[Art] Shigeru Onishi, Photographs Igniting a Science Fiction Experience

Obliviously I walked into an exhibition of Shigeru Onishi (1928-1994), and only after a couple of pictures my heart started to beat faster. This was exciting. This was about time. This was time travel as a real experience, right here, right now! Who was this photographer? What is his work all about? I bounced back and fro from picture to picture, ran through the rooms, only half reading the accompanying texts because the pictures kept drawing me in. At one moment two girls entered too. I tried to act as stoically as possible while I followed them around so I could eavesdrop, curious as I was how these works affect others. They were less impressed. No wild looks in their eyes, no exclamations, no critical talk, the most positive thing I heard them point out to each other was: ‘why, look, that part of the picture is definitely a tree, right’. The first essay I read about Shigeru Onishi’s photographs, by Ryuichi Kaneko, starts with a description of his nausea and how the works made him flinch. He felt the photographs emanated an energy of hatred. Never before and never again did he have this experience towards photographs. Tatsuo Fukushima, a critic commenting on Onishi’s first exhibition, wrote: his [Onishi’s] photographs shock our numbed souls and teach them to despise the despicable.

Shigeru Onishi and his ink drawings

Shigeru Onishi

Shigeru Onishi was born in Takahashi, a small town in Japan, and apparently a friendly kid. In high school he showed interest in mathematics, asked his teachers advanced questions and he worked on the I Ching. After high school, he studied mathematics, graduated in 1953 from the Hokkaido University, and stayed there to do research in the mathematical field of topology. He also still busied himself with the I Ching, poetry and bokusho: traditional ink drawings (see above picture). He picked up photography after his graduation.

In his photography he desired to express the images inside him. As he was someone who had studied and researched time and space, and who was interested in those topics at least since a teen, and probably longer, these images inside him must be strongly influenced by his grasp and views on time and space and not (only) about emotional particularities, not (only) about a personal dream world. Maybe his photographs let us see something of what mathematically can be known about time. His photography was based on mathematical theories (his life work A Study of Meta-Infinite is about his theoretical mathematical ideas). He himself explained his photography (printed in A Special Number Atelier, no. 34 (May 1957)):

“To know the conditions of the object’s formation – this is the purpose of my photography, which is founded on a desire to pursue metamathematic propositions such as “the possibility of existence” and “the possibility of optional choice.” As a means to achieve this, I believe it is crucial to form images of things rid of all constraints, such as spaces under mathematical conditions or physical time and space. To explain my works: the mutually contradictory forms in our images, or the simultaneous use of concrete and abstract things have as their purpose the (visual) formation of ideas. The introduction of chance elements – uneven development, discoloration, fogging, and so on – is an attempt to obtain elements beyond one’s planned intention.”

Onishi’s handwritten writing about his work, both in English and Japanese

It is interesting that he only photographed for a short period in time and then completely quit. Did he show what he wanted to be seen and was that something that could only be repeated from there on and not show anything new? Or did he not succeed in showing what he wanted to be seen and decided photography was the wrong medium? Or did he just carry out his mathematical theory transposed to photography and that was that? I lean towards thinking he has shown what he wanted in photography and that the fluidity/ workings of time can only be photographed from a fixed period in time, after that it loses its impact.

The Body Reacts

Shock, nausea and excitement are all strong visceral reactions to Onishi’s photographs. What’s going on here? The viewers in the fifties of last century lived in a post-war world, in a traumatized Japan that suffered the two atomic bombs attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A time of darkness and desolate feelings, surely the public at that time saw this reflected in art. This applies to all art at that time, but Onishi seems to be doing something more than expressing the emotional state of that time. Kaneko, who felt nauseous and experienced the photographs emanating hatred at him, gives the following explanation for his experience: “These prints completely overturned the respectable photographic techniques that had come before; their apparent lack of any unified syntax of expression was hard to stomach, captivating though they were.” Normally photographs show spacial objects as we know it, or to state it more mathematically: photography exists within our shared world of Euclidean geometry. Kaneko adds that Onishi brings into question the scientific absoluteness of photographic technology. Did Onishi with his mathematically theories subvert this and by doing this subvert our experience of the world?

In his pictures Onishi didn’t restrict himself to one moment captured in one image. Not only did he create photo montages: his pictures consist of multiple, repetitive moments within one image and of various objects within one image: nudes, faces, people, cityscapes, books, interiors. These multiple objects in space and repeating in time seem to merge. He brushed the emulsion. He also mixed the photo positive and negative in one image, sometimes this makes the faces transparent, ghostlike, like passing visitors from the past. His photographs did not offer images the public was used to, nor images that follow a known way of interpretation. In a way they were and still are pictures of unknown territory, which lead (at least in some people) to strong bodily reactions.

Science Fiction

After seeing just a couple of Onishi’s pictures I was reminded of the science fiction movie La Jetée (1962), the inspiration for the better known Twelve Monkeys (1995). La Jetée is a photo-roman; it is made entirely of still photographs, one after each other, with a voice narrating the story over it. The story is about time travel in a post-nuclear world. It is made around the same time as Onishi’s photographs, and Onishi actually lived in a post-nuclear world.

The difference is that Onishi does not offer a narrative. La Jetée uses photographs, but as a way to tell us a story to accompany words, in other words as an illustration, an extra aesthetic layer to the experience of the movie. It tells a story about time-travel, with the means of still photographic images, but starting from the world as we know it, shown in images we understand. Onishi does something different with his photographs, he doesn’t use images through time, not one after each other, to tell a story, but he creates an image, made up of different images through time and space, and those images show an experience, a state of affairs, something about the structures of time and space. An inspiration for more time-travel movies, or inspiration how the structures of time and space really are, and about what choice means, what existence means.

I Ching

Since Onishi worked with the I Ching, and always introduced chance elements to his work, it only seemed natural that I typed the question ‘What is the meaning of Shigeru Onishi’s work?’ in an online I Ching generator. My answer was hexagram 2: K’un, the receptive or field. Part of the explanation it offered: this hexagram is made up of broken lines only. The broken line represents the dark, yielding, receptive primal power of yin. The attribute of the hexagram is devotion; its image is the earth. It represents nature in contrast to spirit, earth in contrast to heaven, space as against time, the female-maternal as against the male-paternal.

This is a good description of Onishi’s photography. Photography is a receptive medium, and while he actively changed elements in the process of development and capturing the images, and on top of that he added chance elements, I think he mainly did this to receive even more. To receive something that says more about our earthly existence in time and space. His work is not about showing or expressing his own artistry.

He wanted to search for the possibility of existence and optional choice. I experienced his work as highly inspirational, exciting and showing a little glimpse into secrets about time and space. Food for thought. Food for stories.

2 thoughts on “[Art] Shigeru Onishi, Photographs Igniting a Science Fiction Experience

  1. It seems Shigeru Onishi thought that time is the precondition of the existence of space in order that object, that might be eternal, to appear…at least when I look at these pictures that is the thought that pops into my mind. As if time constitutes space as a projection screen for eternal object to appear and as if we have the free choice that influances time, thus space projection and object seeing. Anyway interesting artist and interesting article.

    Liked by 1 person

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