Words on the exhibition “Ghost” by Shuhei Yamada

Barnaby Lambert

No discourse on the photographic image would seem complete before
reminding us how saturated our lives have become with the stu#. Given that we
see photography almost everywhere, such an assessment requires only the most
cursory glance around our environment to con!rm. Yet for all its ubiquitous
visibility, can we not also say that the magic of this particular medium lies
precisely in what it renders unseen? By virtue of the camera’s uncanny
powers of mimesis, the apparatus of photography e#aces itself from the images
is makes. So that without thinking, we do not so much look at photographs, but
see though them that which they depict. An intuitive process which occurs
almost in spite of the lumpen material fact of the image itself – its being ‘a thing’.

It is with respect to this pairing of material and mimicry that Japanese artist
Shuhei Yamada identi!es two contradictory qualities inherent in the
photograph. The !rst being its opacity as an object, the second being its
remarkable transparency as a picture of something else. Yamada’s latest
solo-show “Ghost” is an investigation of how these two attributes interact.
Exhibited as an installation of three “Untitled” works (all 2012) at Tokyo’s
Aisho Miura Arts, the project marks the established photographer’s !rst
concerted e#ort to directly examine his chosen medium. Yet as its cryptic title
suggests, the exhibition o#ers more than cool headed self-re”ection; in that
foregrounds the physicality of images without denying their illusory power to

In fact, there is something of the illusionist which pervades much of the
installation’s sparse aesthetic assemblage. Lit only by two theatrical spotlights
on tripods, we enter the gallery to !nd it darkened and dramatised. To our right,
the !rst of these lights directs us via its narrow white beam to a small
photograph cut from a magazine and taped to the wall. The image – a
reproduction of Stanley Foreman’s “The Soiling of Old Glory” (1976) – depicts
a young male brandishing an American “ag like a spear poised for the attack.
Yet curved against the light, an unfastened corner of the picture obscures the
antagonist’s victim from view. So that the evident aggression of the assailant
appears directed toward a phantom patch of shadow. With the thrust of his assault
dissipating into an unknown.

What proof of an image’s opacity could be simpler than its casting a shadow?
In peeling the picture apart from the wall, the artist brings to our attention its
status as an object and frustrates our capacity to see ‘through’ its surface. At the
same time however, the shadow’s obfuscation of a critical part of the
image invites our imagination to !ll the blank. So that in revealing its “atness,
Yamada simultaneously draws us into the photograph to speculate upon the
miniature void it contains. A neat double-movement which is also carried into
the show’s second component. There, we !nd four photographs of a man’s face
each obscured in a di#erent place by a spectral white mark. And even though
these blemishes are designed to keep us at the image’s exterior, the subconscious
e#ort to piece together the depicted person has our vision inhabiting the very
optical obstacles which should deter it.

Such contradictions are encouraged to even greater a#ect in the exhibition’s
third and most ambitious work. Consisting of a large red spotlight trained
toward a mounted, free-standing portrait of a young lady; the piece is arranged
so that only a corner of the image is illuminated – its shadow described on the
wall some distance behind. Once again, the shadow demonstrates the
photograph to be an opacity, an object through which nothing real can pass. But
when we turn our attention to the image in question, it becomes di$cult to
accept this blunt physicality as all there is. Aimed directly at the camera, the
gaze of the woman portrayed seems to elude its two-dimensional plane. A pair
of attractive eyes, wide open, defy us not to stare into them as though we could
see straight past their printed facade.

In all three of these works then, the act of our looking brings to the image
something other than the empirical fact of its material form. It may well be this
experience which Yamada understands as evoking the ‘ghost’ of photography.
Namely, a moment in which our engagement with a photograph lends presence
to its absent subjects. And an instant when despite proof of the opposite, we
project onto the inanimate surface of an image a kind of illusory life.