Photo-Respiration: Tokihiro Sato

at the Art Institute of Chicago

Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase caused an uproar when it was first exhibited in New York in 1913. He’d painted Western art’s first sexless nude: overlapping bodies depict the human figure the way a stop-action photographer might. Two of Tokihiro Sato’s black-and-white self-portraits at the Art Institute look so much like Duchamp’s painting it can hardly be an accident. So far there haven’t been any riots over the Japanese photographer’s work, but like Duchamp’s, his entails a departure from traditional approaches to the figure. If Nude Descending a Staircase was a nude without a sex, these are self-portraits without a body: dematerialized bands of light descend a spare modern stairway, slipping coyly around a turn in the stairs in #22 (1988) and marching down like a phalanx in #370 Saitamakinbi (1999). If they look human at all, these armies of light look like unusually emaciated versions of Giacometti’s stick figures.

Sato creates these streaks by acting as his own sun. He sets up his eight-by-ten-inch view camera, often at night, then wanders through his scenes–some urban, some rural–waving a flashlight. Using hour-long exposures (for daytime shots he stacks neutral density filters on the lens to slow the film’s speed), he renders the moving lights visible but never appears himself. Instead of standing behind the camera–which makes self-portraiture an acrobatic act–and letting an external light source illuminate the film, he’s hiding behind his own light. His figures are calligraphic–and acrobatic in a different sense, if you consider how many stairs he climbed. He calls his images “breath-graphs,” records of his huffing and puffing–hence the show’s title, “Photo-Respiration.”

For daytime shots Sato flashes a compact mirror instead of a flashlight at the camera, creating images with many points of light, and–once you understand the gimmick–engendering an endless Where’s Waldo hunt for the photographer. Several coastal images, among them #330 Taiji (1998), show lights amid boulders in a fog–which turns out to be waves averaged over the long exposure while Sato was out there swimming among the rocks, signaling his position back to the camera. The effect is to dissolve his body in an aqueous medium of time and light: an elegant jest since these are photography’s most basic materials. Sato’s daytime photos lack the automatic surrealism of his night views, but the best of them make up for it with the strange comedy of his effort to create a universe with multiple suns. The cleanest example (which the Art Institute has added to its permanent collection) is #352 Kashimagawa (1998), a straightforward forest scene with dozens of bright white lights, each one replicating the starlike aperture in his camera lens. Photographs are made by reflected light: here it glances back like invisible fairies.

Calling Sato’s pictures landscapes would be as off base as calling them portraits, though of course they’re both. The settings sometimes feel accidental, sometimes serendipitous. In an interview with curator Elizabeth Siegel published in the catalog, Sato says they’re places that “emit tiny sparks . . . the air of an age.” In #278 Koto-ku Aomi (1996) a knot of wavy lines of light appears inside the empty concrete basins of a new waterworks outside Tokyo, which lurks in the background: the roiling mass of light looks like the city’s intestines. Sato records his passage through such places in a journey at once invisible and illuminating, essentially visualizing the passage of time–the job, however impossible, that photographs were invented to do.

“I don’t think he did that in Photoshop,” one viewer remarked to another the day I was there. And tiny black spots on the prints–signs of the dust specks inevitable on large-format film–testify that they were made in the darkroom. In the midst of the digital revolution, there’s a pleasing conceptual twist to manipulating photographs by hand. Sato’s unusual display technique calls attention to his process: his large images, nearly 40 by 50 inches, are printed on a translucent material and stretched with springs over grids of round fluorescent tubes that mimic his own bursts of light. Projecting out from the wall, they’re almost sculptural, and in fact he was trained as a sculptor. Just 13 images (one of them a diptych) fill the room. This unorthodox presentation reminds viewers that photographs are, after all, objects,just as their making is an experience–one usually left outside the picture. If there’s a weakness in Sato’s project, it’s the amount of explanation required: we’d never guess these traces of light were human.

The photographer demurred when Siegel asked if there was anything specifically Japanese about his work. Nevertheless she points out an affinity between his unusual process and traditional Japanese scroll painting. And as in some medieval European paintings that depict the lives of saints, the same figure can appear more than once, moving through the journey of life. Not many paintings made after the Renaissance discovery of linear perspective, which eventually gave us the camera, retained that technique. Taking us on his journey through these pictures, Sato reveals a surprising amount of photography’s buried life.

When: Through 5/8: Mon-Fri 10:30 AM-4:30 PM, Thu till 8 PM; Sat-Sun

10 AM-5 PM.

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams

Price: $12 suggested admission; $7 students, seniors, kids six and up. Tuesdays free.

Info: 312-443-3600

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Leslie Tonkonow Artworks + Projects, New York.