The small-format images, taken in Western China, combine urban, desert, and mountainous exteriors with interiors that could be located anywhere. A stark and austere atmosphere prevails throughout. The 60 photos are laid out in three symmetrical rows of ten each along two opposite walls in the small café and, while shot in traditional black and white, the barren quality of the subject matter suggests all color would be drained from the scenes regardless.
The most successful photographs paradoxically convey a sense of vast space in a small format. One image shows a wide view of seemingly infinite desert, with a single camel in the center of the frame and a lone wire running above the horizon line. The simple, singular elements reinforce a sense of isolation, with the only sign of life, the camel, an insignificant and barely discernable dot in an unforgiving landscape.
Another representative piece presents an urban landscape, focusing on an empty dirt road between buildings and a brick wall; the way out appears endless and impossible to reach. Many of the shots of urban exteriors, including views through windows or doorways or the spaces around and between concrete buildings, suggest both a contained feeling and a sense that the landscape is inescapably vast. In the few exterior shots that include figures, there is virtually no interaction or acknowledgement of the camera; the people seem to be just another part of the landscape, as stony, parched and isolated as the land around them.
A couple of the exterior images use a very slight shift of focus to examine the same setting twice. One image that depicts concrete buildings and a dirt road leading to a ferris wheel in the far background shows up again in the adjacent row of photographs, though from a slightly different angle. The circular shape suggests relief from the hard-edged, desolate setting, though it is also easy to imagine the wheel as rusted and, as such, it serves as only a bitter reminder of a past escape now lost.
In addition to exterior shots, several photos grouped near the front of the space highlight vacant, intimate interiors. Items underscore the lack of human presence by referencing things people leave behind – an ashtray full of cigarette butts, an empty coffee cup, a dressing table, and a mirror. Though radically different in subject matter and sense of space, these works also convey desolation of a more internal and emotional landscape and are similarly quiet and barren like the deserts and urban settings.
Suikatou, the setting for this exhibition, serves as a nice contrast to the isolated quality of the works. Warm, intimate and inviting, the café is on a lovely tree-lined street – a rarity in Tokyo. It is a little awkward to view the work without ordering something, as the space is fairly small, but the staff, including owner Haruki Omachi, are friendly and easygoing. As perhaps expected in a café verses gallery or museum setting, there is a lack of polish to the way the works are displayed, making some of the pieces a little difficult to view, but the overall layout works well with the small scale of the space. Suikatou is always a good place to escape Tokyo’s frenetic streets and sit quietly reading a book while sipping on a cup of coffee – this time, Yao Shinya’s photographs make it particularly easy for your mind to drift away.