Guilty Pleasures and Publishing, Part I: On Nazraeli Press, Asako Narahashi, Ando Hiroshige (and tea)

A certain confluence of circumstances created specific guilty pleasures that I delight in to this day.

On one of my first trips abroad, I was wandering around Prague’s uneven streets with a fellow photographer that suggested we duck into a tea house. Until that moment, I don’t think I ever thought about tea houses, or their atmosphere, or the kinds of tea that one could get in them. My tea knowledge to that point was limited to thinking that all tea came in bags. My companion ordered a cup of Kukicha, called “Japanese twig tea” because it’s made from the stems and stalks of the tea shrub instead of the actual leaves. A little embarrassed for my ignorance, I ordered the same thing. Small, handle-less cup in hand, I drank down the brown liquid: slightly nutty and slightly earthy, but in a very particular and pleasant way. A happy warmth spread through my palate and being. This was way better than Celestial Seasonings. A curiosity and love of this simple pleasure began. I now hunt down tea houses in the cities through which I travel, have a short-list of favorite online tea distributors (let me know if you want to know what they are), try to push good tea on friends and family as gifts, and several cups of tea are now part of my daily routine.

In my first year of graduate school, I was invited to a get-together at the home of one of the faculty members of the photography department. Another graduate student was house-sitting while the photographer was on sabbatical, and hosted a bbq complete with a view of the fireworks from (then) Comiskey Park. While the highlight for most people that evening was seeing the Flying Elvises jump out of planes, fully costumed, and onto the field, my stand-out moment that night was being glued to the same spot in front of that faculty member’s photography bookshelves. They were floor to ceiling, spanning the full wall length of a very long room and starting near the front door. I seem to remember a funny curtain made from thin fabric that pulled along a skinny steel wire, maybe that was to keep the books from getting dusty. But the books! There seemed to be everything there: first editions, monographs, gallery catalogs and it went on and on and on. Photographers I knew and loved, photographers I had heard of but did not yet know, photographers I had yet to ever hear their names uttered. I don’t remember pulling many books from the shelves that night. A fellow book lover, I know how ungenerous of spirit I can get when unknown characters start pawing my shelves, cracking spines, and leaving oily greasemarks on pristine pages. I remember thinking: this is a lifetime of love and learning. Of investment, trust and community building. The collection that I looked at that night could easily fetch thousands of dollars with just a small selection of titles going up for auction at Photoeye or the like. But what I came to recognize in that instant was the sensation of “sympatico” with the absent photographer/collector, and the knowledge that this too, would become a guilty a pleasure throughout my lifetime. That this love of looking and and learning through the imaginations and work of others would be something that I would most definitely want in my life.

And so what constitutes a guilty pleasure?

Any definition would of course be entirely subjective. I don’t know if other people have thought much about it, or share any of the same qualifications for it that I do. For one, a guilty pleasure is first and foremost Pleasurable. Even thinking about what the guilty pleasure is can be enough to begin a totally solipsistic reverie about what one loves about it, what else there is to know and discover, and what one wants from it next. And the guilty part? This may sound strange and contrary to language and definition, but for me the guilt comes from the fact that there is no guilt. I feel no guilt whatsoever in the (sometimes copious) amounts of time that I spend researching a tea vendor, poring through oolong varietal descriptions, scrutinizing the quality of the tealeaves shown in the online sample, or the community boards I’ve found that discuss high quality pu-erh teas at length (yes, they really do exist). Similarily, there is almost a joy handing over my money to the cashier at an art or gallery museum’s bookstore, or clicking “Submit” on any of the online publishing sites that I count myself a happy consumer. Maybe then what I’m describing is a kind of meta-guilt, one removed of the sting and pangs of conscience because it has to do with the largely cerebral conception of a guilt arrived at for not Really feeling guilty about the useless, unproductive pleasure in the first place.

I’ve been thinking about art publications lately, and art presses, publishing houses, the things that get made in them and the kinds of aesthetics and philosophies that get bundled between the pages and pushed along with the publication itself. Over the next few posts, I want to perform a kind of informal analysis of a few different variations and takes on this theme, but to begin let’s take a look at a long-standing favorite mover and maker.

One-picture-book series, the entire collection.

