The People: Kishin Shinoyama Exhibit in Kanazawa

I manage to catch the last day that photographer Kishin Shinoyama’s photographic exhibition The People is showing at Kanazawa’s stunning 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. (Do take a peek at the building here as it is beyond words.) After following a long white hallway I enter a small door in the wall and walk into a room draped in black. A darkroom. When I emerge the first larger than life-sized photo I see is of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Opposite is the word GOD.

Instantly I am reminded of John Lennon’s wry observation that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. However, in this instance the word denotes the first section of five sub-themes for the exhibit: GOD, the deceased; STAR, various celebrities; SPECTACLE, other-worldly and dream dimensions; BODY, beauty, eroticism and struggle as expressed by the nude body; and ACCIDENTS, portraits of the 03/11/11 Great East Japan Earthquake and Disaster victims.

As is often the case with many other exhibits throughout Japan, there is no English translation. No texts on the walls. No audio tape. According to Kishin Shinoyama these selected works are people everyone knows. But besides Lennon and Ono I recognize but cannot name two faces. That’s all.

In spite of my frustrating ignorance, the photos speak for themselves. Powerful and luminous like the monstrous statuary often found in temples, they tower above me or spread before me in super-sized splendor.

However, I’m not satisfied with a face-value viewing. I must understand more fully what I see. Notebook in hand, I wait in front of many of the most compelling images until someone who looks approachable steps up beside me. In sotto voce Japanese I ask, “Excuse me. Who is that, please?” People are eager to tell me. I write down the names, and if they can identify them by their roles in English, a brief note.

Afterwards I Google them all. They are iconic personalities. Among them centenarian twin sisters Kin-San and Gin-San, actors, writers, opera stars, popular singers, models, baseball players, a pop-idol girl group, a geisha.

Whether captured in theatrical grandeur or humble reflection, the range of emotion expressed in each image leaves me more than raw. As a whole they are shattering. In composition, gesture, body language and micro-expressions they reflect the shared human condition. I see their majesty, power and prestige. Their anguish, despair, and guile. Their indifference, resignation and terror. Their innocence, menace or defeat. In theirs I recognize my own.

I leave overwhelmed by what I have seen. At the same time, I am baffled. I failed to see joy or delight or elation. Why not? I leave with that disturbing question which sometimes haunts me still.

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