Zen and the art of exhibiting photography
In a small side street in Kuramae, on the outskirts of the old neighborhood of Asakusa in Tokyo, is one of the most extraordinary exhibition spaces in the world. Called Ku Ren Boh gallery (Ku=nothingness, Ren=lotus, a symbol of beauty emerging from dirt and muck, Boh=study room), it may be the only photography gallery attached to a Chohuin Buddhist temple. Open since 2006, it is visible strictly by appointment, and just a couple of people can see it at a time. Last week I visited the gallery to see a Lee Friedlander exhibition, “Windows and Mirrors.”
The front of the complex is pretty non-descript; other than the wide open front gate and the extremely beautiful Japanese garden in the courtyard, you wouldn’t know you’re in the right place. In the back of the courtyard is a small entryway and a doorbell. Pressing the bell calls the Temple’s priest and curator, Akiyoshi Taniguchi. He is a terrific photographer himself, though he never exhibits his own work and his books are only displayed discretely in the entryway. Mr. Taniguchi does exhibit works from his own private collection though, which is extensive. If I remember correctly two of the works in the Friedlander exhibition came from his collection. The rest were borrowed from Friedlander, who is Mr. Taniguchi’s friend.
After he receives you, Mr. Taniguchi opens the temple itself, which is a house-sized building with a gleaming altar in one corner of the courtyard. The gallery is in a separate building adjacent to the garden. At first it’s not clear you’re looking at a gallery as Mr. Taniguchi points to a sliding black metal door about 4’ tall in the side of a white wall. Slide the door he says, walk down the corridor, and please remove your shoes.
The door slides, you duck your head and arrive in a narrow corridor with a smooth floor of gray rounded stones. At the end is a little ledge for shoes, and two pairs of wooden sandals to change into. Another duck through a low doorway to the side and you arrive in the gallery. It’s a silent, minimalist white cube, about 8’ square, with a circular straw mat placed in the center for kneeling meditation. The walls, ceiling, and floor all have rounded corners so there are no right angles in the gallery. This, Mr. Taniguchi later explains, is according to his interpretation of ‘Ku’ – he wanted to create a gallery with no beginning and no end.
There are only 8 photographs in the center gallery – 4 pairs of pictures. Each combines a single Friedlander stem picture (a series he did of flower stems in water, seen through glass vases) with a recent self portrait. The combination is stunning. The aging artist is shown dressed plainly with an absent look on his face, looking back towards the camera, holding a shutter release. The self portraits are frank and unglamorous, giving the stem pictures a special potency.
In a small (2-1/2’ wide?) adjacent gallery there is a single chair facing a wall with an older, 1970s vintage Friedlander of a shop window under a tiny skylight. On the adjacent walls there are several other pictures from the self portraits and stems series.
Seeing pictures in such an amazing place is unforgettable. The intimacy of the gallery and its design make pictures gives the pictures special importance. It makes the visitor slow down and think, heightening awareness.
Every few months Mr. Taniguchi changes the show. Last year he did an exhibition of Naoya Hatakeyama’s ‘Blast’ photos of a bird flying away from a mining explosion. Next year he is planning to show photographs by the British photographer Susan Derges.
The opening of each exhibition is accompanied by a Buddhist ceremony and teaching. For some shows he might have members of the temple debate the meaning of the photographs, for others he arranges small performances. Recently he has created a ceremony for all the shows in which he burns an original photograph, reflecting the fragility of works on paper, and the ephemerality of the things captured in photographs.
Everything about the gallery is inspired. There are precedents for the Buddhist contemplation of photographs, for example at the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts outside Tokyo which is maintained by a Buddhist sect and directed by the famous photographer Eikoh Hosoe. Still, Ku Ren Boh is in a class of its own. Mr. Taniguchi likens his gallery to a tea ceremony space. The leap of intellect involved in harnessing modern picture-making to the pursuit of ancient traditions is impressive. As Mr. Taniguchi writes: “The gallery aims to calm the mind of the visitor, to enable him or her to concentrate entirely on the art at hand, to wander mentally within the universe of the artist, and through this, to have a little of the kind of transcendent experience that, following another path, people have sought to reach through the disciplines of Buddhist meditative practice. “
The gallery is completely non-commercial. Among the artists who have shown here are Adam Fuss, Daido Moriyama, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Hiroshi Sugimoto. The temple has become a magnet for Japanese artists and the community is growing.