at Maki Fine Arts and was selected for the “shiseido art egg,” resulting in a solo exhibition, “Jenga and Fountain,” at the Shiseido Gallery from January this year. The appeal of his work is probably its simultaneous achievement of “leap” (severance, discontinuity) and “connection” (resemblance, collage). What distinguishes Kano are his humorous yet critical approach to viewing images and recognizing objects and his ability to find an unexpected affinity among familiar groups of images. His works, which include both two-dimensional and three-dimensional pieces and cover everything from pixel data to sculpture, interfere with our perception, acting like colorful optical illusions that never lose their appeal even after we understand the trick behind the deception.

Let us take a look at some of Kano’s artworks from several years before he arrived at his current style. The first is a series of works imitating everyday snapshots. Blended into totally unremarkable landscapes, unconscious scenes that one sees without consciously looking at them, are artificial motifs the likes of which could not possibly occur naturally. The moment one realizes this, the “natural” snaps turn into clearly fabricated works of fiction. Before reading the titles, take a look at the images below without letting any preconceived ideas enter your mind.

Top to bottom: Shunsuke Kano – Snoopy (2007), P.C. books (2008; forming a perfect circle), A.C. mansion (2008; note the positions of the satellite dishes), Three Flags (2009; three flags taking precisely the same windblown form).

The technique Kano uses here is the same as that employed by Michel Gondry in his music video for The Chemical Brothers’s “Star Guitar,” for example. The scenery that passes by the train window – scenery that passengers normally see without looking at it – is in fact a fiction synchronized with the beats and musical elements of the song. In a similar fashion, Kano includes in his snap photos – a format used to record the unconscious reality that forms the backdrop to our everyday lives – a trick in the sense that this backdrop itself is a thoroughly manipulated fiction.

Next is a series of works that find affinity among unconnected objects. The concentrated lines and effect lines of manga are linked to everyday objects. The absurdity of this series stems from the fact that the resemblance that arises between A and B is generated intentionally from the outside and is not inherent in either A or B to begin with.

Above: B&B02 (2008); below: B&B03 (2008).

The “kasabuta” series from 2007 shows a different side of Kano.

Top left: kasabuta#07 (Fukushima); top right: kasabuta#26 (Kyoto) ; middle left: kasabuta#13 (Tokyo); middle right: kasabuta#47 (Okinawa); bottom: kasabuta#01 (Hokkaido).

Perhaps the target here is Miyako Ishiuchi’s “scars,” or the I-novel-like photos (wrist cutting, etc.) that were once all the rage in the photography world. One photo after another shows a part of someone’s body with a painful-looking kasabuta (scab) standing out against a dark background. At a certain point, however, the viewer realizes that the shape of one of the scabs resembles Hokkaido, and at that moment it occurs to them that all of the scabs they have viewed so far resemble Japanese prefectures, which is to say they are all fake, leaving the viewer indignant.

Kano’s sense of discovering affinity is keen, as is his sense of humor in taking accurate aim at and laughing off the weak points of photography as a medium, such as unconsciousness and scars. However, there was a weakness in these series in that the cleverer the dynamism of the leap and connection (ie, the trick), the more likely they were to end up as a one-shot gags. What could be done to make audiences return to view the work again and again even after the trick became clear? It was for this reason that the collaging of layers was introduced.


“Layering,” which is to say the sensation that images sit on top of an invisible and nonmaterial basal surface, can be traced back as far as the trompe l’oeil paintings of the 17th century (Cornelis Norbertus Gysbrechts’ The Reverse of a Framed Painting). It could also be regarded as one of the fundamental concepts of contemporary art from Monet’s water lilies to color-field painting to Gerhardt Richter, and as the concept that forms the basis of digital image processing software, it is a system that continues to govern the way we see images of the world. In order to “make visible” invisible layers, one needs to draw attention to the fact that the images lie on top of a flat surface. The methods Kano uses to achieve this are in fact rich in variety, and include graffiti, stickers, erasure, bure, boke, tape, sheen, adjusting focus, altering perspective and choosing angles. When a layer emerges as a result of one of these methods, naturally we distinguish between the layer that forms the base (A) and the image that lies on top of it (B). Collage, however, overturns this new order (A, B as seen from the bottom up). This is because when we add C, A and B are compressed into a single layer, and when we add D the stratum ABC is ignored, so that ultimately not only the order ABCD… but the identity of each layer is obscured. Collage is a process that causes layers to appear and at the same time repeatedly destroys and replaces the hierarchy of these layers. The appeal of collage lies in watching this process unfold over and over again while wallowing in the overlapping of the faintly floating layers. In the best examples of layered collages, however, the initial hierarchy (ie, the literal transparency) is never reproduced and the mystery is never completely solved. Rather, the very mutual collapse of the contradicting layers is both the mystery and the appeal of these works, and is what makes audiences return to view Kano’s work again and again.

…But when we understand where Shunsuke Kano is coming from as seen above, it also becomes clear that this cerebral artist will be able to go beyond old-new layered collages.

Untitled layer 01 (2013): discrepancies between the visible layers and the actual layers of board.

Temporary repair 01 (2013): the final fragment in the center. Cézanne’s apples

Paul Cézanne – Pommes et oranges (1899)

Shunsuke Kano – specious notion 09 (2013): Where is the glass, what is reflected in it and how, and how is the photograph taken to achieve this effect?

Pablo Picasso Open Window (1919): The layering of transparent surfaces. Where is the window glass, is the artist viewing the balcony railings and buildings outside the window from inside, is he standing on the balcony looking at the interior through the glass, or are the buildings and balcony railings in the background reflected in the glass?

“Shunsuke Kano: Jenga and Fountain” as held at Shiseido Gallery from January 10 through February 2, 2014.

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