One afternoon in 1983, Masahisa Fukase sat tacking the contours of his face with pins. Outside, Japan was busy performing miracles. Its cities had, not all too long ago, been flattened, its industries crippled. Yet here it was outside his window, rising from the ashes – a global economic superpower.
A year before, Fukase had finally exhausted his iconic hunt for ravens – a quest which had consumed him for almost a decade as he trawled the landscape in search of these dark, solitary creatures. What resulted, in 1982, was the “obscure masterpiece” Karasu (Ravens), a possessed and dogged endeavour to give form to the sorrow and loneliness that filled his world after his wife Yoko Wanibe divorced him.
As Japan rode the final leg of its post-war consumer boom, the point of Fukase’s needle pushed through the taut surface of his cheekbone, printed onto matte-coated, ultrasmooth art paper. Millions of urban dwellers were embroiled heedlessly in the global purchasing of self-creation. Yet Fukase sat inside, undertaking a meticulous act of self-destruction. Surveying his papery face with coloured pins and points – just as one might tack a hastily scribbled reminder to a cork board, or pin down a coveted destination on a map.
The post-war Japanese photographer has been labelled an “incurable egoist” by his ex-wife Yoko as well as, more recently, in his first European retrospective at Les Rencontres d’Arles. Yet there are surprisingly few self-portraits of Fukase in his body of work – and in these few, we find his face almost always obstructed. In a 1973 article, Yoko gives light to this appellation when she stated that the photographs Fukase took of her “unmistakably depicted Fukase himself.” During the 13 years of their relationship, Yoko had become the subject of Fukase’ lens. Relentless scrutiny and performance made its way into their most intimate moments, driven by Fukase’s desire and devotion almost to the point of obsession. These images emerge as Fukase’s attempt to give form to the passions, the experiences, the people and the places that made up his very existence. To somehow bottle them up before they evaporated into the past.
Such endeavours placed Fukase in a new strain of cultural practice that had been growing in Japan throughout the early 20th century. Reacting against the social realism of the immediate post-war period, these new works shifted from the pursuit of objective truth towards that of subjective realism. From the autobiographical, confessional literary genre, watakushi shōsetsu or I-Novel, to photographers seeking to reveal their psychological experiences through blurred and grainy images of the city, these works were a by-product of the individual-centred nature of modernity.
Shaped by the belief that the world is created in the act of perceiving it, they become existential essays on everyday life amid the lingering scars of war and Japan’s Americanisation. Indeed, the first photo on the inlay of Fukase’s Ravens photobook is one of his rare self-portraits, upon which a series of pulsating lines emanate and unfurl outwards from a celestial-like orb; a solipsistic rendering of the world, which arises from his own self at the very centre of it all.
When Fukase peered out of the window on a lonely train journey just after Yoko had left, and saw the dark shadows of ravens on the horizon, his internal world unfurled at once towards them. His despair and sorrow gripped everything in their path, attributing the ravens with the feelings he carried inside, creating the whole world in his own image. In an early diary entry, at the onset of the project in 1976, Fukase wrote, “If I’m reincarnated, I want to be a raven.” Upon completion in 1982, he scribbled enigmatically that he had “become a raven.” The series was finally complete, his transformation attained. The following year, the pinning of his portrait began.
Having emerged from this period of darkness – shaking off the raven’s shackles, reborn into the world like a revived phoenix – he had to begin a new search for self. One that returned, after an extended stretch in the wilderness of the world and the Other, to his own entity. With his colourful tacks, perhaps Fukase was trying to pin down something of himself in his own image, rather than in the world around him.
And it wasn’t just Fukase who was embarking on such a quest. The nation, it seemed, faced an existential crisis. As Japan stood at the beginning of the 1980s, its people having now experienced the benefits of economic abundance, Prime Minister Ohira Masayoshi announced his plan for the coming decade – the establishment of a “new age of culture.” The forces of “Americanisation” that had swept Japan’s shores had brought with it a new “universalistic” culture of materialism, driven by a desire for commodities that could never be satisfied. And in its path, many believed, it was destroying the foundation of an older, more traditional and inherently “Japanese” way of life. Masayoshi called for the people of Japan to turn to the pursuit of a “restoration of warm human relationships in the family, workplace and local regions,” to salvage the traditional values that lay beneath this new and glossy sheen.
There are undercurrents of this growing commentary around the tension between these two worlds in Fukase’s earlier works, as seen in his 1974 photograph of Yoko at the MoMA private view for the New Japanese Photography Exhibition. Here Yoko, dressed in traditional Japanese kimono, crouches low in the New York gallery while Americans encroach all around, looming high above her and indifferent to her diminished form.
But once Ravens was complete, his internal suffering and loss brought out into the world, Fukase seemed to turn to a much more direct and personal form of self-searching. Returning to his birthplace of Bifuka, he began a series of large-format family portraits, as though this excavation into his very blood, and the traditions and values that remain there, might hide the secrets to his search. In 1986, his series Memories of Father was released, followed in 1991 by Kazoku (Family).
His final series, Bukubuku or Bubbling from the early 1990s, reveals 79 self-portraits taken with a waterproof camera in his bathtub. A final foray into the hidden depths of the self. A probing of his own face in an isolated water vacuum, with his hats and sunglasses; a last ditch at self-creation. Still, at 54, unsure of who he really is.
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