The first time I encountered Daisuke Yokota’s photography, I was captivated by its texture. Sparsely populated and full of abandoned cityscapes, the photographs seemed layered and full of depth. Viewed in person, they reveal their process of creation immediately. Far from naturalistic recreations, they have plainly been manipulated and handled. They’ve been printed and re-photographed again and again, exposed to light and heat, damaged and marked.
The three series presented at Roman Road are no different. While Yokota’s photography has found considerable success in Asia and Europe, ‘Emergence’ is his first solo exhibition in London. It is a fitting venue for the artist – since the gallery’s creation in 2013, Roman Road has focused on photographers who go beyond the typical limits of the genre, taking the image as mere starting point for deeper investigations.
The first series in the exhibition is a true exemplar of this sensibility. Large pieces with nearly entirely black surfaces, these works are created with light-sensitive colloids painted on photographic paper. Exposed to light, the dense surface becomes marked with small, nearly indiscernible variations. Intensely black, they are magnetic, imparting a flat and dreamlike darkness.
The second group of work, small photographs taken from his ‘Taratine’ series (2015), is typical of Yokota’s oeuvre. The tightly cropped photographs depict solitary women who seem to be sleeping peacefully in an unidentifiable setting. Without context and marked with Yokota’s traditional textures, however, threat seems to lurk in the inky background. Blurry and coarse, they’ve been scratched and burned. While the project is an ode to the important woman in his life and the title refers to a Japanese fertility tree, these works are just as haunting and layered as his typical output.
This is impossible to escape when considered alongside the third piece. A five-channel video installation showing a single film at different speeds, the work is a documentation of the production of Yokota’s 2016 work ‘Matter/Vomit.’ As with his photography, Yokota has re-recorded the original video, transitioning from digital to analogue and back again. In the process, the picture is degraded and the sharpness of the original recording is lost, placing emphasis on creation and ephemerality, on motion and time.
For me, this hyper-focus on production is indicative of a fundamental weakness throughout the exhibition. ‘Emergence’ has so much of what makes Yokota’s work great. The three series upset expectations, focusing on decay and materiality. They’re nondescript and striking, blurry and dreamlike. What they’re missing is Yokota’s typically strong content. While he is usually able to balance form and function deftly, delivering content that manages to assert its own role and importance, here I found that he tends towards the overly self-referential.
Nonetheless, it is a strong exhibition, and it is thrilling to see such a talented artist make his solo debut in London. Let’s hope it is the first of many exhibitions here.