Last month saw the launch of Emily Allchurch’s latest exhibition, Tokyo Story. I have to say that I greatly admire her work and in all honesty it would be hard not to. They are seductively beautiful in appearance and of such detail that a single image could hold your interest for perhaps hours. Working to reconstruct master painters her latest project is a set of ten images that reference Utagawa Hiroshige’s, One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. It is a unique way in which she chooses to make her images, for they are not one photograph but several hundred, stitched togeather to create the final image.
However, for me my interest lies beyond the technical aspects of the images. What is most fascinating is the contrast between the woodblock prints of Hiroshige and the photographs of Allchurch. Both works exist in negative form and are infinitely reproducible and yet only one set has to date been widely reproduced. The tradition of printing within Japan during the lifetime of Hiroshige was to make copies available for distribution on a large-scale. Evidence of this is present in the prints themselves, in fact the very title of Hiroshige’s most famous set of images reveals this. One Hundred Famous Views of Edo is comprised of landscapes that many residents of the city would have been familiar with, if not by sight then certainly from stories and poems relating to them. These were the postcards of Japan.
In Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill, Hiroshige depicts the path to a Famous temple dedicated to the King of esoteric knowledge that leads over a Drum Bridge. The shape and the fact that it was constructed of stone rather than the usual wood made it a tourist attraction for the pilgrims. The site would have been well-known to many in Japan at the time. The Shogatsuya teahouse, famous for its sweet-bean soup is indirectly depicted in the image; the roof can be seen in the bottom righthand corner. To the left is Sunset Hill which provided an attractive view over the Meguro River valley. Do Allchurch’s photographs fulfill the same role?
The answer is of course no. The pictures have been described as “a gentle social narrative for the city (Tokyo, previously known as Edo) today.” They certainly give a glimpse of the nation. Like the paintings of Hiroshige they are constructed of small details that each seem to have significance, although they certainly stop short of any serious critique of Japan. However all of it seems strangely futile set in the style that she has adopted. As a homage to the inspiring artist their aesthetic qualities drown out the significance of what is contained within the image. Whilst viewing them one cannot help but feel that this is not so much how Japan is but rather how we are encouraged to think of Japan. There are also the obvious differences in the production and reception of the images. They are, in the words of Allchurch, “to be see as artworks”. In the tradition of Western art this simply means that they are limited to only a small number of copies. It is perhaps ironic that a western artist should go to Japan to reproduce reproducible art using a means that is reproducible and create a limited set of art works.
Despite these observations I still enjoyed the photographs. If you happen to be in London then the exhibition is running until the 11th March at the Japan House Gallery, 13/14 Cornwall Terrace, NW1 4QP. If you can make time then they are certainly worth the trip.