Nazraeli Press, I love you. You consistently produce some of the most varied, ground-breaking, nuanced and wonderful work in the world of contemporary photography, and I am a devoted and grateful consumer of your wares. I’ve been doing business with you since doing business meant rationalizing the purchase of a new release by a favorite photographer as an “educational expense” with student loan money. I’ve since continued giving you my business even when I could get a discounted price through Amazon or Photoeye, because I want to make sure that I’m always doing right by a press that has given me so much. You have long been championing work and artists that do not get much exposure in their own countries, and might not at all if it were not for your patronage. It is actually a pleasure to spend my money on what you have to offer.

This art publishing house first came to my attention because they were the first to publish the works of Masao Yamamoto, and I have been following them following him ever since his first book (A box of Ku) was published in 1998. One thing that I have been struck by in their attitude towards publishing is how they tend to “adopt” an artist, and create a relationship with them that seems a true collaboration of both artistic vision and commercial risk-taking. They have published works by Yamamoto in a traditional linen-bound book format, but have also produced works in full scroll form (the publication Nakazora, that I was lucky enough to jump on at the time, 18′ in full rolled-out length and complete with a lucite display box and a hand-made print by the artist), or as in the case of Omizuao (Pillowbook), a 14′ accordian-style book that is bound by two lacquered pieces of wood on either end.

© masao yamamoto, Nakazora

© Masao Yamamoto, Omizuao

Yamamoto is not the only artist that Nazraeli makes these kinds of arrangements with: Michicko Kon, long a favorite female Japanese photographer of mine, published a piece consisting of 40 duotone (and display-ready) 6.5×6.5″ cards, and Toshiko Okanoue, a relatively unknown and remarkable female Japanese collagist has a collection of works that are an off-set color printed portfolio of 13×16″ sheets. And then there is their classic and understated “One Picture Book Series” (shown above), a truly sweet feat of artist and publisher collaboration. If the traditionally understood artist’s monograph could be compared to the novel form of a literary author, then the One Picture Book series is the photographer’s equivalent of the writer’s short story. As Eleanor Jane Cardwell writes at A Good Idea on Paper:

Each book in this mouthwatering series of 5 by 7″, 16 page books contains an original print and around eight reproductions, there are 500 numbered and signed copies of each title. How amazing would it be to have the complete collection all lined up on your shelf?

I only wish that I had an unlimited budget to purchase so many of the other items that have languished on my “wish list,” many of which have since gone out of print.

Like a fine but modest-sized winery, Nazraeli Press makes small and short run publications of artists that are hard-sought and hand-picked, and they nurture and expand our knowing of these artists’ work off of the gallery wall. The experiential relationship of reader/viewer from the anonymous and sometimes sterile act of seeing work in institutional spaces as opposed to the far more intimate and personal experience of holding something of that artist in one’s hands is So Very Different, and Nazareli Press possess an inherent understanding of this fact. Aside from consistently producing ground-breaking work in the genre of artist’s books, I often stumble across my next artist-obsession in going through their catalog of works.

The most recent publication by Nazraeli Press that has been bowling me over, and to whom I had not been exposed to previously (though notably a few other favorite bloggers were already in-the-know: Tim at muse-ings , Miguel at [EV +/-] and Ferdinand over at japan-photo.info), is their publication of Asako Narahashi’s recent work Half Awake and Half Asleep in the Water. The monograph is part of a series of books curated by Martin Parr, and in his introduction he gives away what delights and terrifies him about Narahashi’s work. It’s worth quoting from the publisher’s site in full:

These photographs make me shudder with fear. This is because I am a non-swimmer, and I imagine it is scenes like this that I might witness at the moment before my head finally goes under the water. One final look at the world. We are surrounded by water and land, and much of the history of landscape photography has used these two familiar ideas as a starting point. Yet I have never seen these two components put together in such a compelling way.

One of the shudder-worthy images that Parr might be thinking of when he looks at Narahashi’s work:

© Asako Narahashi. Zeze, 2005.

Her images immediately elicit a feeling of damn, I wish I had thought of that; a mix of professional awe and jealousy that characterizes well-seen and well-felt work. The images are at times vertiginous, an undertow-in-the-making, and others you can just feel the hapless sting of a few droplets of salt water reddening your eyes.

