Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A World of Memories: Chino Otsuka's Photography at Huis Marseille by Kevin Chow


            The concept of time figures prominently in the photography of Chino Otsuka whose works are currently on display at Amsterdam’s Huis Marseille in an exhibition called “A World of Memories.”  While the exhibit covers nearly a decade of the artist’s work, its autobiographical subject matter encompasses the entirety of the artist’s life, including her childhood growing up in Japan and her later repatriation to England.  By using the medium of photography to examine her own experiences and identity, Otsuka raises provocative questions about the relationship between place and identity, time and memory, the past and the present.

The most interesting part of the exhibition to me was a somewhat hidden series of photographs on display behind the backyard garden of the Huis Marseille called “Deep Fried, Frozen, and Boiled.”  Here, the artist took photographs of images of parts of her body (nose and mouth, toes, eyes, etc.) and subjected them to deep frying in oil, boiling with noodles, and freezing in miso soup and green tea.  The deep fried pieces of film appeared to form bubbles on her body, like pimples, while the frozen, deconstructed images cast the artist’s body in an abstracted, colorful light.  Through these images, Otsuka highlights the senses of taste and smell in relation to memory, while also playing with the materiality of photographs and the cultural and aesthetic dimensions of food.  For example, by incorporating herself into a traditional Japanese dish like miso soup, Otsuka uses the problem of culinary identification to explore the labels of her own Japanese identity.    A sort of vicarious self-mutilation, these photographs could also be read as a comment on the way photographs can transform, abstract, and objectify the body.  I only wish that the physical film itself could have also been included in the exhibition since it would have been interesting to see the cooked and warped film - the physical evidence of the artist’s technique.   

In her series, “Imagine Finding Me,” Otsuka further explores the physicality of photography and its relation to the past.  On one wall, we see a collection of photographs of a young Otsuka eating ice cream, traveling around France with her mother, and making snowmen, along with a label that lists two years – one representing the time the photograph was taken, the other representing the time the photograph was revisited.  Nearby, a digital display shows a photograph of Otsuka visiting the giant Buddha at Kamakura as a child, and the same image of the Buddha taken years later, as an adult.  The two images are superimposed and slowly merge from one into the other.  For Otsuka, photography is not simply a time capsule, but it exists at the intersection of the past and the present; Otsuka is primarily concerned with the way that memory and images can influence our present sense of self.  Along the opposite wall, we see photographs of a similar arrangement of photographs from her family album, but all of the photographs are missing.  We see only the adhesive corners of where the images once were, the material evidence of their presence and the visual effect of their absence.  Otsuka says that “by imagining the invisible images that filled these empty pages, by photographing something that isn’t there, something I cannot see, I’m recreating a new image, a new memory.”  For Otsuka, the lost photograph does not always represent a forgotten memory, but rather it presents a possibility of an imagined memory, a reconstructed reality. 

At the same time, Otsuka also acknowledges the alienating effect of the passage of time and the fragility of memory.  In her two series, “Tokyo 4-3-4-506” and “Remains” (1999), Otsuka takes photographs in her childhood home in Japan.  While the photographs underscore the passage of time through the capture of banal items in sharp detail – the rusty edge of a bathtub, a tangled telephone wire - the presentation of these details in the form of diptychs adds a layer of complexity to each image, perhaps as a way to mark the divide she feels between the past and the present or her self and her environment. Within this familiar physical space, Otsuka portrays herself as an outsider.  She is a shadow obscured behind a curtain, a stranger peering in through a hole in the door.  In one photograph she appears to be hiding in the closet with her feet protruding out, but in the adjacent image, the closet door has slid open and no one is there.  In these images, Otsuka haunts the space of her own memory like an apparition.  Her presence and absence in these photographs conjure a feeling of estrangement from the past, a distance that time creates in relation to our own lives and experiences.

            Through her evocative images, Otsuka revisits and reinterprets the effect of time.   Each of Otsuka’s photographs delights in the sensual details of a memory in an intimate conversation with the viewer.  By examining her mysterious photographs, we begin to understand the complicated connection between the artist and her past.  Taken as a whole, the exhibit led me to consider the visual, photographic nature of our own memories and experiences, as well as the dynamic and continuous negotiation between our past and present selves.  

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