By Matthew S. Witkovsky
A mythical figure in the story of Japanese photography, Takuma Nakahira is a founder of Provoke (Purovoku), the short-lived experimental magazine that featured photographers like Daido Moriyama working in the are, bure, boke (grainy, blurry, out-of-focus) style of the late 1960s. His extensive writings explore photography’s capacity to probe the shape-shifting contours of postwar Japanese society. Nakahira destroyed his own negatives in 1973, and he suffered a traumatic loss of memory in 1977, events that have contributed to his relative obscurity outside of Japan. In the Summer 2015 issue of Aperture magazine, “Tokyo,” which will be available next month, we offer two perspectives on this vital figure: scholar Franz Prichard introduces Nakahira as a photographer and writer; and curator Matthew S. Witkovksy, who is currently planning a major exhibition on Provoke-era photography, unpacks Nakahira’s landmark photo-installation Circulation, staged at the 1971 Paris Biennale. Here, we feature an excerpt from Witkovsky’s article.
On the afternoon of September 28, 1971, when Japanese critic and photographer Takuma Nakahira set foot (several days late) in the seventh Paris Biennale, he felt nothing so much as “hollowness” and “despair.” Reporting these sensations for the Japanese weekly Asahi Journal that December, Nakahira explained his dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary art and, indeed, with his own activities as a creator and commentator on art. The laudable artworks on view mostly attacked a social system from which their makers pretended to keep some distance; Nakahira observed that, in fact, this art could only be the very face of such a system, which created a sort of play area for artists to vent futile opposition to the forces of capital flow and authoritarian control. Those forces had a vested interest in shoring up authorial ego when, in fact, it was the art goods and their exchange value that really mattered: individuality was a commodity construct. Yet his own contribution to the Paris Biennale, which he described at length for Asahi Journal and again for the photography magazine Asahi Camera the following February, allowed him guarded hope that art and art criticism could still have a purpose in the world. What was it about Circulation: Date, Place, Events, Nakahira’s piece for the 1971 Biennale, that gave grounds for optimism?
Takuma Nakahira, who got his start in photography and criticism only around 1965, had by the end of that decade already become one of the most influential figures in contemporary culture in Japan. Nakahira’s incisive writing cut apart standing views in literature, film, politics, and especially photography, and he published both articles and photographs at a feverish rate. He wanted a relation between these two activities that could come closer than complementarity— a joint force of action, perhaps. The intended effect of that joint action might be “illumination,” to quote a word favored by prewar German critic and theorist Walter Benjamin, whose essays were first anthologized in English as well as in Japanese in the late 1960s: searing, flashbulb-like insights afforded by a photograph or fragmentary phrases. Provoke: Provocative Materials for Thought—the short-lived photography journal that Nakahira helped to found, which blazed its trail across the Tokyo cultural scene in those years—took its name from such intertwined desires. Writing and photography should illuminate the world, explosively, and they should set each other ablaze as well. Nakahira’s epochal photobook, For a Language to Come (1970), pushed even more insistently at an overhaul of word-image relations. Yet Nakahira remained dissatisfied and, worse, fatigued by his efforts to develop a productive analysis of contemporary culture.
“Has Photography Been Able to Provoke Language?” Nakahira asked in March 1970, around eight months before his book appeared. “Only through human use can a language be given life,” he asserted, for without a subjective viewpoint, language exists as mere symbols and generalities. But to shake a language awake, to deploy it, is also to risk damaging one’s psyche: “This kind of ‘exploding language’ is a language that has been fiercely lived here and now by a single person.” Just such “fiercely lived” insights were what Nakahira sought to produce and circulate, operating calculatedly on the verge of madness. (Prichard has translated that essay and others in the recent reprint of For a Language to Come, as well as in Circulation: Date, Place, Events; issued by the Tokyo house Osiris, both books also have keenly written afterwords by cultural critic Akihito Yasumi.)
In the view of many who have encountered it then or since, For a Language to Come eminently fulfilled Nakahira’s hope for pictures that would give concrete meaning to words while threatening language overall as a system of convention and control. The word tree is general, but a photograph of any tree will be specific, Nakahira argued, with catlike stealth, before pouncing on the surprise conclusion: that close comparison of a single tree in image and word “causes the concept and meaning of tree to disintegrate.” How? Through sentences that leap and dart, and pictures that careen between heavy grays and blinding whites; through sequences of haunting images that overtake the reader, as if the setting for Nakahira’s photographs—the city of Tokyo—were a mental space in which one staggered from desire to trauma, a solitary ego shattered by passion and rage.
The effort of making For a Language to Come left Nakahira spent and temporarily uninterested in further photographic projects. One year later, the commissioner for Japanese entries in the Paris Biennale, fellow Provoke veteran Takahiko Okada, convinced him to travel there only after much debate, “at least to do some sightseeing,” as Nakahira disarmingly recalled upon his return. Yet the very fact of Nakahira’s repeated and extensive commentary on his Paris piece suggests the sense of renewal it brought him. Circulation was not only the title of this piece but also its ambition and modus operandi. More literally than did For a Language to Come, the fleeting work raced with an illuminating flash of brilliance through the early 1970s art scene.
Circulation was, in essence, a performance piece in which photographs were the engine of the performance rather than a record of it. This quality is the greatest guarantor of the work’s uniqueness in photographic terms, but there are other reasons to reassess its meanings today. (New prints from the original negatives were shown in New York in 2012 and feature currently in an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.) Rather than send existing pictures to Paris, Nakahira wished to create something “live” during the run of the exhibition. He would hang only pictures taken and printed that very day, making a photo-diary of his Parisian experiences that would cover his Biennale wall in stages. By circulation Nakahira meant his own movements around Paris, the movement of his pictures from darkroom to display, and the perambulation past his evolving piece by visitors to the Biennale, whom Nakahira photographed for this installation as well.
The prints themselves would be “mere remnants” of these circulatory patterns. Nakahira’s description of his procedure, from the February 1972 article in Asahi Camera, suggests a determined resistance to fixity: “To put it concretely, I set myself to photograph, develop, and exhibit nothing but the Paris that I was living and experiencing. My project … was born from this motivation. Every day I would go out into the streets of Paris from my hotel. I would watch television, read newspapers and magazines, watch the people passing by, look at other artists’ works at the Biennale venue, and watch the people there looking at these works. I would capture all of these things on film, develop them the same day, make enlargements, and put them up for display that evening, often with the photographic prints still wet from the washing process.”