Mayumi Teradaby Robert C. Morgan
Robert Miller Gallery
March 1–April 7, 2007
The sense of space in Mayumi Terada’s photographs appears more romantic than literal. It is also, paradoxically, more private and distanced than other photographers with whom she is often compared, such as Thomas Demand and James Casebere. In contrast to Terada’s romanticism, Demand and Casebere work, respectively, with politically charged events and evocative social allegories. They also print their images in a larger scale. What these artists share is the precondition of constructing a miniaturized interior before photographing it. Terada begins by building small, sparsely detailed miniature rooms. However, her fictionalized spaces are less public and less neutral than her male counterparts more given to domestic intimacy: a kitchen sink, a billowing curtain, a showers stall, a skylight, or an empty bed.
One cannot escape the resonance of Jun’ichro Tanizaki’s famous book, In Praise of Shadows (1937), as one peruses these dark and subtle images of living spaces, haunted by a sense of intimate acts or emotions, now departed. There is a feeling of distinct absence about these spaces, a lingering absence, an intentional view of a reality that once existed, but has since disappeared. Terada’s photographs defer any rational sense of scale, lending a peculiar, less than ordinary, perspective to the rooms and an uncanny sense of proportion. Her practice is a composite of self-taught techniques that belong equally to sculpture, painting, architecture, and photography. Together they work to express a profound tension of time and space, emitting a mystery that purposely eludes our sensory perception.
Terada constructs her dollhouse rooms from foam-core, cardboard, and wood, with tiny furnishings cut and glued from paper, fabrics, plastic, and metals. The end result is not these intimate constructions in themselves, but the black-and-white photograph that Terada makes of it, using only natural light. Like childhood doll’s play, Terada’s miniature sanctuaries are contemplative reflections that refer both directly and indirectly to the body. The conceptual aspect of her work oscillates between the virtual and tactile realities that underpin contemporary life. What is curious about these photographs is the extent to which their visual tensions depend on the coordination of hand and eye.
Two earlier works from 2001 offer a less complex tension within the space. One reveals light spilling from a blowing curtain into a dark room, while the other represents a translucent shower stall stippled by water drops. As viewers begin to pick up on the deceptive appearances of Terada’s work, its sense of intimacy is not undermined by the scene’s miniaturization; rather, it slowly shifts downward in scale to a childlike state that in fact intensifies it.
Terada’s more recent photographs—still printed in black-and-white using darkroom techniques—from 2005-2006, pay attention to what is outside as well as inside. An image of a skylight with a wooden ladder nearby suggests an attic room; not only is it a study of contrasting forms in darkness and light, but we also get a “picture” of nature framed in the bright aperture overhead. In one of the most striking photographs in the exhibition, entitled “view of bridge and bed” (2006), the surface of a bed fills the foreground like a soft-focus desert, over which hovers a horizontal window with diaphanous curtains on either side. Beyond the window frame, we are given a view of a small stone bridge in a garden of trees and flowering plants. Terada’s uncanny use of light moves the eye incrementally from the exterior garden through the window, where it plays over the diffused illumination of the curtain and finally settles over the creases of the bedspread.
Here is where absence plays with presence and where time intervenes with emotion. Here is where Mayumi Terada is at her best as she suggests (rather than defines) intimacy as a quality independent of scale or artifice. Although these stages are built in miniature, the illusion grows in the viewer’s mind. The state of disappearance that these unpeopled interiors suggest is very real, maybe too real, within the phenomenology of the mind’s eye—a point that the philosopher Gaston Bachelard described in The Poetics of Space. On this stage (or in this crevice), where seeing takes on the psychology of Being, the viewer may be compelled to reckon, however unwillingly or uncomfortably, with the loss of love that is so precisely articulated in these photographs.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.