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Interview with Marc Feustel

Marc Feustel, Studio Equis
Marc Feustel, Studio Equis

On current view at the Setagaya Art Museum is a wonderful photography exhibition entitled Japan: A Self Portrait, that uses the works of 11 photographers† to give us a view onto the incredibly important 20 year period following the end of World War II. The milestone events of this period are well known — the ending of the war via the atomic bombings, the American occupation, and the rapid rebuilding of the country and following economic recovery, including the citizens’ self-esteem, that culminated with the hosting of the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But while these might form part of the structure of the exhibit, what’s really special about this particular exhibit are the details of how those years were lived — details that have manifested themselves in the 168 photographs that make up the show.

The exhibition is the brainchild of Paris-based curator and writer Marc Feustel, one of the driving forces behind Studio Equis, which has organized several important traveling exhibitions of Japanese photography in recent years. Feustel can also be found at the two blogs he maintains — eyecurious and Shashin etc. — which are essential stops for anyone interested in what’s going on with Japanese photography.

Japan Exposures recently asked Feustel via email to talk about the unique evolution of the current exhibition, how he himself got involved with photography, and his thoughts on how an exhibition of Japanese photography curated by a European might be received in Japan.

The following interview was conducted via email at the beginning of May.

Japan Exposures: Marc, anyone interested in Japanese photography and browsing the web will eventually come across your name, a true beacon in the Western cultural landscape. Could you give us a bit of personal background information about yourself and tell us how you came to be so involved with curating and writing about Japanese photography?

Marc Feustel: I am from a fairly international background: one part German, one part Australian, English by birth and Parisian by upbringing. To add to these layers I studied Economics and Politics in Dublin and then International Development in London. I don’t have an academic background in Art History but spent most of my time at university loitering around that department. My central interest has always been photography since I saw a William Klein show at the Maison Européene de la Photographie in Paris, about fifteen years ago. I began to focus specifically on Japan through the book that I authored on postwar Japanese photography, Japan: A Self-Portrait, Photographs 1945-1964. The book was published in 2004, in English and French by Flammarion and in Japanese by Iwanami Shoten.

I think that there is a lot that contemporary photography can learn from the intensity of the engagement of these photographers with the society and the nation around them.

JE: It was from this project that Studio Equis began, right?

MF: Yes, that’s right. During the research for the book, we were put in touch with Managing Editor of Illustrated Books at Iwanami Shoten, Tsuguo Tada. He was instrumental in introducing me to the photographers and obtaining their approvals for the project. After the success of the book we agreed to form a company to continue our involvement and to find other ways of introducing more Japanese photography in Europe and in the US. Studio Equis is myself, Tsuguo Tada and my mother, Helen Feustel. Our aim is to promote the work of the individual artists that we represent but also to find projects that promote a better understanding and closer relationships between Japanese and Western photographic circles. We are also involved in helping museums and collectors develop their collections of Japanese photography. Studio Equis is a three-man band so everyone does a bit of everything, however my main role is Artistic Director. I curate the exhibitions that we present, manage our publications and identify those photographers that we represent.

JE: The current exhibition at Setagaya — which we understand will also travel to Yamagata, Aichi, and the Kiyosato Museum†† — is based on the book Japan: A Self-Portrait, which was published in 2004. It’s interesting that this is an exhibit based on a book, when usually it is the other way around. Could you tell us more about the original book and how it came to become an exhibition.

MF: Yes, this exhibition has followed an unusual path. The book initially began as a stand-alone project, but over time we realised that it had the potential to make an interesting exhibition and (hopefully) one that presented these works in a new light. The book is both a study of the extraordinary transformation of Japanese society after the war, as well as a study of the incredibly dynamic evolution in the photography of the period. This was a period where Japan changed radically, and one where photography played a major part in documenting and processing the changes that were occuring. This idea formed the basis for the exhibition as well as the book and while many of the works from the book appear in the exhibition, I modified and expanded the selection of images to 168 prints in total, accompanied by first edition publications from the period. The exhibition was initially planned to first open in Europe, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, however because of changes in their photography department this was no longer possible. We then decided to collaborate with Tokyo’s Setagaya Art Museum to open the exhibition in Japan and then to travel it in Europe afterwards.

JE: Do you have any thoughts on how an exhibition curated (or co-curated) by a non-Japanese will be met by Japanese, or is that a non-issue? What would be different if this same material was being solely curated by a Japanese person?

MF: I think that the fact that I am a foreigner is a central feature of this exhibition. The eleven photographers in this show are all well-established artists in Japan with several decades worth of exhibitions and books to their names. However, many of them have been lesser known in Europe and the US and, even in Japan, have not often exhibited in a group context. When I began this project, I wanted to try and bring a fresh look to the photography of this period. As an outsider, I didn’t have to contend with the context of the Japanese photographic canon and I made my selection from a different perspective than a Japanese curator would. Of course many ‘key’ images are present in the show, but I have also often been told that my selection is ‘surprising’ or ‘unusual’, which I think is a good thing in this context. As an outsider in Japan you can allow yourself a certain number of choices that maybe would be more difficult for a Japanese curator who is very aware of established photographic relationships and reputations.

