Interview with Hirohisa Koike
Hirohisa Koike (1979) was born in Gumma, Japan. He started to work with photography around 2000, when he arrived in Paris. Afterwards, he went back to Tokyo where he studied at Musashino Art University. He has taught photography in Tartu, Ochanomizu Art College in Tokyo and worked as an artist-researcher at the Fine Art School of Nantes Metropole, France. Since 2005 he has had solo and group exhibitions in Japan, France, Estonia and Lithuania.
Koike’s solo show Desiderium is on display at the Latvian Museum of Photography until February 15. The images included in the show were taken in Latvia and Tallinn during the last two years. They reveal poetic everyday moments and a sequence of the author’s unfulfilled feelings, united by the image of a Latvian girl, Anete Skuja. We talked about Hiro‘s passion for photography, his link with the Baltic countries and newest exhibition.
What brought you to Europe in the first place?
I was interested in foreign countries ever since I was a kid. I wanted to study English, but since I was born in a very small town, it wasn’t that easy. I wanted to leave Japan to see Europe. It was something about the appreciation of intelligence that I was drawn to. It didn’t have to necessarily be connected with arts back then. I wasn’t that good at painting or drawing. I never thought that I would make it to art school, so I took up foreign languages as a chance to get to know other cultures. I was really into Scandinavia, Nordic languages, but I ended up studying German. I took German literature, philosophy and culture classes, I even learned Russian for one year. I realized that I was more fascinated by graphic design and photography – especially art of the 20th century Germany, Bauhaus. Photography is a very democratic medium in the sense that you can start at almost any age under any circumstances. And that’s how I decided to do it.
I planned to go to Germany, but I moved to France instead. I didn’t have any fantasy, it was randomly picked so I could be closer to my girlfriend at the time, who lived in the UK. I took up French and got into a photo school there. At the same time, I travelled to Germany quite often. I was still interested in German photography, mainly the Becher school, Candida Höfer, Wolfgang Tillmans. I was also influenced by American photographers like Stephen Shore and William Eggleston. Finally I stayed in France for more than two years and then decided to return to Japan and apply at the art academy, so I could write my PhD in Japanese.
What led you to Latvia?
I participated in the ISSP in 2013. It was an amazing platform for sharing ideas and thoughts. Everyone knew what was going on in contemporary photography, and I really appreciate how photography is handled here. I’ve spent quite a long time in Estonia, worked in an artists residency, and I can say that Estonians are more into conceptual art that fine-art photography.
During the ISSP bookmaking class I worked on a zine titled Enter the Blue. I used one of my photo series, Retardance, made from 2009 to 2011. I showed my work to photographer Elina Brotherus who was teaching there, and it turned out that she knew the girl from the photographs – my previous girlfriend, who was also from Helsinki. She helped me realize that my work gives the impression that I’m always following somebody. She advised me to focus on fragments of my daily life, not only the person I’m with at the time. But of course, emotionally, you cannot control what you do.
And you met Anete there as well?
Yes, she was also a participant there. We got to know each other during last few days. Nobody knew about how I was feeling back then because she had a boyfriend. After I left for Tallinn, we started to write each other every day. Those were long e-mails and I kept thinking about returning to Riga to see her. I took photos of our time spent together (still keeping in mind what Elina advised). I was trying to capture what I was experiencing so I could remember what I felt. It developed as a diary in a sense.
You can see it in particular in the photo titled I’m Thinking of You from the exhibition in the Latvian Museum of Photography.
I agree! That one is from Tallinn. I felt so filled with emotion after our late night chat, so I took a picture of the table I was sitting at. It helped me turn those imaginary feelings into reality.
So meeting her became the concept for the Desiderium series?
Later that year I had to go back to Japan, only to return to Tallinn in late autumn due to my solo show there. I used the chance to visit Anete and she was breaking up with her boyfriend at that time. During winter, things started to change, partly because of the distance. When I came to Riga in summer 2014, I still kept taking photos of her, her room, her family and their summerhouse, but soon enough everything ended between us.
At first I decided to make it as a series for myself to process what had really happened. I didn’t want it to be just closure. The sequence was quite short – a few months work, but I can only work with what employs my mind. That is how I can feel responsible for what I’m showing. Last August I was invited to the art festival Art Kurabiraki Fujiyoshida 2014 in Japan so I decided to show it for the first time.
And how about the solo exhibition in Riga?
I was asking Maira Dudareva, director of the Latvian Museum of Photography, if there was any possibility to get a scholarship, so I could come to Riga again. When she wrote me after a while and offered an exhibition, I immediately knew I was going to show Desiderium.
