Contemporary Art Center, Art Tower Mito, 2019
Curated by Oko Goto
The Blank in Photography
What does it mean when a photograph is “blank”? Is it simply what happens when the image does not come out right due to something about the light? Is it an unused photographic plate, or the time that unfolds between the exposure until the development of the photograph? Or rather, is it forgetting the photograph itself? Gripped by such thoughts as these, a phrase crossed my mind: Here, every single word has its own weight. Even the blanks.
Revealing divergent aspects of images created by the interaction of light and materiality on a silvered plate base, Rochester Plates (2018-19) is a series of works by Hanako Murakami that puts into practice the iotype, an iodized silver photography technique that predated the calotype by Talbot, the inventor who aspired to copy a “gaze based on nature.” In the early 19th century, a small number of people succeeded in making images, in the search for what was then only conceptually understood as photography. But, actually establishing a technique that fixed an image long proved a challenge. In place of the images that were as evanescent as their own breath, they gave temporary names to retain that desire and wrote ardently about the scientific processes and concepts that might provide a lead. The correspondence of Nicéphore Niépce, for instance, contains words like copie du gravure (plate copy) and rétina (retina) alongside others that would seem to reveal the influence of the natural sciences: reproduction spontanée (spontaneous reproduction), physaute (nature herself), and so on. Murakami’s Nomenclature (2019) comprises type metal slugs of 27 examples of such words. Today, when the word photography is so common, these other terms still seem to resonate intuitively with our disposition that seeks out images. This work, which emerges from the process of a thought immediately taking on substance, becoming printed type, and then transmitting, leaves us with an impression that the invention of print technology intricately connects the distribution of knowledge with finance and logistics. The desire that turns photography into a material nugget through a metal typecasting machine is also something that originally bubbled and boiled away, something, as the artist described it, that came out “burning hot.”
The images indicated at the time by these words, images that no one had seen and that would never disappear, were perhaps a kind of vivid yet steady phantasmagoria that we would today associate with the word photograph. Murakami’s The Exposure (2019) is a short video work that captures the titular exposure through an electron microscope. Irradiating a light-sensitive silvered plate with an electron microscope causes a chemical reaction, resulting in an unfamiliar view that fills the entire screen. Imagine live writhing over the surface of the support, in the same way as our gaze makes a substance “wriggle.” It is something quite strange and eerie indeed.
The aforementioned phrase that crossed my mind was actually a quotation from Murakami’s Current Impression (2016). The artist visited photography archives around the world, taking inspiration for her work from various diaries and letters left behind from the dawn of photography. But what is the point of tracing history like this? Amidst the act of pursuing each and every word left behind by our predecessors and leafing through those pages, what was in the background gradually comes to the fore. This was concealed not only in the printed text but also in the “blanks” on the pages, or those “blanks” that exist between the sounds of the overlapping pages rubbing against one another. To interpret these blanks as a kind of a “leeway” entrusted to us by our predecessors is nihilistic. Rather, they are filled with the expression of various desires, with scribbles, and it is here that a gaze is directed toward what is formless. The raw desire that reaches as far as photography prior to its very idea, once again impassioned through Murakami’s work, ferments the desire for the act of seeing that exists within us even now, when photographic formats have become so diverse.