LAST WEEK: Edo Pop at MIA, Interview with Emily Allchurch

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Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Edo Pop show celebrates Japan’s graphic influence on world art. Presented with a survey of Japanese woodblock prints are several works by contemporary artists also influenced by woodblock prints and the concepts underlying the floating world. London artist Emily Allchurch discusses her photo series’ “Tokyo Story” which is exhibited in its entirety in Edo Pop.

Edo Pop closes next Sunday, January 8, 2012, and is highly recommended.

MPB: Your series of ten photos, Tokyo Story, is presented in lightboxes. But you also show prints of the same work. In your mind is there a distinction between presenting these pieces through a lightbox versus print?

EA: I have been working with backlit transparencies (duratrans) for 12 years now. I came to photography via sculpture whilst on my MA at the Royal College of Art in London. My approach to the medium was playful and experimental, just as any other material I had been working with in a sculptural sense. It was upon moving to London that I realized the language of photography was the most appropriate medium to present my experience of the contemporary city. However, I was trying to capture a very specific feeling with my photography, one dealing with the gulf between our dreamscapes and the realities of life, perhaps you could say the beautiful versus the mundane. The choice of presenting the work as light-boxes, with its simulation of natural light and seductive luminous quality seemed to capture this pull and push notion, emphasizing an ethereal quality that is artificially constructed.

Tokyo Story is the first time I have created a set of prints, alongside light-box works. The framed archival prints are smaller in size and thus have an intimacy that relates closely to the original Japanese woodblock prints by Hiroshige from which they are inspired. I took great care over the presentation of the prints and feel the float mounting of the works in large, highly polished wooden frames have a contemporary finish whilst presenting a sympathetic nod to the Japanese Ukiyo-e tradition.

MPB: Exhibition-wise, where else have these photos been? And are they going anywhere else?

EA: Tokyo Story was launched at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London in January 2011, by Tim Clark – Head of the Asia Department at the British Museum. The show then went on to Diemar Noble Photography in London from March to May 2011. I was involved in a number of public talks and seminars during both exhibitions and the work received some good press coverage including profiles in the Sunday Times Magazine (6th March 2011) and the art photography journal Zoom (Fall 2011). It was a real honour to be invited to take part in Edo Pop at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. To see my work curated with other contemporary artists, alongside the museum’s extraordinary collection of Japanese prints, including some works from Hiroshige’s ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ was such a privilege and a thrill. I was very impressed by the Mathew Welch’s (Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) vision for the show and the quality of the execution was immaculate. I’m not sure where they will go on to in 2012, but I hope one day to be able to show them alongside Hiroshige’s original prints and to exhibit the series in Japan would be amazing.

MPB:  Do you have fixed ideas about technology, photo-making and its tangential influence from painting?

EA: As I have already mentioned, I came to photography via sculpture. I see myself as an artist that works with photography, rather then a photographer. If anything I am probably a natural painter and I have come full circle over several years to deal with image manipulation: modulating colour, contrast, perspective, focus, highlight, shadow and construction, except that for me the traditional canvas is replaced by a computer screen. I see the photograph like any other medium; one to be manipulated and worked with to communicate an idea. I’m not particularly interested in any rules associated with image taking. The photograph is a starting point, a raw material, to work with, to develop my ideas. I feel lucky to be working in such progressive times for image making. We have so many tools available to us to aid self-expression. For me it is essential that I am working with photography rather then painting a recreation of an old master. The point of my photographic homage is that they are images of real places, existing in time and space at the point of capture. They therefore still function as a form of documentary record, even though they are subsequently placed in a new constructed context. Many of the works I choose to recreate, such as Piranesi’s Carcere d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), first published 1743-45 and reworked for even darker menace in 1760, were conceived as architectural fantasies. However, the style and atmosphere of the architecture in these scenes can be seen to exist all around us in the modern-day metropolis, with the same possibility to reflect on the human condition.

MPB: Could you explain how The Minneapolis Institute of Arts acquired 10 light boxes from your series?

EA: To be honest there’s a fair amount of mystery to me as to how these works came to the attention of Matthew Welch, the Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. I think the world of Asian art curators is probably quite close-knit and it was definitely significant that Tim Clark from the British Museum agreed to do the opening introduction for my show at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation. I had the opportunity to meet with a number of influential Japanese print dealers and collectors whilst the show was on in London and the work received a good amount of publicity in the press and online. All these forms of communication helped to build up a profile for the series in a remarkably short period of time. Matthew recounts that my work came up when he did a web-search over the summer, but I’m assuming he made some calls before he contacted me about being involved in the show.

As for acquiring the series for the museum’s permanent collection, this was a remarkable leap of faith on the museums part and a most significant landmark in my career. As an emerging artist, especially in the States, we were able to work a good proposition to our mutual benefit, to enable the museum to acquire a full set of Tokyo Story and for myself to have a first museum acquisition. I am so happy that the series has a permanent, public home at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It feels like a real endorsement of me as an artist and gives me courage for the journey ahead.

MPB: Do you live with any of your work on your walls?

EA: I used to have some of my works on my wall at home, but these days if works are not on exhibition, in transit to clients or on consignment to galleries then I need to have them safely stored in an art storage warehouse. It’s a shame as it means I get to spend so little time with the actual final artwork, having spent so many months working with each work as an image on the computer screen. I did find it very hard to leave my exhibition room in ‘Edo Pop’ at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, as this was the first time I had seen all ten works together as light-box images and knew it would be a long time until I would see them displayed in this way again.

However, I have started to collect some works myself, supporting artists at the start of their careers – so my walls are increasingly full with these works.

MPB: Whose photo work especially excites you right now? Is there anyone catching your eye you can share and briefly explain why?

EA: There are a good number of artists whose works have inspired me over the years from Jeff Wall, Julian Opie and Ori Gersht, to Gregory Crewsdon and Elisa Sighicelli. I have a real love for work that explores capturing a particular quality of light, for example I love Hiroshi Sugimoto’s ‘Theatres’ series where the exposure time lasts the duration of the film to capture a whole movie in a single frame. The resulting white light of the movie illuminates the surrounding setting. In a similar way Darren Almond’s ‘Full Moon’ series uses the light of the moon, over a long exposure to reveal on film what would otherwise not be visible to the naked eye. Dan Holdsworth and Sophie Rickett work with artificial illumination alongside nature to create hyper-real, evocative landscapes. I am also very interested in photographers who explore narrative and reference art history (such as Tom Hunter, Neeta Madahar and Christian Tagliavini) and those who use collage and image manipulation freely in their works. It seems to be a very exciting period right now with a growing number of photographers, and increasingly female artists who are working in very experimental ways – photographers such as Yao Lu, Sohei Nishino, Lisa Creagh, Jane Ward, Suzanne Moxhay and Won Seoung Won.

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