a writer based in Tokyo
Lost in this Town
小松浩子 Hiroko Komatsu

One by one the shops go out of business, reimagined as art vitrines against the discarded rubbish that laughs in response outside. Set back from the main street Alt_Medium gallery is one of these places. The postwar concrete sliver it calls home on the edge of Takadanobaba and Shinjuku, next to an old barber’s is no different. There is something fantastic and beautiful about this. And something incredibly sad.

DECODE: Events & Materials
The Museum of Modern Art, Saitama
September 14–November 4, 2019

The monochrome work of photographer Hiroko Komatsu was crammed into every crevice and no two images were the same with every exhibition filled with the same organised mass whether it be a windowless office, a basement room, or a local museum. Installations were like sentences formed mid-flow, the sight of someone searching for words to explain a material and demonstrate an idea over and over again. The repetition formed a backland and building site of its own as the mass of paper 30 metres long sagged laying upon itself like used duvets and threading strips screening the room, obscuring lines of sight and focusing the corner of some urban dysfunction to the point where the casual eye would flicker with sudden excitement. They made for a quite a statement, a monochrome mass distressed to the point of obsolescence giving little or no sign of where they really came from.

At_Medium was off-limits to a certain extent. If you paid an entrance fee you could go inside and be part of the installation, surrounded by packing boxes and other work rolled and presented as objects as much as images. Yet the show worked best seen from outside with glass window all that separated it from the post-industrial landscape in each photograph. And within that two-way reflexive gesture both worlds echoed each other. Shops nearby and further afield were trapped in stasis the same the moment they finally closed their doors; shelves gathered dust and posters wearing well-known faces filled shop windows with the vague impression that people once shopped there. The gallery had been a pet shop in a previous life. Now any remnant of that life had been well and truly whitewashed away.

Staring at Komatsu’s work through the window at Alt_Medium gave the impression that something was staring back. It was possible that being unable to touch and experience the installation had caused this but the physical separation caused the mind not the body to occupied the room in different ways. Paying a premium to enter was an indication of how certain experiences were reserved for an affluent few and lost on the causal passer by. The pandemic exaggerated that distinction even further and when social distance and a Go-To tourism campaign were uttered in the same breath both made very little sense whatsoever. Things, places, objects, even people were hard to separate and distinguish from each other all the while conflating life outside and these photographic fragments — these “things had deteriorated. By things I mean me, my state of mind.” 1 It was becoming harder and harder to strike a balance of personal welfare among things and people. The ‘exhibition’ hinted at something similar — striking a balance between itself and the view of things as ‘preserved’ and ‘protected’. Photographs were a blunt reminder of that contradiction. Being seen while hidden from view, moving forward while retreating out of sight.

The Manhattan Transcripts, 1976-1981

Urban rejuvenation and crime went hand in hand. The pandemic made that abundantly clear. Architect Bernard Tschumi reimagined New York in the mid to late 1970s as an open hand and closed fist—a tug-of-war between unity and conflict in both a physical and emotional sense. The city was caught in a loop of bankruptcy while the architecture of Wall Street loomed with the threat and promise that people would flee the violent and expense, which they eventually did. The Manhattan Transcripts (1976 – 1981) imagined abandoned warehouses on the Lower East Side that even the police wouldn’t enter through the lens of photography. He used the tradition of the architectural drawing to produce moments and interludes that could be realized as permanent structures. The iconography of stage-play became a recurring motif and romance and murder a recurring theme. Architecture was complex, but not nearly as complex as the architecture of love and death.

The post-industrial, post-coital landscape of New York in the 1970s was a site of conflict: violence, pleasure, and madness. Tschumi described as Sensation. For Komatsu ‘sensation’ was the absence of a traditional body to give architecture scale. In her case the observer projected their own scale onto her work filling them with their own presence injecting life back into the monochrome miasma. While the global financial crisis of that decade revealed itself more physically in New York and emotionally in Japan, it had an altogether different affect elsewhere. Her book SON NOM DE BROILER SPACE DANS CALCUTTA DESERT (2012) took its name from a film by Marguerite Dumas and documented a year-long residency in the disused confines of an old restaurant, otherwise know as The Broiler Space.

