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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005

Chimeras and shadows

Onodera's photos and the unconscious


Special to The Japan Times

In the service of the imagination of photographer Yuki Onodera, familiar objects become dreamily unsettled by memories and movements and, by degrees, disengage to the point of of unreality.

News photo
"Birds"(1994)

Yuki Onodera was born in Tokyo in 1962 and has risen to critical acclaim in the photographic world, winning France's 21st Kodak Prize of Critical Photography in 1996 and, more recently, the 28th Kimura Ihei Memorial Award of Photography for her collection of photographs, "cameraChimera," in 2003.

Since 1993, Paris has been the base for her operations, though this time around, the exhibiting venue is the National Museum of Art, Osaka, under the title of her given name.

The "Transvest" series depicts clearly delineated silhouettes of figures that have been cut from magazines, manipulated, affixed to glass panes and subsequently photographed. The seductive quality of the diffuse light that radiates from behind the silhouettes hints at the title, which refers to the wearing of the clothes of the opposite sex as a kind of erotic stimulus.

Onodera has said that she wanted these images to be evocative of the experience of deja vu -- the unnerving event of experiencing a novel moment that has seemingly occurred before.

Perhaps Onodera's characterization of her aims for the work and its title can be elucidated by Sigmund Freud's explanation of the experience, which is said to occur when suddenly an event that gives rise to an unconscious fantasy leaks through into consciousness, resulting in a disconcerting sense of familiarity.

News photo
"Portrait of secondhand clothes" (1997)

This sense of familiarity is still at some distance from the comprehension of the observer, maybe like how scanning these silhouettes at close range reveals not a uniform shadow, but half-hidden objects and architectures that have been imprinted onto the blackness of figures.

"Portrait of secondhand clothes" is a series of photographs that makes a leap of abstraction from the body that wears them, to picturing just the garments themselves, stiffened into shape and posed before an open window.

These singlets, coats and blouses in little girls' sizes that float in the sky have an intriguing history. They were acquired from an exhibition entitled "Dispersion" by Christian Boltanski, who had arranged a mass of secondhand clothing in an empty room.

For 10 francs, Onodera and other visitors were encouraged to take one of the plastic bags at the entrance and fill it with the discarded clothing and disperse it as they saw fit.

Another history is that of the garments severed from their original sources. These clothes monumentally rise up and resemble headstones in a graveyard, alluding to missing bodies, lives passed, or single moments in the eroded memories of anonymous little girls, long since grown up.

The "C.V.N.I." series picks up on a similar theme. The letters in the title are a play on the French equivalent of U.F.O. -- the O.V.N.I objet volant non identifie. Onodera replaces the "O" for objet with a "C" from the French "conserve" and makes photographs of exactly that -- tin cans stripped of their labels and containing unidentifiable contents, hovering in mid-air above horizons.

"P.N.I." or Portrait non-identifie is in like manner translated as "unidentified portrait." For these works the artist cut eyes, noses and mouths from newspapers and affixed them to a crude model of a head fashioned from clay, and then she took their picture. These portraits are distorted composite creatures reconstituted as the sometimes grotesque faces of people who never existed.

Three other series in the exhibition focus on the strangeness of "movements" stilled by the camera.

"Birds" was shot from the same Montmartre window as "Portrait of secondhand clothes," and takes issue with the scattering of pigeons as they take flight after being disturbed from their roost.

"Watch your joint" zooms in on soccer players and catches figures in unnatural motions ill-at-ease with the conventional way we expect the game to evolve. One picture, for example, has three players crumpling up as if cowering from the soccer ball, like an action shot catching an uncanny and distinctly odd moment.

In "The bee the mirror" Onodera tells us in the exhibition catalog that the camera has become equivalent to the point of view of a bee that has become trapped in an apartment. The subsequent camera stills are supposed to evoke the exploratory movements within an unaccustomed setting. In making this series, Onodera had in fact broken into an apartment at night while the tenant was away, although she also tells us that she had received permission from the occupant beforehand.

The enigmatic quality in Onodera's photographs arises through subtlety and variety. Clarity blurs in the grainy black-and-white images and in the hints of narratives.

Her chosen subjects are stripped of their identities and made seemingly different from themselves. All of this is like the half-remembered ideas of a not-yet-woken state, caught somewhere between knowing the rules of the game and reveling in the stray thoughts of imaginary spheres.

"Yuki Onodera" runs till April 17 at The National Museum of Art, Osaka. 10 p.m. - 5 p.m., closed Mondays, www.nmao.go.jp tel: (06) 6447-4680.


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