Shigeru Onishi, A Metamathematical Proposition

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by Steidl (here). Hardcover, 23×28 cm, 192 pages, with 195 image reproductions. Includes a 1957 essay by the artist, an essay by Ryuichi Kaneko, a select bibliography, a timeline (research of Katsuya Ishida, Mizuho Yakahashi, and Yasumasa Kawata), and a list of miniature works. All texts are in English/Japanese. Design and editing by Manfred Heiting. (Cover and distribute the plans below.)

Comments/Background: Given the instantaneous click of the shutter at the heart of the photographic process, the medium’s relationship to time has always been rather literal. Most photographs document a very particular and specific moment, with little ability to tell us what happened in the unseen moments before or after. To circumvent these inherent limitations, some photographers have experimented with cinematic sequences, series, and strips, with the aim of creating step progressions in time; others attempted multiple exposures in a single frame, hoping to capture a Cubist-style simultaneity of perspectives or a multiplicity of viewpoints.

The photographs of Shigeru Onishi from the mid-1950s explore the problem of photographic time with an innovative intellectual obsession. Until recently, Onishi’s photographic works were essentially forgotten; he only worked in photography for a few years, before artistically moving on to abstract ink paintings called bokusho in 1957; if Onishi is known, it is probably as a participant in the Gutai movement.

What’s fascinating about Onishi’s abbreviated history in photography is that he wasn’t an artist, at least primarily — he was a mathematician. He studied mathematics at Hokkaido University, graduating in 1953, then stayed on to do graduate research in topology. He took the photograph in an attempt to visualize some of his topological theories, where space and time warp under certain conditions, and surfaces and dimensions become disconnected and discontinuous. In a short manifesto-style text, he explained that the purpose of his image-making was “a desire to pursue metamathematical propositions such as ‘the possibility of existence’ or ‘the possibility of arbitrary choice’.” “

Although such a statement might seem hopelessly abstract and arcane, the mathematician Onishi was essentially in tune with the avant-garde artistic thinking of the time, even as he worked in relative isolation. Many artists of the mid-1950s played with the ideas of I Ching, exploring how random numbers and chance could be incorporated into the decision-making of the artistic process. Two notable converts in the United States were John Cage and Merce Cunningham – Cage picked random sounds and notes to create musical compositions, while Cunningham rolled dice to arrange dance moves.

Emerging from the devastation of World War II, Japanese photography of the early 1950s was initially rooted in realism. But the combination of simmering traumas of the recent past, the arrival of the Korean War and the ongoing American occupation has led to a diversion from realism and an embrace of more avant-garde and surreal artistic moods during from the second half of the 1950s. and well into the 1960s. A new form of expression had to be invented to represent all these tangled personal emotions and amplified political opinions, and the LIVE and TO PROVOKE photographers (Tomatsu, Hosoe, Kawada, Narahara, Moriyama and others) quickly rose to prominence for their collective artistic response to the changing moment. In many ways, the Subjektive Fotografie movement in Germany (around the same time) wrestled with a related set of representational issues, seeking new ways to express the buried layers of psychological conflict left over from the war years.

This beautiful monograph, with its outstanding production values ​​and comprehensive background details, makes the case for Shigeru Onishi’s weaving and photography more prominently in the historical arc of the art of middle Japanese photography. of the 1950s. As seen here, Onishi’s work offers a highly original aesthetic blend – he draws on some of Moholy-Nagy’s ideas of disrupting the medium’s traditional geometries and using photogram techniques and collage to extend his range, incorporates the emotional trauma and angst of the Japanese psyche at that time, then boldly reframes these elements using Onishi’s own analytical insights and intellectual frameworks, leading to photographs that are totally innovative and unexpected.

Onishi tried to create images that intentionally blended concrete and abstract elements (or “mutually contradictory forms” as he put it in his own words), and he wasn’t afraid to use brash experimentation based on process to try to find out what it was. looking for. Clearly a process of trial and error, or iterative tinkering, was central to his approach, as Onishi put together and reworked compositions again and again, leading to variant works that never resolved themselves. quite to a place of stability.

