Review – Shomei Tomatsu: Island Life, The Art Institute of Chicago

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Currently on view in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, is a relatively comprehensive sampling of photographs from the Japanese artist Shomei Tomatsu.  The work is the artist’s first exhibition since his death last December, and his first museum solo exhibition in the United States in nearly ten years.  Not being particularly familiar with postwar Japanese photography, let alone Tomatsu himself, the work delivers a particular insight to its relative time and place.

The show is organized in a single room that seems to aim at guiding the viewer around its perimeter, hugging the wall at every turn.  Upon entering the space, there is a single free standing wall that partitions off  a particularly beautiful set of eight chromogenic prints from the late 1980s titled: Plastics, Kujukuri Beach, Chiba, 1988-99.  The images depict an indexical account of detritus discovered and catalogued in the black sands of the titled location.  The grouping seems to set the tone for the show, in terms of the visual narrative surrounding seascapes and a larger postwar Japan.

The majority of imagery in the show is a hodgepodge of oceanic landscapes and quotidian life.  Each of the images in the show is interwoven with a set of wall texts that attempt to enable the viewer to engage with meaning making through read and visual juxtapositions.  The images are hung in a traditional horizontal format at times, and in larger clustered groupings at others, but always accompanied by a selected quotation that sits adjacent.  The effort seems earnest, but ultimately head over heals romantic.  While this approach may simply speak to the artistic time in which the image were taken, it actually works in opposition to the visual experience of the imagery.  When I was in the exhibition I watched as each viewer hopped from wall text to wall text, with little more than a glance at each photograph.  This is actually nothing new to hear, nor see, but its still none the less surprising to see this curatorial approach in play.

It remains unclear how much of the wall text and the stipulations around its display was Tomatsu’s doing, but never the less, it provides for an overly wrought romantic experience that simply supersedes the photographic imagery.  Which is ultimately a shame, as the images have an interesting quietness to them, and sincerely do not need flowery prose shouted over them.

Shomei Tomatsu is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 5th, 2014.

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