The annual Kyotographie Festival creates a unique alchemy as world-class modern art occupies a timeless sanctuary.
KYOTO — Dimly lit rooms open out onto a Japanese garden of rocks scattered on a bed of moss. The water in the pond is perfectly still. A wooden teahouse lies hiden behind a cluster of trees and bushes. Every detail in the Ryosokuin Buddhist temple, in Kyoto, encourages meditation, making it an ideal venue to showcase photographer Arno Minkkinen's black-and-white images.
Born in Finland, this tall beanpole of a man was invited to exhibit his work during the Kyotographie Festival, which runs through May 22. In his photographs, Minkkinen features his own naked body surrounded by nature until he becomes one with rocks, trees, the sea. He transforms his leg into a trunk, portrays his mouth swallowing the sky.
The call for a communion with nature that he first launched in the 1970s might sound a bit outdated in Western countries. But in this Japanese setting, it resonates in a whole new way with the meditative atmosphere of this still active Buddhist temple.
The stunning venues leaden with history in which the multiple exhibitions take place are what make the beauty and originality of the Kyographie Festival. Created in 2003 by French-Japanese duo Lucille Reyboz and Yusuke Nakanishi, the festival was envisaged from its debut as an opportunity to enter the imperial heritage of the city by taking advantage of the manifold temples and sanctuaries built in Kyoto — nearly 1,000.
In thin air
For this fourth edition of the festival, the opening took place in the breathtaking Kiyomizu temple, an UNESCO World Heritage site. The show, which followed a Buddhist ceremony that included drums and recitations, was performed from the platform of the temple, supported by its thousand or so wooden pillars. The whole scene seemed to be suspended in thin air above the mountain.
Not all 15 exhibitions dedicated to Japanese and international artists are located in temples. Some of them are staged in machiya — traditional wooden houses with movable walls and small inner gardens. But planning exhibitions in such venues comes with strong constraints for the curators.
"Each site has a large set of rules that must be complied with, precise opening hours, precautions to be taken," Lucille Reyboz explains. "It is usually forbidden to hang anything on the walls. But this forces us to be resourceful and creative in the way we set up the exhibitions."
Some pictures displayed in temples trigger difficult negotiations with the religious authorities in charge of each site. In 2013, Japanese photographer Eiko Hosoe's work, deemed too graphic in their depiction of nudity, was banned.
"We've always wanted to expose engaged pictures, though they might be difficult to look at for some people, as the photos can collide with their own taboos," Reyboz says. "But as time goes by, we have fewer negative reactions. People understand our work better now."
This year's place of honor was given to Kikujiro Fukushima (1921-2015), a photojournalist who kept his focus on the darkest sides of Japan society, from Hiroshima to Fukushima.
Arno Minkkinen, who spent two weeks taking pictures of the Ryosokuin temple, had little difficulty befriending Ito-San, the priest in charge of the site, who was particularly moved by the relationship the photographer enjoys with nature.
Arno Minkkinen also could boast of family ties: his Finnish grandfather was a missionary sent to Japan, and his father was born and raised on the island. "It feels as if my work had been waiting for this moment and this place forever," the photographer says.
All these venues so charged with tradition and spirituality have deeply influenced the festival program. This year's theme, "circle of life," turned out to be particularly helpful to the development of metaphysic questions regarding time, nature, death.
Buddhism pervades the photographs of Japan's Eriko Koga. In a 19th-century wooden machiya, the young woman unwinds, as if it was a Japanese roll, the intimate pictures of her daily life and body, which is now in the midst of a pregnancy. But her way of living is quite peculiar: She married a monk.
"We live in a temple, but we live quite a normal life. And we have a normal job," she explains. "But there is one big difference. Death is very close to me because of the funerals that are performed here. One birth is the result of many deaths."
This is why she added to her work fleeting pictures of her growing belly, some details of her living environment and old family pictures. She even entitled her exhibition "Tryadhvan," a Buddhist concept referring to the illusoriness of the three time dimensions (past, present and future).
By choosing sacred places as venues for the exhibition, the curators of this unique festival also aimed to make photography more popular and accessible in a country where it is often overlooked. Despite famous photographers such as Nobuyoki Araki or Daido Moriyama, no other photography festival exists in Japan. Collectors and exhibitions are rare, and the possibilities to promote young talents almost nonexistent.
Among the notable exceptions is French photographer Sarah Moon, who is currently holding three shows in Kyoto. Her photographs, which convey a sense of timeless stillness, as if floating in pure nostalgia, have been successful in Japan for years.
"Our audiences are not used to visiting art galleries or museums. But they do go to the temple or sanctuary," Lucille Reyboz explains. "From the beginning, we wanted to use these places that are part of everyday Japanese life, to close the gap between the people and photography."