While it’s not entirely straightforward to unpack exactly what he was doing in a work, it’s clear that Onishi was comfortable doing multiple exposures in camera, then layering, layering, and editing with various negatives once in the darkroom, where he introduces additional rotations, inversions and overlaps. He used solarization, flaring, fogging, and other exposure techniques, then continued to flip and distort images during development and processing, deliberately making development uneven, allowing drops and unintentional washings to remain, and adjusting the temperature during development. to distort the colors. Sometimes he even prepared the papers with brushstrokes or sponge marks, or used baths of acetic acid to further discolor the surface of the prints. By the time the works have reached a finished state, with all the interlocking layers of random intervention every step of the way, Onishi has essentially broken down the medium into an intermediate state, his unorthodox methods opening up unexpected realms of aesthetic possibility.

Many of Onishi’s strongest compositions use faces or women as the ostensible subject. Some combine multiple exposures into a single layer, with rotated, reversed, and inverted versions adding to the confusion. Several feature a woman sitting on a couch with a drink in her hand, a seemingly innocuous image that quickly becomes confusing as layers are added, almost turning into a depiction of quantum simultaneity; her hand twists and multiplies, as if it were in two (or more) places at once. Still other images add highlights, duplicates, repetitions, and stutters, as if a single instance isn’t enough to document a person’s in-between complexity.

Onishi’s interior scenes use many of the same techniques to disrupt reality. A kitchen table is covered in faint echoes of circular dishes, various shelves seem to dissolve into shadows or flashes of light, and a blackboard seems to overflow with mystifying mathematical drawings and diagrams, the entire mass disappearing in a haze of thought. . Windows and door frames multiply, and nighttime views of latticed warehouse windows collapse and shift, veiling the foggy interiors, to have a semblance of reality then interrupted by the hint of a floating face. Outside, the city is no less frenetic and inconclusive, with wide vistas superimposed, making the dense city even more impossible to ride. Cars repeat, streets dissolve, blazing lights burst into the darkness, and signage attempts to communicate through visual noise, only half-successfully.

When Onishi turns his attention to nature, textures come to the fore. The silhouetted trees are layered and doubled up, creating impossible networks of tiny black lines. Puddles, mud, grass, and snow seem almost interchangeable, and when further interrupted by Onishi’s process interventions, they become less and less recognizable. Things that look like masses of clouds, or maybe waves, come together and mix, and sparks on the water seem to change the surface properties of the substance. Only hints of readability show through in these images, forcing us to let them develop into a less defined expressiveness. The same can be said for Onishi’s experiments with the female nude, where solarization, dark shading and other techniques turn curves into indistinct shapes, with blurs, drips and washes that further distract us from mere visualization.

Still other works play more overtly with chemical brushstrokes and sponge marks, using them as framing effects, switches and gestural movements. While some are likely the result of pure chance, many seem to point to Onishi’s later interest in ink painting, with controlled marks that have rhythm, force and personality. These intriguingly link him to the energy of abstract expressionist painters – when Onishi’s marks go bold and dark, there’s a bit of Franz Kline lurking in his chemical sweeps.

What is so unusual about Onishi’s approach is how openly he tries to break photography down, to make it messy and unruly, to the point of negation. All of his different subjects are mixed together, like fleeting memories that emerge from the darkness only to quickly dissolve again – Onishi’s images seem to capture elusive moments of transition, where we are between states, and time and space apparently have more malleable definitions. His images ask us to think about photography and how it works in a way that seems new, even though the images were made some seventy years ago. Very few monographs of largely unknown or rediscovered photographers that have been published in recent years have felt as radical and disruptive as this one. Onishi was doing his best to use photography to tear the fabric of time, and perhaps that task was ultimately too difficult to pursue. Fortunately, his short spurt of untethered experimentation has survived and been painstakingly documented here, if only so we can appreciate where the extremes of determined obsession can lead.

Collector’s point of view: Shigeru Onishi is represented by MEM in Toyko (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail probably remains the best option for interested collectors to follow.

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