However, I think that it is very unlikely that there will be a consistent ‘Japanese’ reaction. Already in the first week I was very interested to see how differently different generations reacted to these images. For the older generation, this exhibition is a more emotional experience, one which is tied to their memories of the era. For younger generations there tends to be more of a reaction to the photographic developments of the time and a sense of surprise at how modern these photographs are. My hope is that this exhibition will succeed in presenting these works in a new light and to highlight just what a crucial period this was in the artistic development of photography in Japan.

© Takeyoshi Tanuma
© Takeyoshi Tanuma - Modern dress versus traditional dress at the Sanja festival. Asakusa, Tokyo, 1955

JE: The time period of the exhibit is 1945 – 1964, a time of intense rebuilding leading up to the Tokyo Olympics. But I’m curious about another Japanese fascination or obsession — that of the “Showa Boom” of recent years, which has manifested itself in countless photo books and exhibits. What do you think is behind this nostalgia for the “Showa” years [The years 1926–1989 in Japanese history, corresponding to the reign of Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) — Ed.], and how do you see your book/exhibit in the context of that nostalgia?

MF: As I don’t live in Japan, I don’t feel the ‘Showa boom’ that intensely, but I think the nostalgia for this period is understandable. Since the 1989 financial collapse Japan has been left somewhat adrift, and a new direction hasn’t really been forged for the nation. For a country where there was a strong sense of the group and the collective, many of these collective institutions (the family, religion) are being eroded by more materialistic and individualistic aspirations. Within that context, I think people are nostalgic for the postwar years, as the end of an extremely difficult period of several years of conflict and one when there was a real collective sense of a brighter future. That nostalgia is probably exacerbated by the fact that for the younger generations in Japan, the future seems very precarious and uncertain.

In terms of Japan: A Self-Portrait, as a European in his thirties, nostalgia was not a strong motivating factor for me. While the show may be linked to the current Showa fascination, I don’t think that it presents an overly romanticised image of these years. In my view, while these works portray a sense of positivity and optimism and perhaps sometimes describe a simpler ‘traditional’ life, they also highlight the extraordinary hardships of the time and the negative consequences of the social changes during these years. Whether driven by nostalgia or not, in purely photographic terms, I think that there is a lot that contemporary photography can learn from the intensity of the engagement of these photographers with the society and the nation around them.

JE: If you were going to curate a similar “self-portrait” exhibit of Japan during the “Heisei” years (say the last 10-20 years), at this point in time, how would that exhibit look?

MF: That is a very good question… maybe I should take you up on that idea! I think an exhibition on contemporary Japan would be a very different animal. It would be an interesting challenge, particularly as there would not be the benefit of hindsight that I had for Japan: A Self-Portrait. A few names spring to mind: Miyako Ishiuchi, Osamu Kanemura, Hiroh Kikai, Tomoko Sawada, Yutaka Takanashi, Hiromi Tsuchida, Miwa Yanagi and of course Araki and Moriyama, but that list would take a long time to refine. Happily you would see a much more significant number of female photographers, who have carved out an important place for themselves in the contemporary Japanese photographic landscape. I think that this landscape has become increasingly fragmented, with fewer groups such as Vivo or Provoke, and therefore it is perhaps harder to identify coherent photographic movements. Visually the exhibition would of course be dramatically different, particularly as the changes that have occurred over the last two decades in Japan do not have the visual drama of the postwar years and as photographers today have a radically different visual vocabulary. Also photography today inhabits a very different space than it did during the postwar years, where it was a crucial source of ‘information’.

In terms of approach, you would see far less visceral images that display the engagement of the photographer with the subject. Contemporary photographers tend to have a more detached, sometimes deliberately cold and distant approach and many more works deal with major societal issues through the prism of personal identity and the ordinariness of the everyday. Overall, I think that a contemporary self-portrait of Japan would leave viewers with a very different impression, one which is less dramatic and perhaps more uneasy and uncertain, but one which certainly confirms the richness of the Japanese photographic landscape. &#8226

The 11 photographers are Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Kikuji Kawada, Ihei Kimura, Takeyoshi Tanuma, Shomei Tomatsu, Ken Domon, Shigeichi Nagano, Ikko Narahara, Hiroshi Hamaya, Tadahiko Hayashi, and Eikoh Hosoe.

†† The dates of these other showings in Japan are as follows:

August 27 – October 28, 2009
Domon Ken Photography Museum, Sakata, Yamagata Prefecture

November 6 – December 13, 2009
Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya

June 5 – August 31, 2010
Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, Yamanashi Prefecture


Japan Exposures Reader Giveaway

Japan: A Self Portrait Exhibition CatalogFor those unable to see Japan: A Self Portrait for themselves, we are excited to offer to a single Japan Exposures reader a copy of the official exhibition catalog. This hardcover catalog measures 18cm by 25cm, features an introductory essay by Feustel (in both Japanese and English), and all 168 photographs included in the exhibition (captioned, also in both Japanese and English).

Simply answer the question below by 15 June 2009 and we will randomly draw the winner from all correct entries. (Please note that the book will be sent via Economy Air, which normally takes two weeks and is uninsured and not traceable).

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