Reintroducing the Forgotten Masterpieces
The Possibility of Existence
September 17, 2021 – January 9, 2022
By Nona Chen
Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam pays homage to the career of a forgotten artist in this monumental first solo exhibition of Shigeru Onishi’s photographic works in Europe. Surreal and captivating, Onishi’s compositions selected for The Possibility of Existence elicit questions concerning life, memory, and reality. The inaugural exhibition curated by Mirjam Kooiman features fifty photographs and one painting by the artist, presenting a body of work in line with Onishi’s style of “transcend[ing] time and space.” The curation appropriately conceptualizes a nonlinear progression by arranging the photographs sans chronology (with the exception of a painting in the concluding position) with no singular theme dominating a room. The result: a stunning compilation of Onishi’s most quintessential artworks.
Born in 1928 in Takahashi, Japan, Shigeru Onishi studied topology before pursuing a career in art. His background in mathematics persists in his photographs; by layering together a montage of fragmented scenes into one image, he constructs a picture that appears to collapse time and space. This technique is consistent throughout his photographic oeuvre featuring bodies, domestic scenes, nature, inanimate objects, and indistinguishable shapes combined to create images that speak to a sense of intimacy and uncertainty. Vincente Todolí comments on the subject: “Onishi’s photography has a performance element; it is presented as an act. He brings freedom to the photographic process,” explains the artistic director and curator of the exhibition at Bombas Gens, whose collaboration is allowing the collection to be exhibited at Foam. After 1957, Onishi renounced photography and transitioned to creating abstract ink paintings in a style described by art critic and curator Michel Tapié as informal art: art that “focused solely on the act of painting itself” of which form is merely a side effect. Onishi worked exclusively in this medium until his death in 1994.
Onishi’s role appears to be one of reconciling contradictory motifs, blurring the lines between photography and painting, reality and imagination, organic and inorganic, and thus, existence and oblivion.
The exhibition at Foam opens in a gallery of black and white walls that reflect the contrasting values of Onishi’s work. The photographs throughout demonstrate a profound skill for manipulating images into dreamlike compositions using multiple exposures, fragmented components, and unconventional developing techniques, establishing Onishi as a pioneer of Japanese photography of his time. His method of using a brush to apply the emulsion during the development process creates distinct strokes that cut boldly across a photograph and contribute to the abstract nature of his compositions. Though the selection of objects is exclusive to Onishi’s achromatic works, the pieces—some in high contrast and others blended into a murky greyscale—are anything but homogeneous. One photograph overlays several exposures of a smiling face averted from the lens, a wrinkled hand splayed over a checker-patterned fabric, and swirling streaks of emulsion; another overlaps silhouettes of barren trees and irregular rings of brightness across a dark grey haze. Dark juxtaposed with light, anonymous figures, and blurry, indefinite forms suggest the presence of meaning in the face of obscurity while underscoring photography’s purpose in capturing the transitive moments of life. Onishi’s role appears to be one of reconciling contradictory motifs, blurring the lines between photography and painting, reality and imagination, organic and inorganic, and thus, existence and oblivion.
Foam’s curation effectively balances contrasting artworks to create a visually varied yet congruent experience. Only one isolated section of the gallery presents some pieces unilaterally in a rather condensed row along one wall. Although economical, this secluded area sacrifices the individuality of the photographs and allows little room for contemplation. Despite the shortcomings of the space, the unifying element was the decision to arrange two photographs of the same subject—the broad leaves of a flowering plant—directly mirroring each other at either end of the hallway to provide an intentional symmetry that ties the room together.
The final room of the gallery displays independently on one wall a colossal untitled painting by Onishi that surpasses in size the rest of the photographs. A work of towering, deliberate black brushstrokes and inky grey spatters vividly contrasting a white surface, the painting is evidently the outstanding feature of the exhibition. Onishi’s own hand is unmistakable—the brushwork of the painting mirrors the same strokes used for the unique developing process of his earlier photographs. The painting, in line with the motifs of Onishi’s body of work, presents both a reflection of the artist’s enduring stylistic consistency and a marked deviation from his long-standing career in the medium of photography.
Considering Foam primarily shows photographic works, the unorthodox decision to exhibit a painting is bold but essential when taking into account the significance of Onishi’s experimentation in both mediums. With only one monumental painting among fifty photographs, there is a clear attempt to emphasize the role of painting without monopolizing the primary directive of a photography exhibition (and museum). Some might consider the notion of having a painting, and such a large one at that, as the culminating act of the exhibition—and therefore insinuating its unique prominence with respect to the photographic works—to be antithetical to the mission of the museum whose tagline, after all, is “We are all about photography.” Yet, how else to captivate audiences with a debut exhibition showcasing the revolutionary career of an artist deprived of the recognition he undeniably deserves? A memorable occasion necessitates a departure from tradition.
Foam has masterfully compiled Onishi’s artworks into a narrative as captivating as the artist’s photographs themselves, with the themes composed by Kooiman profoundly and authentically reflecting the artist’s objectives in context of his career. The Possibility of Existence is not an occasion solely to appreciate Shigeru Onishi so much as it is a celebration of artists not yet realized in the canon of contemporary art. Such an ambitious revival of an extraordinary artistic career propels 20th century Japanese photography to the forefront of contemporary art discourse. The decisions made towards this delicate task of balancing the inclusion of the most crucial elements of the artist’s career, the devotion to a novel exhibition, and a faithfulness to the goals of the museum are commendable.
“Shigeru Onishi – the Possibility of Existence: Now at Foam.” Foam. 2021. Accessed October 14, 2021. https://www.foam.org/museum/programme/shigeru-onishi-the-possibility-of-existence.
Gloria Crespo MacLennan. “Shigeru Onishi, photography as a gesture.” The Limited Times. September 24, 2021. Accessed October 14, 2021. https://newsrnd.com/news/2021-09-23-shigeru-onishi–photography-as-a-gesture.Hy4fItd9QK.html
 Edizioni Galleria D’Arte Cortina, Milan, April 1969. Retrieved from museum label October 11, 2021.