Posted:Jul 16, 2021

Jörgen Axelvall

The Swedish Tokyo-based artist discusses cancer, photography and his artistic approach

Jörgen Axelvall, 'Go To Become' Saitama Museum, untitled / 2:41AM
Jörgen Axelvall, 'Go To Become' Saitama Museum, untitled / 2:41AM

A poet, an artist, a photographer, an often-cantankerous character who never reveals too much and enjoys leaving the meaning and interpretation of his work to the viewer. Encompassing the fragile world of the vulnerable and open male body, Jörgen Axelvall‘s creative output draws obvious comparison with fellow photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, due to subject matter, and gay American portrait artists such as Larry Stanton. In Joan Didion’s recent collection of essays, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” the great American writer quotes Mapplethorpe from a BBC interview. “If you say too much you lose some of that mystery. You want to be able to pick up the magic of the moment. That’s the rush of doing photography. You don’t know why it’s happening but it’s happening.”

There’s an immediacy, a vulnerability to Axelvall’s photography which demands that the viewer look deeper and more closely. That is to say, that something is always definitely happening. Some of the photographs are obfuscated and others are not. Some of the images are touching, emotive and heart wrenching and others simply abstract and unknown. There’s also a sense that the Tokyo-based Swedish artist’s time in Tokyo has had a philosophical impact on his art and his life. In his recent collection, “And I reminisce” there’s one photograph of an elongated nude male body with a glimpse of pubic hair with a brooding indigo background. The body resembles an outline, a shadow, a portrait, a Giacomettian vision; however if we take into consideration the Buddhist concept of ma, which can be interpreted as negative space or emptiness, we see that this absence is simultaneously as important as the male form depicted. Why did the artist choose this color, why frame the body with this void and, ultimately, what does this interstice convey?

Rei Kawakubo, one of the world’s most important and legendary fashion designers and creative visionary behind Japanese brand Comme des Garçons is also often connected with absence in her decades-spanning oeuvre. “The void is important,” she once said. “I like to work with space and emptiness.” Bodies, vacancy and deliberate portrayal of frangibility are central to the Swede’s photography and categorize him as one of the most intriguing contemporary photographers in Japan.

Axelvall arrived in Tokyo on the same day as the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and, it can be said, experienced his own seismic shift in terms of career progress and ambition. After 15 years assisting some of America’s most acclaimed photographers during his tenure in New York, including Ellen von Unwerth, Mary Ellen Mark and Steven Sebring, he carved out his own diverse and creative path in the Japanese capital. Prolific and driven, he still publishes books of his work, exhibits in shows all over Japan and is currently represented by Ken Nakahashi Gallery. Axelvall, who channels sexuality through his photography, is deliberately outspoken about his homosexuality and in an interview with Metropolis in 2019 says, “My projects have been many and varied since but I cannot and will not stop taking pictures of friends, lovers and boys I feel affection for. It’s a way of getting to know them better, to get a deeper understanding, to love more. The camera allows me to converse without words, to gaze into somebody’s mind and soul. I watch, study and try to capture the beauty I see.”

In person, the Swedish artist is gleefully dichotomous, veering from combative to amiable, quiet and unassuming to gregarious and singular; he always cuts a curious figure. His photography speaks for itself, however, and a review of his projects from 2014’s “Instant Moments” to 2020’s “And I reminisce” displays his extraordinary approach. Beautiful, delicate, powerful and cerebral, Axelvall celebrates queerness with an aesthetic like no other. Tokyo Art Beat conducted an email interview with Axelvall in June 2021 ahead of his group show at Shinjuku’s Ken Nakahashi Gallery in July, his solo exhibition and book opening reception at Omotesando’s Bookmarc in August and his participation in an exhibition at Saitama Museum of Modern Art in September.

Jörgen Axelvall, 'And I reminisce' Bookmarc, untitled / Nagahara 61
Jörgen Axelvall, 'And I reminisce' Bookmarc, untitled / Nagahara 61
Jörgen Axelvall, 'And I reminisce' Bookmarc, untitled / Yudai 1
Jörgen Axelvall, 'And I reminisce' Bookmarc, untitled / Yudai 1

Tokyo Art Beat (TAB): You have some exhibitions coming up in addition to a new book. Could you tell me more about these projects?

