Yuriko Takagi, for Issey Miyake, Spring/Summer, 1994–95
©︎ the artist
If tourists flock to Tokyo to be wowed by its urban acceleration, Kyoto provides the inverse as a serene city showcasing the splendors of ancient Japan. During the height of the pandemic, the city saw an influx of new residents seeking more space and a less frenetic lifestyle. With new galleries opening and support from the local government for the arts, it continues to evolve as a vibrant center of contemporary culture.
Kyotographie, a photography festival held annually, smartly takes advantage of the city’s overwhelming number of shrines, temples, gardens, and other alluring architectural destinations. Founded in 2013 by Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi, the festival staged its eleventh edition in April, loosely themed around the idea of borders. Projects addressed both literal and metaphysical spins on this idea, including a series on migration and one on elderly people isolated by dementia. (Japan had only recently fully reopened its own borders after three years of pandemic-related restrictions for foreigners, and tourists were out in force.) In a photography field crowded with festivals, Kyotographie distinguishes itself through clever site-specific exhibitions within many of the city’s stunning, and usually off-limits, locations. The event is as much a photography festival as it is celebration of the city’s majestic architecture and cultural heritage.
The impressive Nijo-jo castle tops any visitor’s must-see list for the city. Built in 1603 by the shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, it is a magnificent complex of buildings and gardens. One building features famous “nightingale floors,” designed with dry wood to chirp when walked on and alert its eminent residents of an impending ninja ambush. Where tourists won’t find themselves, though, is in the castle’s normally closed Okiyodokoro, the kitchen area where, centuries ago, samurai gathered to eat.
The architect Tsuyoshi Tane was initially apprehensive about designing a photography exhibition of work by the fashion photographer Yuriko Takagi within this storied space. Tane, whose studio is in Paris, is known for elegant designs that absorb the particulars of local context into their execution and thoughtfully harness the specificity of place. His design for the Estonian National Museum follows the straight line of a former Soviet-era runway on which the building is constructed; his firm’s completed Hirosaki Museum of Contemporary Art, in Japan, features a “cider gold” roof, a reference to the region’s robust apple production.
This holistic approach is also present in Tane’s work inside Nijo-jo castle. Takagi and Tane had long wanted to collaborate after meeting in 2017 during a public program for an Issey Miyake exhibition in Tokyo. For four decades, Takagi, who once worked as a fashion designer, has photographed the collections of Miyake, Commes Des Garçons, Dior, and Yohji Yamamoto, among others, to create sumptuous, dreamlike fashion imagery. Her work on view in Kyoto sought to unite what she sees as fashion’s parallel worlds: luxury haute-couture creations and traditional, functional, yet beautiful styles of dress found in a range of cultures around the world.
Placing art in iconic spaces can be fraught. Historical spaces have a way of taking the limelight. They also come with a litany of restrictions. Constraints, however, are often generative, allowing for new ideas and possibilities—even if that means you cannot attach anything to a wall, or to the floor, or you are required to call upon a specially appointed staff member to open and close a sliding door.
And then there’s the weight of tradition. Tane was at first apprehensive about the “very Japanese” architecture of the castle, as he put it, and concerned that viewers wouldn’t be able to ignore the context and focus on the photographs. However, as he worked on the project, he says he became enamored with the “strong presence” of the building and saw the project as a “lifetime opportunity.” To present Takagi’s photographs, he leaned not away but into tradition, devising an installation based on shoji, traditional Japanese screens. In one cavernous room, photographs were printed on rice paper and presented in a large-scale configuration that allowed viewers to walk around the images.
Takagi’s work moves “beyond the image,” Tane says. “It is about texture imagination and the journey.” And the installation had a transporting effect, as the main room opened onto smaller ones where additional photographs were presented as a field of unglazed prints situated atop metal pedestals. “I wanted to play with shadows and darkness, and follow the geometry of the Japanese construction,” Tane noted. With only natural light filtering into the space, the tonality of the prints seemed to match the dim but warm atmosphere of the interior, recalling Junichiro Tanizaki’s classic 1933 essay collection In Praise of Shadows, a treatise on what Japanese aesthetics were losing with the advent of electrical lighting and modernity.
The presentation at Nijo-jo may have been a high-water mark of site specificity, but it was not alone. Joana Choumali, a resident of the festival, presented at the Ryosokuin Zen Temple a series of mixed-media fabric works featuring images of West African landscapes that she made during morning walks in her hometown of Abijan, Ivory Coast. The series was installed on the floor in an arrangement of custom-made wooden boxes with the feel of domestic furniture, and continued in two tea houses beside a painterly Edo-era garden.
An exhibition of works by Yu Yamauchi, who explores the natural landscapes of Yakushima island, was staged in a large machiya (townhouse) built a century ago by a Shinto shrine carpenter. A selection of images by Ishiuchi Miyako, a giant of postwar photography in Japan, was paired with photographs by Yukhi Touyama in a modest exhibition staged inside a space belonging to a wholesaler of obi—a business that has been operating for nearly three hundred years. This presentation teased out an intergenerational dialogue between two photographers reflecting on family loss—although Ishiuchi, considering her position as an artist and feminist cultural force, warranted a castle of her own.
Courtesy The Third Gallery Aya
The festival’s decision to make the architecture and local context as much a part of the festival has the benefit of highlighting not only the histories and stories embedded in the locations, but also the work of exhibition making that often goes unseen and uncredited—the many collaborations between artists, curators, and designers. The dynamic pairing of images and architecture underscored how photography transports viewers into other worlds and temporalities. Kyotographie will return for its twelfth edition from April 13 to May 12 next year. In an era when so much is mediated by the screen, the spirit of this festival is entirely physical, almost performatively so. You have to be there to take off your shoes, step inside, look carefully, and be taken away.
Kyotographie 2023 was on view at multiple locations in Kyoto, Japan, from April 15 to May 14, 2023.