Marguerite Dumas reused the soundtrack from her previous film, India Song, in the making of Son Nom De Venise Dans Calcutta Désert. The second film merely adds a new visual track, consisting almost completely of images of the deserted, deteriorated Rothschild palace near Reims to this already-paid-for soundtrack. Bellour has included the “remake” among his list of cine-repetitions, noting that it is a particularly triumphant form, for it simultaneously repeats and interlocks its historical past and its historical present.

– Joan Copjec, “‘India Song/Son Nom De Venise Dans Calcutta Désert’: The Compulsion to Repeat.” October, vol. 17, 1981, pp. 37–52

The previous film by Dumas, India Song (1975) focused on a French Ambassador in India, his wife and her entourage. Its follow-up, Son Nom De Venise Dans Calcutta Désert (1976) abandoned any sense of place with the disembodied voice of the Ambassador’s wife now narrating interior and exterior images borrowed from the previous film. India has all but gone, reduced to an atmosphere which haunted the colonial residence as a fevered dreamed – in reality, the French Embassy was really the abandoned château Rothschild near Paris. This presented a reflex Dumas recognised, the legacy of French rule in India coming back to haunt it colonists. They were half-hearted colonial apparitions drifting ghost-like from one chaise longue to another.

安定した自己とは社会への帰属意識の現れで特定の団体から認証されるために自らの美意識によって演じられる実在し得ない人物像を指す。

The stable self is a manifestation of a sense of belonging to society, a non-existent persona played out by one’s own aesthetic sense in order to be validated by a particular group.

– 小松浩子 Hiroko Komatsu

Anne Collier, Women With Cameras
Rat Hole Gallery
Nov 11, 2016 – Feb 19, 2017

That sense of belonging and a wraith-like existence appeared over and over again as Komatsu stacked images. Photographs almost looked back in horror at the awkwardness on display outside. Each instance of a place or object in each photograph was alienated and strange, pulling in different directions to strike the oddest balance. Their substance was ambiguous and chanced upon then reassembled with anonymous eyes despite every photograph being taken by the same person.

They were found images, but they weren’t far off. There was a sense of Anne Collier’s ‘Women With Cameras (Anonymous)’, 2016 shown at Tokyo’s Rat Hole Gallery as a 35mm slide projection of found photographs taken between 1970 and 2000. Every unknown woman shown by Collier was seen holding a camera, at times directly toward the author of the picture. Yet the author no longer figured. Were these women being captured by their friends, lovers, by a member of their own family or by a complete stranger? Collier became all of these and more, connecting each one with her own interest in a state of cinematic address. Collier’s historical artifacts no longer had historical record and Komatsu’s images were almost archival tracts of industrial land farmed into a single image strip. Each photograph may have been recognisable as one of her own photographs but they were far from recognisable as places you might remember.

Outside the gallery, images mirrored the old microwave and broken synthesizer dumped against the outdoor staircase. Beyond that, a wire fence formed a no-mans land framing steps from a pedestrian footbridge that crossed the street and train track on the Seibu-Shinjuku line. Someone had left a spread of pot plants across the asphalt but whatever grew there had long since withered away. The ad-hoc garden interrupted tarmac with a line of blue traffic cones patrolling the remnants of past gardens, now an open-air mausoleum.

Mike Nelson, To the Memory of H.P. Lovecraft, 1999/2008
Installation view from Psycho Buildings: Artists Take on Architecture
The Hayward Gallery, London, May 28 – August 25, 2008
Photo: Stephen White

Between the image and industrial landscape there were signs of things to come. Spring was fast approaching. It would soon be February and setsu-bun would mark the last day of a very long and agitated Japanese winter. Like Mike Nelson, she tore her work down after each and every installation only for it to live on in memory “dismantling and rearranging an event” which revivified whatever the idea had been in the first place. The relationship between memory and loss was a confusing mess at both a personal and collective level. Images were the raw and untreated language of mono-ha, and asked what would be remembered and what would be lost but not a single person figured in any photograph. Yet despite this there was evidence everywhere that people had been present at some time or other.

