by jonathan lee
One of the most distinctive photographers to have emerged since 2000, Toyko-based Emi Anrakuji has built a reputation on handmade photobooks and striking collections published by Nazraeli Books. Even her gallery shows feature multiple series of works, series that are non-sequential and yet seem irresistibly to suggest possible narratives. What links all of Anrakuji’s work, I suggest, is her concern to map embodiment and to document the process of such mapping. Nowhere is this more apparent than in her New York show at Miyako Yoshinaga, O Mapa (24 October—27 November 2013).
What little biographical information can be found on Anrakuji has emphasized her long struggle with health issues occasioned by a cerebral tumor. There is no need to invoke such a personal history, however, to see in her work a preoccupation with the body and with the artist’s own body, in particular: the vast majority of images in Anrakuji (Nazraeli, 2006) and ipy (Nazraeli, 2008) include Anrakuji’s body either partly or completely unclothed and most often focus on specific body parts. Legs and feet, hands and thighs, lips and breasts, tongues and hair appear again and again, often reflected in mirrors and generally isolated visually from the body as a whole. Three sequences in Anrakuji involve semi-erect penises as well, always effectively distanced from any obviously male body.
Such imagery could be theorized productively through the lens of Freud’s account of fetishism or Lacan’s evocation of the corps morcelé in his theory of the mirror stage, but what strikes me in Anrakuji’s work is the way these relatively detached body parts are always found in a field of other objects: bits of wire, balloons, matches, masks, mirrors, transparent panels, scratched and dirty floors, a couch, a bed, IV tubes with wooden spacers, various swatches of fabric and items of clothing, fish-net stockings, cut-out figures, architectural details, and elements of landscape. The more one studies the photographic sequences in her books, the more Anrakuji’s body seems to find itself in a rather finite world of objects, objects that repeat in various combinations to the extent that they become almost familiar to the viewer. Indeed, in many ways, it is the combinatorial structure—the variety of combinations of elements—that most centrally characterizes Anrakuji’s work, so much so that the isolated body parts so prevalent in the images become further elements of structural possibility. The human body and its parts are just items in a universe of objects, and the uncanny quality of Anrakuji’s photographs is surely a product of this fact.
What we see here is a striking confirmation of Jerry Thompson’s recent claim that the importance of photography has much to do with epistemology, with its revelation of how we know the world. Elaborating a point made by the 19th-century photographer, William Henry Fox Talbot, Thompson emphasizes that photography gives us “nothing less than a way of knowing the world that transcends our educations, our opinions, our intentions, hopes, and desires—in a word, our subjectivity. 1 Anrakuji’s work reveals a world that includes subjectivity but is neither shaped by nor defined by the human subject.
In this respect, at least, Anrakuji is effectively in dialogue with Takuma Nakahira, who argued as early as 1973 that contemporary history has shown human beings to have no special place in the world, so that “our means of expression at this point in time should discard ‘the image,’ and address the world as it is, and rightly position the thing as the thing and myself as myself in this world. To do so, all humanizing or emotionalizing of the world according to the self must be rejected. 2” In a later essay, “Self-Change in the Act of Shooting,” Nakahira would insist that “when I encounter afresh the world of reality, my own self-consciousness is dismantled; the act of rebuilding the consciousness has been imposed on me endlessly. That, in a way, has been my fate as a photographer. 3” This fate of rebuilding a dismantled subjectivity, I now want to suggest, also governs the work of Emi Anrakuji.
O Mapa (The Map), Anrakuji’s recent show at Miyako Yoshinaga, featured three distinct non-sequential series of photographs, as well as a short video piece. The left wall of the gallery was devoted to eight medium-sized images, two of which were in color, while the rest were in black-and-white. Like the other two series of photographs in the show, these eight images suggest a number of possible narratives, although nothing in the images themselves or in their sequence as hung dictates a particular story-line. The two color photographs provide the basic frame of reference for each of the other photographs in the series. One of these (O Mapa 11156) depicts from a rather low angle a young woman—Anrakuji herself—crouching on the pavement in front of an old bus and searching through a large handbag filled with various objects.
The woman’s bare legs and long hair highlight the fact that she is wearing a dark-blue dress, perhaps a uniform. The other color image (O Mapa 11139) appears to reveal the same scene from the much higher angle of someone inside the bus—perhaps its driver—looking down on the woman.