© Asako Narahashi. Kawaguchiko, 2003.

From the perspective of a floating body in the water looking out, we see lake sides and ocean shorelines of a country with a coastline that stretches over 18,000 miles long. Beach-bathers, swan-shaped paddle boats, blossoming cherry trees, a passing airliner and even Mt. Fuji are all within view in the tidal waters Narahashi places us within, buoying our water-filled bodies and blurring our line of sight. The printed monograph offered by Nazraeli includes 59 plates, and the tome itself is a hefty viewing size of 12 x13″. The first printing quickly sold out, and a second printing is available as of August. If you were lucky enough to catch either of her U.S. shows this summer, one at her first U.S. solo-exhibition at the Yossi Milo gallery or in her inclusion in I.C.P.’s summer show of new Japanese photography Heavy Light, you would have experienced large, 35x 53″ sized prints, enough to allow you to slip into a narrative of suspended disbelief, and become engulfed in the half-submerged point-of-view of her work.

The series itself was three years in the making, and Narahashi says that it began with a photograph taken of friends on the beach:

One day in summer, I went to the sea with my friends. While I was swimming, I happened to see my friends, who were having a party on the beach. That was the very beginning. Swimming backstroke like a sea otter, I took photographs of them from the water. After a year, I put the camera into the water more intentionally.

She shot the images beginning in 2000. Outfitting a normal 35 mm Nikon film camera with a waterproof casing, she floated chest deep into waters of her choosing and pointed the camera toward the shoreline, without looking through the viewfinder, often leaving the camera half-submerged in the water. While there is the constant element of chance in such a process, the images that are published and displayed feel honest and true to the experiences of an act that most people, regardless of nationality, have a memory and precise vision of.

The series also places her squarely in the camp of a Japanese tradition that appreciates as an art form the consideration of an omnipresent, mundane subject from varied and multiple views, such as the Edo-era ukiyo-e prints by Hokusai in his 36 Views of Mt. Fuji–the most famous of which, not incidentally to this discussion of Narahashi, is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa:

(part of Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mt. Fugi series created between 1826-1833)

Hokusai’s near-contemporary, Ando Hiroshige, found inspiration and immense critical success in his woodblock series describing the famous Tōkaidō road station series, The 53 Stations of the TÃÑoÃÑkaidoÃÑ (1833-1834) (which he followed up with later in his life with the 69 Stations of the Kiso Kaidō, 1834-1842). For those unfamiliar with the work, the Tōkaidō was one of the five main roads that connected Japan’s city of Edo with the then-capital of Kyoto, and travelers that were headed to or from the court city used this main road and its post stations (at which one could procure food, lodging and meet other travelers) as rest stops along the way. A kind of Canterbury road, or tale, except without the Christianity. These roads were very much known to all Japanese, and made up a kind of collective experience that if not directly shared by everyone, was at least alive in anecdotal tales told by people that had walked them, or in the trinkets and trade that circulated because of them. Hiroshige’s artistic breakthrough with the series was to depict the common and the everyday in this series, to illustrate the stories, the famous views along the station path, and to show these stations and the people that used them in every kind of season, weather and circumstance.

© Ando Hiroshige. Sudden Shower at Shono, #46 in the series of 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō

(n.b. I fell in love with this above image long before I knew anything about Hiroshige or this series. I found a second-strike of this print for sale the summer that I had petitioned for a divorce, moved to a city where I didn’t know anyone, and felt completely overwhelmed by forces and circumstances beyond my control. At the time, this image of travelers fleeing a sudden summer storm was the perfect metaphor for what I felt like I was experiencing. Only later did the context for its creation come, but for my whole life the context for my being drawn to it in the first place will be the one that I remember first.)

©Ando Hiroshige. Night Snow at Kanbara, #16 in the series of 53 Stations of the Tōkaidō

Narahashi’s Half-Awake, Half-Asleep series shares with these examples an emphasis on the subject from a variety of conditions, locations, seasons, views and distances. Like Hokusai and Hiroshige, the photographs also depict a readily identifiable, inherently omnipresent facet of Japanese life: its engulfment on all its narrow geography by water. Curator Michiko Kasahara, who included images from this series in her show “Kiss in the Dark” at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, said of the work:

The title of the series […] is very cleverly expressed. Her works, while betraying the stereotyped images of resort areas, somehow make visible as a shared recognition the image of the sea that people embrace. Therein, an uncomfortable feeling like seasickness and a pleasurable feeling of floating and entrusting yourself to the sea lodge side by side.[…] They call forth an ambivalent feeling.

