Photographers on Photographers: Before These Vapid Streets: Hiroh Kikai's "Labyrinthos" by Arturo Soto

© Hiroh Kikai

Every once in a while, one is lucky enough to stumble upon an image that synthesizes an idea one had been unable to give form. The excitement of identifying one’s own sensibility in someone else’s work is indescribable, particularly if both happen to work in the same medium. I was fortunate enough to experience one of these epiphanies when I came across Hiroh Kikai’s Labyrinthos1 at a Kinokuniya bookstore. I immediately recognized his name, having recently seen his work at the ICP2 where his Asakusa Portraits3 had been the highlight of the show.

I was expecting to see more of the same, but my excitement increased when the book turned out to be a collection of cityscapes. These pictures were also monochromatic and square, a very difficult format to work in. I slowly savored every page, trying to delay the moment I had to part ways with the book, for I knew that I could not afford it. I remember leaving the bookstore that night feeling elated and moved. The pictures had captivated me so much, that I went back a couple of times to go through the book again, thanking that nobody had bought the only available copy yet. I moved to Mexico City shortly thereafter, and Labyrinthos became part of my silly list of “books that slipped away”. Fortunately, the store still had a copy (probably not the same one) when I visited two years later. I am only narrating this irreverent timeline of events to emphasize how not having the book actually allowed me to keep on thinking about its pictures, perhaps even to the point of romanticizing them4;. Their austerity had definitely left a strong impression on me.

© Hiroh Kikai

The photographs date from 1978 to 2006. Just like his portraits, the cityscapes were also taken in Asakusa, a former entertainment district in Tokyo, still popular because of its many temples. Kikai focuses his attention on empty streets, signs, cars and facades, depicting the suburb’s diverse architectural densities and overlapping structures. Contrary to what one might expect, he does not seem particularly interested in studying the idiosyncrasies of the Japanese built environment5, nor does he document the complex social dynamic of a place dedicated to amusement, tourism and religion. The emphasis is almost exclusively on generic locations, sensibly chosen to make one ponder about the many anonymous stories that take place in them.

Why exactly do I enjoy this book so much then? To be honest, it took me a quite a bit of time to figure it out. I have not been able to read the essay that splits the book in half, so my understanding of it relies exclusively on the photographs themselves, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Kikai does not criticize or raise awareness about anything in particular, nor does he want to change the world with this work. The subject matter itself is not particularly beautiful or polemical. I finally understood that the book interests me because of its unapologetic depiction of ordinariness, while also accomplishing the extraordinary task of showing me how its author sees the world.

This is something easier said than done, since the camera usually tricks one into believing that whatever it produces is unaffected by the photographer’s feelings, convictions and desires. This basic emotional connection between the artist and its creation is taken for granted when looking at other art forms, but is sometimes forgotten when looking at a photograph, particularly one of something as vapid as a residential street corner.

© Hiroh Kikai

The book is important for me because it helped me define the type of images that I was interested in pursuing for my own work. It continues to challenge me and I return to it frequently for inspiration. This kind of communion between artist and viewer is, after all, what art is supposed to be about.

Kikai’s images manage to transform the nothingness of the everyday into something worth looking at, forcing us to reevaluate our priorities when it comes to directing our attention. His true intention, I believe, is to demonstrate that life is full of different ways of understanding the banality that surrounds us. A similar thing happens when looking at a Morandi painting: a quintet of inanimate household objects is hardly anyone’s idea of an emotional subject, and yet, by way of mechanisms better described by German aesthetic philosophy, one is moved by their genuineness and simplicity.

Only a few single images stand out in Labyrinthos. Rather, Kikai’s consistent vision, equilibrated sequencing and repetition of motives (in a non-typological way) define the book’s discourse. The purpose of this visual alliteration is to establish a rhythm, but also to capture the apparent inconspicuousness of the streets, and it is worth speculating what he means to express by this. When describing his Asakusa Portraits, Kikai talks about his interest in photographing “common folk”, while at the same time respecting their individuality6. Of all genres, portraiture is the one that establishes an emotional connection with the viewer most easily. The presence of people in this book, however, is tangential, with only a few passersby here and there. Is it possible, then, for Kikai’s common landscapes to awaken emotional responses comparable to those of his portraits?

© Hiroh Kikai

I believe they can, although I recognize I might be one of the few still fascinated by the plastic bag dancing in the whirlwind. And yet, didn’t that scene in American Beauty show precisely the connection between insignificant details and the depths of a man’s soul? It seems unlikely that these pictures will bring anyone to tears, unless perhaps someone grew up in these streets. That means the emotional connection does not have to be to the place itself, but only to the type of place it represents. Images of natural landscapes are the archetype for this: one may feel something when looking at a picture of a beach not because one has been there before, but because of one’s associations with that type of place. Kikai recognizes that the streets are akin to an empty stage when one first enters a theater, where a few props and pieces of furniture can elicit associations with psychological traits for characters one has not met yet. The images in Labyrinthos share this associative potential, featuring locations ripe with possibilities for human comedy. They also describe, conversely, the flawed nature of human enterprise, since cities are the truest mirrors of our defects. Kikai, just like Gabriele Basilico or Gerry Johansson, manages to put in perspective the relationship between the environments we create and who we pretend to be.7

- Arturo Soto 

[1] Labyrinthos flip through video http://vimeo.com/37588342
[2] Heavy Light: Recent Photography and Video from Japan.
[3] Asakusa Portraits flip through video http://vimeo.com/39342362
[4] Sometimes, I deceive myself into thinking that I cannot live without a certain book, so I do whatever it takes to buy it. For some reason, when it is finally in my possession, I look at it only a few times, and then completely forget about it, its impact having been far less important than I initially thought.
[5] “Of course I aim for the formal aspect of my work to capture reality as closely as possible, which means that I aspire to a resolutely modern — but all-encompassing — form, in the sense that it takes account of both the past and the present. I do not think particularly of capturing the “present moment” or the ‘essence of the Japanese soul’ when I take my photographs." Hiroh Kikai, interview by Marc Feustel, Lensculture, 2008, http://www.lensculture.com/kikai.html
[6] Hiroh Kikai, interview by Noriko Fuku, trans. Eric Shiner, Hiroh Kikai: Asakusa Portraits (Göttingen: Steidl/ICP, 2008), 12.
[7] “What keeps me creative is returning to the simple question: what does it mean to be human?” - Kikai, Hiroh Kikai: Asakusa Portraits, 9

© Hiroh Kikai