Here we see that she has beside her a bright purple parasol, while a bottle of rum and an egg-crate rest on top of the bus’s dashboard.
Each of the black-and-white images in this series picks up on some aspect of these two framing images. Thus O Mapa 11168 gives us another perspective from the pavement, with the parasol dramatically overexposed, while O Mapa 11327 returns to the cab of the bus, focusing on the steering wheel and the bottle of “Black” rum, but also including a hand and a bare foot inside the cab: there is no trace of the woman outside at all in this image. O Mapa 11225 provides another view from inside the bus, but this time the woman seems to be approaching the windshield of the bus, her face hidden by the parasol and her right hand holding an insulated cup in front of the egg-crate on the dashboard.
O Mapa 11251 show the woman’s hand pressed against the bus’s windshield and reveal hints of her face:
while the final image (O Mapa 11299) superimposes the woman in her crouch with a floor-level shot of the interior of the bus’s cab: here the woman’s face is turned to her left (the viewer’s right), as though looking towards the back of the bus.
Even from these prosaic descriptions, it should be clear that the O Mapa series once again situates Anrakuji’s body in a relatively closed field of other objects—pavement and bus, parasol and uniform, insulated cup and egg crate, rum-bottle and windshield—and the series effectively articulates the combinatorial of possibilities these object-elements define. Whatever narrative a viewer might bring to this series of photographs—perhaps a tale of an encounter, the nostalgia of an aging bus coloring the series’ depiction of a rather contemporary young woman—it is the various objects found in the images—including the body parts—that together make possible any narrative. What this means is that there is no subjectivity in the images, no subject in control, and it is the images themselves that make possible the constitution of whatever subjectivity emerges from the series of photographs. Something like a consciousness is “rebuilt” in these images, to use Nakahira’s term, but the precondition of this process is that any transcendental, guiding consciousness has been “dismantled” in the very making of the images.
In her artist’s statement for O Mapa, Anrakuji notes the existence of different kinds of maps:
…the map of a land’s end, the map of the universe, the map of one’s internal body, and the map of the thought. Even the remains of a stain or smudge of dirt sometimes appear to me as a map.”
O Mapa is the map of my mind starkly expressed through the photography. It is a stack of ‘action to live’ rather than emotional expressions.
What this means, I suggest, is that we cannot read the images of these series as expressions of a subject’s emotions; rather, the images provide maps for acting, for living—“action to live”—and our own sequencing of the photographs effectively constitutes a particular embodiment of the possibilities inherent in the artist’s work.
From this perspective, then, Emi Anrakuji’s photographs open up a remarkably rich epistemological field. These images help us to know some of the ways in which subjectivity is constituted in a field of discrete objects. In our own encounter with the modes of encounter articulated in her photographs, Anrakuji helps us come to know the often disturbing, generally uncanny, ways in which we find ourselves human subjects, embodied in a world. If Roland Barthes is right in arguing that the most profound “way of the Photograph” is the path that leads to a confrontation with “the wakening of intractable reality,4” then Anrakuji’s work surely offers us an opportunity to awaken to the deepest understanding of subjectivity as it is constituted in and by a world of objects 5.
Emi Anrakuji has a new exhibition opening this month at Miyako Yoshinaga, 1800 Millimétre (April 23—May 30, 2015). From the show’s press release:
The title of her new series 1800 Millimètre is an allusion to a well-known poet Shiki Masaoka; whose essays entitled Byosho Rokushaku (Sickbed of 1800mm) was finished just before his premature death. Like Masaoka, the ordeal of the sickbed has impacted Anrankuji’s productivity. In her late 20s, Anrakuji was diagnosed with a brain illness that confined her to a hospital bed on and off for the next decade. Her gradual recovery left her blind in one eye and with severely impaired vision in the other. This condition has made Anrakuji, who cannot see a tip of a pencil, discover that the camera can be her eye.
And a nota bene from this website’s author, Stacy Platt: Jonathan Scott Lee is a Professor of Philosophy at Colorado College, whom I have had the great good fortune to meet and befriend, finding out rather quickly that we both share a deep and impassioned interest in Japanese photography (and that we are both afflicted with the subsequent terrible and sublime sickness that is Japanese photobook collecting). Jonathan’s research interests are as ranging and profound as his collecting habits, and he is currently at work on a book about Jean-Luc Godard. I hope he keeps writing about photography, and I hope we can work collaboratively on something that makes use of both our love and critical thinking about photography in the near future.