Simon Lee Gallery, Hong Kong, 14 March - 7 May 2014


Daido Moriyama has cut a lone, restless figure over the past fifty years, constantly seeking out and recording the places, peoples and things that capture his attention.

Born in Osaka in 1938, Moriyama began his career in the early 1960s in Tokyo where he went to join VIVO, a cooperative whose members included photographers Eikoh Hosoe and Shomei Tomatsu.  When the group disbanded later in 1961 Moriyama became a photography assistant to Hosoe, working on the production of Hosoe’s famous series Ordeal by Roses featuring the controversial writer Yukio Mishima.  Moriyama’s association with the well-known Provoke movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a group that included other eminent photographers such as Takahiko Okada, Shomei Tomatsu, Koji Taka and Takuma Nakahira, established a relationship between his work and the medium of the photobook that continues to the present day. Subversive and left-wing, Provoke self-published a very limited number of books as a means of bringing their work to the public at a time when photography was overlooked by the gallery and museum system in Japan.  His 1972 book Farewell Photography was subversive to the extent that it was intentionally obscure and iconoclastic: leaving the publisher to decide how to present the images, the book comprised photographs printed from damaged negatives.  This self-destructive act saw Moriyama break with his previous way of working, beginning his journeys once again a year later to produce dark, dystopic views of traditionally beautiful scenes of Japan.  His work has since been extensively exhibited including a landmark exhibition at London’s Tate Modern with William Klein and shows at the Fondation Cartier, Paris, the San Francisco MOMA, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

For his first exhibition at Simon Lee Gallery in Hong Kong, Moriyama has chosen the title Searching Journeys, presenting a survey of the artist’s work from the past 50 years.  Organised with Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo, the exhibition comprises monochrome modern and vintage prints for which he is best known, together with rarer colour and experimental black and white silkscreen prints on canvas.  Moriyama’s high contrast, grainy photographs turn the familiar into the unfamiliar: images of hidden backstreets, dirty skies, crowded thoroughfares, and multilayered reflections are juxtaposed with photographs of men, women and children.

On entering the exhibition, the visitor is greeted by an image that has become a cipher for the artist himself.  Caught in the strong morning light, a solitary dog is interrupted by Moriyama’s presence, pausing warily to return the photographer’s gaze.  Taken in 1971, Misawa has become one of Moriyama’s best-known images.  Speaking of the moment when the photograph was taken, Moriyama recalls “At the time, I was walking on a sunshine flooded road, when a stray dog unexpectedly entered my frame. His provocative eye contact incited me to capture the moment.  I recognized myself in the dog’s eyes – it was a moment of mutual understanding”.

Despite the constant visual noise of our daily lives, Moriyama’s photographs retain their compelling, timeless power, drawing on the ubiquitous, the overlooked and the “unheimlich”, a concept defined by Sigmund Freud as “the opposite of familiar”.  In selecting images for the show, Moriyama chose ones that had left a lasting impression on him and ones that he had a particular affinity for.  Aware that many people would have become familiar with his work through books and magazines rather than through exhibitions, Moriyama took this into account when deciding which works to exhibit, acknowledging that printed media and exhibitions presented in a three dimensional space allow viewers different time frames and spaces to view his work.

Standing before the installation of monochrome photographs formed by the gallery’s corner walls, the visitor is overwhelmed by the floor to ceiling grid of disparate images.   Kanagawa, (1969) depicting tunnel walls and the flare of lights funneling into a distant vanishing point calls to mind the  “weird phosphorescent void of the Lincoln Tunnel” described by Sal Paradise in On the Road.  The urban idyll of Tomei Expressway; The Road that Drives People, 1969, an abstract blur of highway lights is pitched against the dissonant Daido Hysteric no.6, 1994, depicting a bare-bottomed figure squatting over a drain in a busy street. 

A large proportion of the show is devoted to images of people, men and women observed off guard or else fully aware of the artist’s presence.    This latter category of portraits includes Documentary 11 (’85 Setagaya-ku, Tokyo), 1985, Overgrown Children, 1968, Actor: Shimizu Isamu, 1967 and the haunting ghostly child of Japan’s Scenic Trio – Mutsumatsushima, 1974.   The images seem to recall another passage from On the Road on the compulsive draw of the strange: “…and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved…"

Known to the vast majority for his monochrome images, Moriyama selected a handful of his colour works for the show, explaining that “Monochrome can convey the world in an abstract and symbolic way to the viewers, whilst colour has the power to represent the world in a metaphoric way”.  Instinctively seeking out his favourite colours, Moriyama’s streets and alleyways take on a lyrical quality, allowing colour to dominate form.   For Moriyama his photography is “a documentation of the times that I have lived through and of the world through my eyes”.   Through those eyes, the mundane and the overlooked acquire transcendent and metaphysical qualities, leaving the viewer unable to locate them within a particular time.  

Despite being objects from the past, his images are seemingly impervious to the effects of time.  For example a period of 30 years separates the street scenes of Another Country in New York, 1971 and Shinjuku, 2000-2004, yet the images are almost impossible to date. ““The past is always new, the future always nostalgic, this is how the world works”. And this phrase is my motto.  Time’s perspective is relative - for the viewer it is always the present.”  

Searching Journeys offers a representative survey of Moriyama’s work across the past 50 years, carefully and thoughtfully curated, the exhibition eloquently references the way that the artist constantly revisits and interrogates his own work.

Davina Lee © 2014
This review was first published in Chinese in Vogue China, May 2014.