I have only been able to see a few prints in the ICP Heavy/Light exhibit over the summer, but she is currently in a solo show here in Germany at the Gallery Priska Pasquer in Köln, through Nov. 6th. The second printing of Half-Awake just went on sale at Nazraeli Press in the past month, and if I’ve learned anything buying art and artist’s books over the years it’s this: Buy It Now. Before the publisher decides to raise the price, before it goes out of print, before it becomes something that you have a severe case of buyer’s regret for not buying.

what little girls want: the art of miwa yanagi

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch
old breast against young breast.

–Anne Sexton, “Rapunzel,” Transformations

miwa yanagi, rapunzel, 2005.

miwa yanagi creeps me out–in all the good kinds of ways. her images carry the capacity to go from surface to psychological in lightning-quick speed, and what lay in the subconscious afterwards folds into complex unease with a lingering, distinct aftertaste. cursory on-line research into her newest body of work provides three titles describing the same set of images, all apt in one or more ways: fairytales; the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging; and the incredible tale of the innocent old lady and the heartless girl.” whichever phrasing you choose, this third body of her photographs follows seamlessly where the last left off, and her visual problem-solving mingled with her confidence in her questions and critque makes her among the most interesting and provactive image makers today.

the japanese have a phrase for women art photographers, and it is not one that they should be entirely grateful for: onnanoko shashinka, translated literally as “girlie photographers.” as the first wave of established japanese photographers begins to make way for the new second wave, women have been struggling to make work that is both personal and collective, meaningful without being minute. and while work by female photographers is being produced, there is irritatingly little infomation or exposure of it. the lack of interest, press or support of contemporary female photographers in japan has been in part because of the concerns choosen to be explored in their art gets snidely referred to as “women’s work” and is subsequently dismissed. miyako ishiuchi‘s photographs catalog her mother’s articles of clothing and ephemera, as a daughter tries to understand her relationship to her and to herself through personal (nearly sacristral) objects she wore or carried on her person. michiko kon deals in still lifes constructed entirely of foodstuffs. gloriously decadent, humorous and grotesque, they are still made of items that a woman bought at a market, which are ingredients in a meal, that to a japanese mentality is to be served and prepared for a husband and family.

i have never liked the notion of women vs. male artists of any sort. women-only shows, while they serve a purpose, feel like a half-hearted attempt at artistic affirmative action. equality has never come about through polarity. the fact is, the playing field has never been level, and all that’s ever mattered–male or female–is the work. photography, because of its relatively late entrance into the art scene, has been perhaps the greatest democracy of all the arts (whether or not you read about it speaks to something else). ishiuchi’s photos are delicate, eerie and truly personalized, intimate documents. kon’s are among the first photographic images by a japanese photographer that i ever became infactuated with (and whatever happened to her anyway? has she made anything since the mid-1990’s?). that said, miwa yanagi makes altogether different kinds of images. different from women. different from men. different from anything i have ever seen. miwa yanagi is an artist whose questions give way to more questions.

yanagi first found herself championed by a transvestite japanese photographer,yasumasa morimura, who had been making a splash re-enacting art historical scenes and inserting himself as an obvious asian-male-made-to-be-westernized-ideal-of-female. he introduced her work to a curator of a major deutsche bank exhibition, held at the kunsthalle in frankfurt. her work was shown along the same walls as cindy sherman, nobuyoshi araki, jeff wall, miyako ishiuchi and morimura.

her first series, elevator girls, is startling to look at and is seductive in its deliberately sleek and polished sensibility. but when i first saw them i did not understand what i was looking at, and faced with the cultural roadblock, stopped at the surface.

