With his striking photography, Penn grad Tetsugo Hyakutake humbles humanity in the face of its own colossal creations.
The sun pouring through Gallery 339’s wall–sized front window seems to reflect off the silvery glow of bridges, ports and power plants in each of Japanese photographer Tetsugo Hyakutake’s sharp digital images. The wake of a Philadelphia morning on Pine Street complements an everlasting industrial rousing in Japan.
With each day — despite setbacks such as last month’s disastrous tsunami — Japan strives for economic advancement in all forms. Urban infrastructure is certainly one of the most visible outlets; in terms of aesthetic quality, Japan’s consciously surpasses most of the world.
“Ephemeral Existence,” this Penn MFA graduate’s third solo exhibit in the past year, captures the delicate features of sleek structures as if every pillar or tower is his muse. Like a seductress, each encapsulates Hyakutake’s hesitant admiration, confusion and obsession. Yet instead of being plagued by love, the photographer is consumed by uncertainty of personal place. He questions his small existence among the colossal products of relentless development that defines modern Japan.
The quality of Hyakutake’s work reflects aspects of the country itself. Mirroring the vastness of the industrial power, the photographs are strikingly large — some nearly five square feet. Their size alone draws acknowledgment from spectators even though almost every photo has a metallic tone that could seem monotonous in another display. The artist’s utilization of slow shutter speed magnifies the speed at which Japan is always moving. Cars blur as they whiz down streets. Boats are captured gliding speedily into harbors.
Though he attended arts school in Philadelphia, Hyakutake is a native of the East Asian island nation — a boy born into the “lost decade,” a period of Japanese economic uncertainty and instability. Members of the artist’s generation felt trapped in a country that was eager to move forward but couldn’t afford to take them along.
The sensation of being lost echoes through the entire display. Photos of untitled freeways hang next to similarly ambiguous train tracks and construction sites. Beyond the name of a city near the spot where the photograph was taken (which one can only assume most American spectators are unfamiliar with anyway) descriptions are no more detailed than “Industrial Port,” “Industrial Still–Life in Japan” and “Expressway #1.”
The twisted, elevated freeway lanes in Edobashi, Tokyo, Japan are so strong despite their warped shapes and so radiant despite their practicability that the scene seems nothing less than surreal. Perhaps it’s the intricacies of Japanese public architecture, or perhaps the high resolution of Hyakutake’s developing style, that give this photo a futuristic feel. But we are brought back to the realness of the image when we notice the two figures walking briskly across a walkway at the bottom of the print. The theme of humanity, though appearing literally in only this one of the 14 exhibit photographs, is strung through the works.
Behind architectural excellence are the brilliant minds of Japanese engineers, and within each steamboat are the working–class conductors and crew. The title “Ephemeral Existence” most obviously refers to the volatility of being a manufacturing superpower, but it also reiterates how quickly focus shifts away from Japanese people and toward the material fruits of their labor.
“Ephemeral Existence” is Hyakutake’s beautiful attempt to scream personal confusion. Through 14 humbling urban landscapes, he exudes how terrifying it is to live in a society driven by concrete dreams.