Jörgen Axelvall (JA): Yes, so I just finished a small collaborative exhibition at the bookstore Morioka Shoten. The main focus of that show was on an art book showcasing the artist Sohey Iwata. I did the (photographic) illustrations for the book. It was a small and short exhibition but very successful. At the moment I’m juggling between getting a new book ready and preparing for a group show at Ken Nakahashi, the gallery which represents me.

The book, titled “And I reminisce” was initially supposed to come out last year but those plans got derailed by the pandemic. The book release will be held at Bookmarc Tokyo where I will simultaneously exhibit some selected works from the book in its downstairs gallery space. This will be from July 30 to August 11. Having “And I reminisce” finally published will be a significant personal achievement – not just because it was pandemic-delayed but this project is what I call my life-work, i.e. images, ideas and concepts I have carried with me for as long as I can remember. I wrote a short story explaining this in more depth that’s included in the book.

The group show at Ken Nakahashi Gallery is titled “one’s signal” and opens on July 21. It will be done in two parts since the space is too limited for all artists involved. Within each part there will also be changes made to what’s on view so I’d recommend visiting this exhibition several times. “one’s signal” refers to a call or response of the unknown; a source of communication through time and space. Tied in with this will be a collaboration with Mari Uzawa Urabe from the Japan Memento Mori Association, an online talk event will be held looking at death from various angles, talking with people involved in medical care, philosophy, and religion.

Also on my schedule is an exhibition at Saitama Museum of Modern Art opening in September. It’s a thematic group exhibition exploring the male beauty in Japan through history. Work from my series “Go To Become” will be shown there.

TAB: How is your work progressing, Jörgen? Do you feel that your work and lens on the world has shifted over the past few years?

JA: Well certainly the last few years marked a shift on so many levels – we’ve seen a bunch of madmen ruling the world, which ushered people out of complacency. Activism is back – it’s sorely needed and it’s great. From #MeToo to BLM, serious issues of inequality surfaced and many of us took a hard look at ourselves. I’m one of them. Even if I consider myself a “good” guy, I’m in need of some reckoning. Not that I actively did bad things, but there are plenty of things I didn’t do. By not doing anything one accepts the status quo. As a person you can tackle pretty much all these issues but as an artist I feel like I to some degree need to choose my battles. It’s not a lack of willingness, it’s about realizing and accepting my capacity.

If each one of us do their part, however small, there can be real change. All my work comes out of personal experiences. That might make me seem somewhat selfish and introverted; a micro-oriented artist. But I also like to think that if I feel a certain way from an experience or about an (unjust) issue there will be millions feeling similarly and so I raise my voice not just for me but on behalf of those millions.

Jörgen Axelvall, 'And I reminisce' Bookmarc, untitled / Shia 2
Jörgen Axelvall, 'And I reminisce' Bookmarc, untitled / Shia 2

TAB: How did 2020 and the pandemic affect your work and outlook on life, as an artist?

Here in Japan we kept the virus at bay in 2020 and the government did a decent job supporting people who lost their income. Of course it was a shock watching events unfold worldwide but once I came to terms with this new order I quite enjoyed it. I was just busy enough, feeling less stressed, eating and sleeping well. I started a new project – a kind I’d probably never would have considered otherwise. As 2020 was coming to an end I was ready to sum it up as an interesting experience, a reset and restart.

Then I was diagnosed with cancer and the bottom fell out of everything. Covid all but ceased to be on my mind, cancer took over, completely. My outlook on life was thus pretty grim at the end of last year. Since then, I spent most of 2021 in and out of the hospital undergoing very demanding radiochemotherapy. At present things are looking good. I’m alive and it’s never a given.

TAB: You work with text (your own) and poetry. How does the written word affect your photography?

I read a lot. For me the written word, texts, are the ultimate treasure trove for imagining visuals. Any text creates a unique image in my imagination. If I’m reading a tax return, it will be a pretty boring dull image, but it’s been created nevertheless. I’m not a natural born writer, it’s a lot of work. I really only started a few years ago and I’m far from confident. There’s been so much great text created already. I have to remind myself it’s not a competition (I’d never win) but another outlet for my thoughts. Combining text and images can be uneasy. Both for the viewer and the creator. Each demands attention. My goal is to make the image and text strong enough to work independent of the other. If however the viewer/reader participates in both, the final experience just might be more fulfilling.