Why was it important to reveal Anete’s identity, not just make it into an abstract concept about falling in love and longing for someone?
Talking about a specific person was an important part of the record. It was a one-way thing between us and it went nowhere, but it was still an emotional experience. It’s pretty hard for me to take a picture, a portrait, if it doesn’t mean something more. With Anete, I think, you can sense a certain distance, a certain impossibility.
How did she react to the fact that you’re exhibiting her portraits?
She was surprised. When I asked her if she’s OK with that, she immediately said yes. Although she didn’t really know what I was going to show until the installation.
What was your idea behind the arrangement of photos?
As a student, I used to photograph only landscapes and make very classical prints – all in the same size, displayed in one line. When I met an Estonian girl back in Tokyo in 2007, my photos completely changed. I wanted to capture the idea behind intimacy, but I felt like I was always going after a certain moment and always being late. At that time I got interested in arranging photos like they would be pinned on a wall in someone’s bedroom, not a gallery space.
For me, setting up an exhibition is like creating choreography for pictures. The human eye is much more sensitive than we think. If we see something high or low, we feel differently. We either have to gaze closer or step back if the picture is smaller or bigger, to be able to see it properly. It’s interesting to share my perception with other people, make them experience my idea in a certain way. For example – height always has meaning. When you bend to see a smaller picture, you’re the only one who sees it at that moment, meaning that I’ve tried to make it intimate. If something’s very high and you can hardly see it, it’s more like an addition to the whole picture. You can choose whether you want or don’t want to see it. It depends on how you feel.
This terminology you use reminds me of your involvement with contemporary dance. How did that start?
I experienced contemporary dance for the first time when one of my professors introduced me to Pina Bausch. I didn’t really understand it back then but I knew that it was something amazing. In 2012, I was invited to take photos of the dancer Fumiyo Ikeda (Dancer and choreographer of the famous Belgian dance company Rosas since 1983 – E.S.) for a Japanese magazine. Around that time I got my first digital camera. I was working on film before. I guess Fumiyo liked what I did and after some time working together she offered me the chance to come to Belgium with her because she had a new piece called Nine Fingers coming up there. Later, she asked me via letter to be her photographer until she stops dancing. Fumiyo was 51 at the time and I didn’t hesitate for a minute, I felt really touched.
What is important for you as a photographer?
I’m interested in how I feel and what makes me feel a certain way. It’s important for me to have a response-ability. To be able to provoke a response from what I’m showing and to take the responsibility for that. I want to discover whether it was something I fantasized about or something real. Photography has become a tool for our memory. Without it we forget things more easily. I work with daily life snapshot photography, but when I’m going after a specific moment, I feel like I am always late. F. Scott Fitzgerald has said – all life is the process of breaking down. For instance, we’re getting older as we are talking right now. We’re approaching death, but it shouldn’t be something sad or bad. It happens automatically and there’s nothing we can do. That’s why I’m interested in the term “micro-history” by Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg. It’s about setting goals that are possible to fulfill, enjoying little things and special moments in life.
You mentioned intimacy before. How do you see it within the context of photography?
Of course, there’s a contradiction. Intimacy is small in it’s being, personal and mainly hidden. There’s a saying in French, mon chéri. Now it’s considered cheesy, but it actually means that you give a person the highest value. It’s all about appreciation. At the same time photography needs distance, you’re always left with the role of observer. At its core, taking photos is related to guns – you point and shoot. That’s why in this context there’s something inevitably aggressive about intimacy.
What are your relationships with the Baltic states and Riga?
In 2009, I applied for an artist residency in Lithuania and had an exhibition a year later. (Minimissing in ARKA gallery, Vilnius – E.S.) I also had a job as a supervisor at Tartu Art college. Since then I’ve discovered the richness of this region. I was struggling for something like that for a long time, I was tired of the big cities like Tokyo, Paris or Nantes, so I find myself very comfortable here. Latvia has so many layers, all in one, different dynamics. The way young people here see things is very different from Japan, for instance. Back there I had the feeling that I had to follow a predefined ladder of hierarchy. It’s harder to establish something, to do something by yourself. That is one of the reasons I want to be here, and I know the way I feel right now, I can’t feel anywhere else. I want to speak the language, because studying in English is very limited here. The U.S. and Western Europe are more open of course, but psychologically I’m attracted to Latvia. I feel different here, more relaxed. Whether the process is the same, when the input is different, the outcome is supposed to be different as well, right?