elevator girls, 1996-1999

i did not know what an “elevator girl” was, and wasn’t aware of any overreaching cultural critique going on in the images. there are times when i assume that if i need to be given too much information about the context for a work, or why it exists, then the work becomes about the information and not about the work itself. i tend to think that these pieces fail when the explanation is more interesting than the visual. but happily in yanagi’s case, her visuals are always thought through, well executed and the context is necessary, and necessarily engaging.

noriko fuku describes elevator girls as those who:

…wear beautiful uniforms called “royal fashion,” often created by famous designers, and they receive special training where they learn to bow and speak with an exaggeratedly feminine tone of voice: “welcome to our department store. we appreciate your visit here today. this elevator is going up now and stops at all the floors upon your request. the second floor is for designer brand dresses for ladies. are there any customers who would like to stop here?” when the door opens, she says, “please mind your step.” another elevator girl is usually standing outside the door, also wearing royal fashion. the elevator girl inside the elevator smiles and bows to the girl outside, as if saying, “i am handing over my customers to you, please take care of them.” elevator girls stay in their tiny cells repeating the same speech and gestures hour after hour. only beautiful young girls are hired for these positions. for the previous generation, this was a highly desirable job.

without this information all i saw were sleek, surreal examples of consumer culture, and was completely oblivious to the specific critique on that culture the images were made to provoke. as i read in interviews and articles, i began to glean that this first work was possibly not meant for a wider cultural audience than the japanese (though her successive work would contend mightily with more collective themes), and that what it would become was yanagi’s first stab at puncturing this feminine bubble that exists in japan, the one that sets out all the acceptable options for a woman’s course in life and what her expectations can and should be for the duration.



white casket, 1998

i trust yanagi’s images in part because her line of questioning is evident and continually surprising: what can young, educated japanese women expect for their ambitious lives lived in large cities, post-education but pre-marriage? what does it mean to define oneself through sheer consumerism? is one doll different at all from another? is life as an elevator girl like living in some terranium, existing as a perfect moving object in a kind of fishbowl? how does one escape? does one escape? is collective identity a kind of murder, a form of sought-after suicide? in interviews, yanagi comments on the varities of female experience in japan, chief among those she questions are a group deemed “parasites.” parasites are women who choose to stay living at home with their parents while spending all of their considerable salaries on fashion. the relationship’s dynamic perpetuates itself because both parties think they are doing good deeds by living under the same roof: children think they are being good by watching over their parents and just generally being there, and parents feel a reason to live in continuing to take care of them. yanagi has said, “they stay home and spend all their money buying what they want. prada or hermes, japanese women consume all brand-name products. the industry does best in japan thanks to these women.” with no real cultural comparison in the west, the finer points of her criticism of this aspect of daily life was completely lost on me. once i had read the context which to a japanese would be self-evident, the photographs pulsed with their intended meaning.

in this interview, yanagi describes how her experience with her models from the series elevator girls began to generate fodder for her next work, grandmothers.

yanagi: in the process of making the series, i had the opportunity to talk with models who were in their twenties. it was interesting. they want something for their future. but they have a hard time expressing what they want as if their desires were subdued or locked inside…japanese women think they have to be lovable and liked by everyone around them…they think that they don’t deserve to live if they are not like that. as a result, they don’t talk openly about their wishes or strange desires even though they had some ideas about who they wanted to be when they were children. in order for them to recall their childhood dreams, they need to be liberated from their youthfulness.
wasaka: young women cannot express who they want to be at present because they are young?
yanagi: right. but, they can often express what they want to accomplish 50 years later. i think that occurs after they feel liberated from the age issue.
wasaka: does that mean that they don’t care anymore about what others think of them when they become senior?
yanagi: yes. so the more restricted she is today, the more free and gorgeous she may become fifty years later in her imagination.

misako, 2002
in your arms i used to listen to
that song which i will play again tonight
oh hazy moon
how many more nights are yet to pass
for this desolation to cease.

it is with her grandmothers series where yanagi began to fully come into her own. she had begun elevator girls as a performance piece, switching to photography when she became frustrated by the lack in the piece’s capacity to give her full authorial control. as if hitting a wall from such strictures, she turned around here, and gave up some of that rulership and found that it took her places it could not have with her absolute direction. using some of the models from elevator girls, and procuring others through an on-line advertisement she placed, she found stories within stories of what young women dreamed about becoming when they were older, once freed from their perceived obligations to family and society. artist and girl went hand-in-hand, teasing out the dreamed-of-life and what it might look like. using a combination of aging software, latex and makeup, yanagi brought the young into lively agehood. the women were asked to compose something that the reflective, experienced older woman would say or think.

