Michiko Kon:Still Lifes::jason scott gessner

What makes up your space? What lines your bookshelves, fills your closets, what do you wear? For Michiko Kon, the answers to these questions take the form of stunningly detailed photographic constructions. Using fish, birds, cloth, pins and other assorted common objects she constructs small items that you may have or may have worn at one time. "Yellowtails and Hat" is at first a simple hat, sitting on a tablecloth against a dark background. Then, with a sudden awareness, the materials become known to you. The hat is made of fish scales, not fabric or wool, and a rose rests on its rim. A tail sticks out proudly from the top, like a feather. These are not visually complicated images, but the implications here are enormous.

"Yellowtails and Hat"

     Kon presents an affirmation of the material that truly makes up our world (its living creatures) and its subjugation for our own purposes. These are rather banal, but dramatically portrayed, fashion images except for her materials. By using fragments of (and often whole) birds and sea creatures, she speaks of the lives we take to support our society, as well as reversing the common roles of food and clothing. With the previous example, there is at once a disgust by the dead fish, but would we think twice of putting this same animal on a plate? Somehow, this relocation causes our sensibilities to revolt, ultimately provoking us to question the distinctions we put on life and death. Only further complicating the matter is the vitality and the moisture that these objects have. While they are dead creatures, the misty, gleaming quality of their surface suggests to us that this new object is somehow still alive.

"Sunflowers and Sardines"

     Kon works visually in a very limited, flat space and the range of her constructions mirrors the visual distance of her obsessions: she never strays far from home. "Sunflowers and Sardines," a vase with 2 sunflowers, the center of the largest one being made of fish eyes, and a couple of sardine tails for petals, could be the bounty from a morning stroll through the garden if it weren't for the lack of visual context. "Gizzard Shad and Brassiere," rests gently draped over an elaborate, dark chair, waiting for an illicit liaison or the laundry. The image is carefully constructed to be suggestive, not complete. The sparse compositions are as important to the domestic, local feeling in these pictures as are the immaculate creations photographed. "Cuttlefish and Sneaker" could pass for a catalog shot of a Converse shoe, but the texture and the shine of the cuttlefish (a small, squid-like creature) challenges our tactile senses by replacing the familiar canvas with flesh. The effect is as repulsive as it is seductive.

"Gizzard Shad and Brassiere"

     While the bulk of the images are the still-lifes, Kon introduces 2 elements that threaten to devalue or distract from the successes of her work. The first divergence stems from her inclusion of the human figure in the image. Whether the image is one of the 3 self-portraits or a constructed human, her compositions seem to offer less to the viewer. The challenge, not of identification, but of acceptance is threatened by a visible humanity. A large part of the success of Kon's images, as I have said earlier, lies in her conservative use of materials and composition. This sparse visual technique spills over into the viewers' interpretation and appreciation of the images by the open-endedness of the functions of these objects. The objects themselves suggest a domestic, or at least functional, reading, but this is also due to the absence of the human hand. When the figure is included in the image, the desire of the viewer to place the objects in an everyday, utilitarian setting is denied. The interaction is then spelled out, and closed off to an extent. The second element that struggles with the overall effectiveness of the work is color. The handful of color photographs included repulse, and with no remorse. The brutality of the color, the shocking emphasis on the death of the materials for the object, removes these creations even farther from reality. The lack of subtlety that occurs from the nightmarish color strips these objects of their classical beauty and transforms them into some sort of gothic props. While serving a historical or chronological purpose, the images with color or the human figure hinder the viewer from coming away from this book with an overarching goal or idea.

"Cuttlefish and Sneaker"

     With a tactile craft and visceral aesthetic, but a high-minded sensibility Kon creates from death the items that make up our daily lives and our overlooked gifts. Kon's very understated questioning is an ideal approach for this work which is so beautiful, but representative of a world where not all is as it seems. The familiar is turned foreign by a simple substitution. The familiar feel of warm fabric is translated into wet scales and vicious seams. Kon transforms our most comfortable spaces and reliable possessions into objects and environments of desire and death, leaving the only with uncertainty and an uneasy feeling.


All reproductions ©1997 Michiko Kon
Still Lifes by Michiko Kon
With narrative by Ryu Murakami
and introductory essay by Toshiharu Ito
Aperture Foundation, 1997 US$45
20 E. 23rd St., New York, NY 10010
(212)598-4205 or toll-free (800)929-2323

For further reading:
Entering the Secret Room