Last Updated:Mar 7, 2009

To See or Not To See – Cursing the Artist’s Presence at Seiichi Furuya’s “Im Fluss”

Can an artist’s work transcend his own presence, even if he is obnoxious, rude, and doesn’t respect his audience?

Seiichi Furuya’s photographs capture the ephemeral beauty of life, death, and nature. Flowers glowing in the harsh sunlight, a ripe watermelon infested with flies, a dead rabbit on the roadside with tire marks imprinted on its flattened body, and most of all Christine – Christine lying in the garden, bathing in water, smiling, breathing. Christine, whom Furuya married 3 months after meeting, and who tragically committed suicide in Berlin in 1985 leaving their young son and Furuya behind, is the very reason behind his artistic pursuits.

In an artist’s talk given at Rathole Gallery in Aoyama which is hosting his latest exhibition “Im Fluss” (meaning “in the flow”), the 57 year old Furuya explained that he is by no means a “photographer”. Rather, he uses snapshots of moments of beauty taken in everyday life to create a narrative in a given space of curation, be it within gallery walls or on the pages of a photo book. Assembling and arranging random photos – mostly, if not all, taken before Christine’s death – is Furuya’s way of coming to terms with his wife’s sudden departure, allowing him to piece together the missing links and create meaning out of the 10 centimetres of blank space between each frame. He doesn’t have any new work, he says, because “new” to him means printing photographs taken 20, 30 years ago that have yet to be made public. In a sense, he is more a curator of memorabilia than active photographer.

Upon seeing the exhibition knowing only minimal information – that Furuya has been living in Europe, mainly Austria, for over 2 decades, and that his wife Christine committed suicide at a young age – I was immediately taken by the gentle, colourful shots of European gardens, babies and nature. These rather effeminate subjects – a point the artist himself acknowledges – seemingly depict a happy life, although there is a looming pain of premature loss and grief that undermines each pretty landscape, and this sense of doom is accentuated in shots of rotting fruit or a piercing gaze.

As a package (Christine’s story, the photographs and him facing her death through his photographs), the exhibition is captivating and invites viewers to look beyond what is actually depicted in each photograph. Indeed, Furuya says himself that the individual photos themselves are not all that significant: it is the textual flow, the essay created by the selected photographs that tell the real story. If only I had left the gallery then. However, staying on for the artist’s talk, I quickly found that the artist himself reflects nothing of the delicacy of his artwork.

From the beginning, he made it quite clear that would rather not explain his photographs, and taunted the two interviewers to ask him better questions after they struggled to get him talking. Yet once warmed up, he went on to talk openly about using Christine’s death as an inspiration of sorts for his artwork, and mentioned the fact that publishing Christine’s suicide note (excerpts of which he translated and printed in one of his photo books) shocked European audiences and feminists worldwide, sparking outrage that he is profiting from his wife’s death. When asked of his photographic techniques by a member of the audience, he belittled the artistic or formalistic process of photo-taking, saying that it is complete rubbish and he simply takes a shot when he “senses a beautiful moment,” as if to say that only those blessed with a magical artistic sensibility should bother even trying.

Throughout the entire one hour talk (which was in fact cut short after the audience shied away from asking questions for fear of being ridiculed, and Furuya concluded that “there’s no point dragging on if there’s nothing to say”), his speech was peppered with condescension (“I’m not sure if any of you will understand but…”, “I guess you folks in Japan wouldn’t know…”), and climaxed with an outburst of “Do you Japanese people even think with those brains of yours?! If this was Europe, there will be too many questions and we’ll be running out of time!” This, coupled with random comments such as “My son looks Japanese but doesn’t speak Japanese, you know” and “I’m aiming to speak 3 years worth of Japanese while I’m visiting Japan, since I never use it back home in Austria” confirmed my suspicion that he is merely a Japanophobic Japanese returnee trying to make his point heard.

Furuya’s antics might have given the impression to some that he is an aggressive, quirky, spirited photographer who is just loud-mouthed, which of course is not a crime in an art industry full of eccentrics. However, I left the building feeling as if someone tore a hole in my new shirt, robbing me of the pleasure that I was promised. As much as I kept telling myself that artwork can be appreciated independently of the creator and their intentions, I still can’t help but wish that I had never seen him talk that afternoon.

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Lena Oishi

Lena Oishi

Born in Japan in 1982, grew up in England and Australia. With a BA in Media and Communications and MA in Cinema Studies, she now lives in Tokyo as a freelance translator and occasional editor. Works include VICE Magazine, Japanese editorial supervision of "Metronome No. 11 - <i>What Is To Be Done? Tokyo</i> " (Seikosha, 2007), and translation for film and art festival catalogs. She can also interpret simultaneously if you give her enough candy. Lena likes making her eyeballs bleed after watching way too many films while eating ice cream in the dark.

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