ai, 2004

i know people in this neighborhood talk behind my back and say that my fortune-telling is fake.
i don’t do this to get a bit of money from these kids, i’m not that desperate or bored
i’m just here waiting for one special customer: my successor.
since she’s not attracted to the past or anxious about the future,
i leave it to chance that someday, she’ll enter through this shattered doorway.
after she takes my place, i’ll live quietly, discharged from both my hopes and regrets.
how many more dull fortunes do i have to tell
i can’t help feeling pity for these innocent girls.
their lives will be just like their mothers,
chronic boredom interrupted by disappointment and disillusionment.
can’t believe that they come here to confirm that.
i’m fed up with their girlsih secrets,
made rosy only by their shallow expectations and cheap dreams.
i’ll only take five more customers today.
oh, this girl is about to cry.
there’s no use for tears, sweetheart.

the result is a compelling battery of images, myriads of self-directed destinies and specifically wished-for futures; a truly realized and collaborative work. perhaps because the piece wouldn’t be complete without it, perhaps because it was too good a self-portrait opportunity to resist, yanagi included herself in the retinue of old ladies:

miwa, 2001
for ten years
i have looked after many children
every time
i embrace a new child
we all embark upon our journey together
at eighty
the long journeys across many mountains and rivers have become difficult.
still, i keep going
with the thought
that my children will exist
in the farthest reaches of this earth.

yanagi could be speaking about all the women she encounters while researching and producing her many images. or she could mean the women she hopes are touched or changed by the ideas of possible futures they could embody, if only they could see themselves within those possibile potential selves. or further still, the children may be the actual works themselves, taken out of japan, department stores, and foreign art museums, and held in the mind’s eyes of millions who come in contact with them, and by extension, with her wish for herself and a changed world.

her grandmothers series was well-received, shown in europe, japan and america, and included in a book of her work and interviews. it was reviewed as a series that viewed aging and feminity in a positive light, and the context for the reviews rarely delved anywhere near yanagi’s larger critique of banal and repetitive existences most japanese women live in today.

her newest body of work, the darkness of girlhood and the lightness of aging, begun in 2004, picks up some of the more sinister strands that her previous works had flirted with, but had not fully given voice to. to my eye, it is her most darkly compelling and aesthetically full-rounded work to date. in all her previous images, the final product is presented in lush, large, and luminous display, some photographs reaching 70×280″ in size. heavily digitally manipulated, extroidinarily detailed, we are engulfed as viewers into her mise-en-sc√©ne. these new images are smaller (but not small, exactly, measuring about 40×40″), classically printed black-and-whites, and still deal with a female-to-female dynamic, but in the well-known terrain of the fairy-tale.

gretel, 2004

i cannot find much information about this series, and am frustrated, as i often am, about the lack of information concerning newer work by pioneering japanese photographers. what i do know about the series i found in a recent issue of asia art pacific magazine. the review tells that yanagi reconstructs fairytale scenes from western tales as well as from gabriel garcia marquez’s erendira. she casts girls between the ages of five to eleven, and records them as both a girl and an old woman. the end result, in the handful of images i’ve seen (and want desperately to see in person), is chilling, unsettling, and utterly engrossing.

snow white, 2004

i quoted from anne sexton’s book of poems transformations at the beginning of this post. that particular tome was sexton’s dabbling into tales-told-slant, and yanagi’s rendering of girl-into-old-hag, innocence thwarted, and the cycle of youthful curiosity giving way to trials, self-discovery and redemption has much in sympathy with sexton’s treatment. in both the little girls aren’t all as innocent as they seem; evil witches are misfortunate shrews who wear their life’s regrets on their sleeves; both wield a certain power and horror; both are one in the same.

erendira, 2004

yanagi’s new series of work is being show from august through october at the hara museum of art in tokyo. i do not know whether it will come to the states or not, but if you have the means and opportunity to see it, i highly suggest you do so.