Nikon Salon,Shinjuku

Not so long ago the ID card that foreign residents were obliged to carry in Japan bore their fingerprint. This was a constant source of resentment for many, as the only other group of people habitually required to provide fingerprints to the authorities were criminals. For a while, the answer to protests that the Ministry of Justice came up with was to provide a plastic sleeve for the card that conveniently had a ministry seal that hid the fingerprint.

In a riff on this ploy, albeit where the item being hidden truly was incriminating, the Nikon salon in Shinjuku was host to a powerful photo exhibition of Korean ‘comfort women’ by Ahn Sehong, but once having selected the work for show, Nikon got cold feet and refused to advertise the event or list it on their website. It is to the Nikon Salon’s selection panel’s credit that the politically sensitive material was chosen at all, but at a late stage in the run up to the show Nikon, allegedly due to pressure from their parent company the Mitsubishi Group, decided to cancel the exhibition, and had then to be forced to honour their commitment through a court injunction.

As soon as the exhibition was up it became the target of protests from right-wing groups who, on their most active day, filled the small gallery with around 30 troublemakers, according to Sehong. Guards and a metal detector gate were posted at the entrance to the exhibition and visitors were subjected to bag checks which, on the surface of it, seemed a sensible cautionary measure, however it seemed more of a tactic to intimidate visitors and protect the building rather the artist and his work. While the guards did next to nothing in the face of shouting nationalists, a Korean university professor was harangued by the guards when she tried to place a bunch of flowers at the foot of one of the images. Legal advisors representing Nikon kept up a constant presence in the exhibition apparently looking for any grounds to close the show early. Sehong felt that he was always under surveillance, with staff sometimes recording conversations he had with visitors.

It has taken 14 years for Sehong’s images of Korean women forced to work in Japanese military brothels during the second world war to find their way to a gallery in Japan. The deeply emotional, but purposefully unsentimental black and white images are printed on heavy parchment because, as Sehong puts it, history is written on plain, not photographic paper. The extremely matt quality of the images, which are framed without glass, is also a statement that ‘these lives have not been illuminated’.

Most subjects of Sehong’s images have been unable to move on, literally and figuratively from their treatment by the Japanese Imperial Army; many of them still live in the vicinity of their enforced sexual slavery. They are portrayed with a dynamic eye that seems to catch them in mid-conversation, sometimes holding up old identity papers, or photographs. Their brows are furrowed with the pain of remembering, their eyes often closed. Even when photographs show their subject in the middle distance, posture, gestures and the surroundings speak quietly of terrible pain.

Next door to Sehong’s exhibition in the smaller annex gallery was a show of street photography from the trendy Shinjuku and Shibuya areas. Teenagers and twentysomethings, jewel-like in their glittering finery, are shown almost exclusively looking into their smart phones or gazing in wonderment at some unseen entertainment. Their knowledge of Japan’s military past has been strictly controlled by a censored school curriculum, and the abuse that these women suffered is most probably unknown to them and to their parents’ generation too. Thanks to Ahn Sehong’s artistry and determination some have had the opportunity to have their sleep of innocence disturbed.

Layer by Layer was exhibited at the Nikon Plaza Shinjuku 28F, Shinjuku L Tower Bldg., 6-1, 1-chome, Nishi-shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, 163-1528, Japan, June 26 to July 9 and will next be shown at the Ryugaheon Gallery in Seoul, 7th – 23rd August.


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