TAB: You often focus on the male body. I feel, when viewing your photography, the vulnerability of the human form. What themes do you follow in your work?

JA: As a gay man I’m naturally attracted to the male figure. As mentioned before I mostly work with personal experiences. Life needed me to seem tough but I’m as vulnerable as my kin.

Vulnerability is important; a prerequisite to life. A relationship is rarely complete until you’ve experienced some hardships together and where there’s hardship there’s vulnerability. Machismo and aggression get more than enough room in life already, not the least in the LGBT+ community. My illustrated male figure can be biographical as in my project “Go To Become” or, as in my forthcoming book “And I reminisce,” he’s a symbolic incarnation of someone remembered or imagined.

TAB: You’ve lived in Sweden, New York and Tokyo as well as traveling all over the world. Do you think location and atmosphere change how you approach photography?

JA: Yes. Some changes and differences I observe, like and welcome into my creative process and others happen subconsciously. As I have gotten older I have solidified my ‘style’ and it won’t change overnight just because I move geographically but since I tend to stay put in the same city for a decade or more, the local culture seeps into my DNA. At this point I’d say I’m 1/3 Swedish, New Yorker and Tokyoite.

Jörgen Axelvall, 'one’s signal' Ken Nakahashi Gallery, untitled
Jörgen Axelvall, 'one’s signal' Ken Nakahashi Gallery, untitled

TAB: Where do you go from here, Jörgen? What are the next steps for you?

JA: Publishing “And I reminisce” will be a defining moment since I’ve been working on this particular project for so many years. I suspect there will be a ‘postpartum’ period. Honestly, come autumn, I don’t have a clear path to walk and it’s alleviating. Cancer has altered me. It’s an often-used cliché but life is truly precious and I’d like to actively seize each day as I move forward. That said I do have a few other projects brewing but I don’t feel a need to rush them.

TAB: You work with Polaroids a lot. What does Polaroid give you that other formats do not? I remember you telling me that you can scan them and alter them in some way. Could you expand on this for me?

JA: Polaroid film gives me immediacy and tactility to preserve the thrill of each new encounter and it also connects with traditions of casual, studio, and illicit photography. Each photograph is meticulously scanned for subsequent treatment. I used to be a complete puritan as to not altering the photographs, not even cropping. Nowadays I crop the images to my liking, take away specks of dust and adjust contrast and brightness; much like you’d do in a normal darkroom setting. I’m not a documentary photographer and I decided to allow myself the freedom to use available tools to tell my story. Each Polaroid (or any Instant Film) is unique and this gives me great satisfaction – a heightened sense of importance – when I handle them. It’s a bit old school, just like books, but I very much appreciate the sensory feeling of touch.

TAB: And lastly, why do you take photographs?

JA: I remember when I was first given a camera around the age of nine. It was a simple point and shoot, no bigger than a deck of cards and fully automatic. Film was costly and not to be taken frivolously. Looking through the tiny viewfinder on my compact was exhilarating and I’d take pictures all the time, only I’d do it without any film in the camera. I’d compose, frame, press the shutter and listen to the little click followed by a whizzing sound of the camera trying to advance the omitted film. That excitement, to be able to capture a precise moment in life, with or without film, never left me. Of the several thousands of pictures I have taken since I was nine I’m pretty sure I can remember every single situation and subject, even the ones I took without film.

Paul McInnes

Paul McInnes

Paul has held contributing editor/writer positions at The Japan Times, Tokyo Weekender, Time Out, Monocle, Fjord Review, Stylus, The SPIN OFF, Tokyo Fashion and several other publications in Japan and overseas. He was also editor-in-chief of Metropolis magazine for three years. In addition to his writing work he has consulted for leading European fashion retail websites Tres Bien (Sweden) and NOUS (France) and holds an MA in English and Theatre Studies and an M.Phil (Distinction) in American Studies from the University of Glasgow.