実験で得られる影響は多義にわたり、機械・動力・装置など無機的な要素によるものや、感情・身体・知覚など有機的な要素によるものなどがあげられる。

The effects of the experiment are multifaceted and include inorganic elements such as machinery, power and equipment, as well as organic elements such as emotion, body and perception.

– 小松浩子 Hiroko Komatsu

Hanatarash(i) at Tokyo Toritsu-Kasei Super Loft in 1985
from ‘Gin Satoh: Underground GIG Tokyo 1978 – 1987’

Super-8 film played on a small tv screen wandering through previous exhibitions, with old work thrust into the present moment and connecting Alt_Medium with the past. The uncanny resemblance to Dumas reusing itself was a game of déjà vu, dismantling and rearranging the difference between old work, new work, inside, outside, preservation and exhibition.

Several stops from Takadanobaba along the Seibu-Shinjuku line running past the gallery was Tokyo Toritsu-Kasei Super Loft, an old ironworks factory morphed into an underground music venue. One evening in 1985 the noise group Hanatarash(i) from Osaka had spent their entire performance lobbing beer bottles at the audience and anything else not bolted to the floor. The only two band members, Yamantaka Eye and Mitsuru (*Misuko) Tabata, had the energy of four. Conscious they were running out of time, Eye in elbow guards and knee pad seized upon a nearby Komatsu bulldozer and decimated the stage and their equipment causing the audience to disperse in all directions like oil on water. Surrounded by farmland, the ironworks has long since gone and the entire area was now filled with apartments.

I wonder if Super Loft, château Rothschild, Mike Nelson’s Hayward installation, even Tschumi’s New York were all similar and as much a contradiction of preservation and presentation as they are the way we see ourselves versus how we’re seen by other people. After a while the audience disappears. The desolate local landscape of Komatsu’s photography, preserving and protecting, presenting and investing—a contradiction that appeared everywhere over and over again.

Wolfgang Staehle, Art Is Lost in This Town (1989)
Photo courtesy of Postmasters Gallery

Two figures in Wolfgang Staehle’s Art is Lost in this Town (1989) stand frozen cast in shadow but something cuts through the moment and the street their standing on. 2 Staehle added a cryptic passage of text as if mid-way through some incendiary and resolute statement of fact. Time and duration are lost on the couple just as it is on everyone watching. Perhaps the real takeaway here is not what images are or represent but how they propel the urge to define them regardless of the confusion everyone currently faces. While Komatsu’s images circumnavigate each other, pinned around the room above the door, pilled and rolled into cardboard tubes the future fast approaches. All this ‘cine-repetition’ manufactures a landscape that fails to materialise, skewered instead by the loop it produces. Spring approaches and setsu-bun rears its mangled head with the distant cry of government, “oni-wa-soto, fuku-wa-uchi!”

Devils out! Fortune in!

小松浩子 Hiroko Komatsu
error CS0246 #1:「自己中毒啓発」
Alt_Medium, Tokyo
January 7–19, 2021
小松浩子 Hiroko Komatsu

1 Hari Kunzru, Red Pill (Scribner, 2020: 59)

2 Ulrike Lehmann, “The End of a Picture or: It’s all been said,” in Wolfgang Staehle (Bremen & Kassel: Kunsthalle Bremen & Museum Fridericianum, 1990:14), as read in Elaine King, “A Precarious Balance of Being”, New Generations: New York, Part 2/3, (Carnegie Mellon University Press: 1990)

3If they threaten to fine me I’ll go to court, or whatever. But what is the cause of all this? They’ve postponed counter-measuring the Corona virus, because of Xi Jinping’s visit and the upcoming Olympics, which has lead to so many infections without a single apology. We can no longer listen to these people” — January 8, 2021: Akio Tamura, owner of Shinjuku’s ‘Tori Tamura’ on the naming & shaming of restaurants that resist governmental requests during the pandemic to close early [source: YouTube]