This highly renowned Paris-based Japanese artist is known for her noticeably interesting approaches to photography. Yuki Onodera is known for exhibiting large-scale images, sometimes even reaching eight metres in size. But that’s not all. She’s very adamant in all of her work being tangible, which is why she cuts out photograms of lace by herself and superimposes them into her pictures. She has also used materials like specks of sand or marbles inside camera lenses, and even travelled to New Zealand to complete a series of hers. With all of these facts, all I’m trying to say is that Onodera takes her craft extremely seriously – I mean, why shouldn’t she? – and those efforts are clearly reflected on her awfully moving works of art. Take a look!
Could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m an artist based in Paris and I use photography as my medium. I print the pictures myself in my darkroom and they sometimes reach eight metres, it’s really hard work.
What drew you to move to Paris back in the ‘90s? How would you say the Paris scene has influenced your work?
When I started my artistic activity in Japan, I thought that artists needed experience in working and living out of their native country. Back in Paris, in the ‘90s, I felt that contemporary photography was presented dynamically as a medium in the field of contemporary art. But in Japan, there was still a separation between the two. So, my work became more conceptual, and size also became one of the most important things for me.
Have you ever thought of moving back home?
I’ve lived and worked in Paris already for more than twenty years. I don’t ever think of going back home, but I might move to other places. But France is a country that supports culture and the arts, so Paris is the ideal city for artists to live in.
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Vanguard Gallery, 2018, Shanghai.
I’ve read that you have a background in fashion, as you used to be as a dressmaker. Perhaps some aspects of this profession have influenced your photographic work. For example, you now craft your photographs with your own hands, as seen in your collages. You also have a lot of discipline, as you have gone as far as travelling to New Zealand for a series of yours. Do you see this side reflected on your work?
Maybe my interest in bodies comes from fashion. I’m interested in the fact that fashion connotes extreme bodies, which are icons in our society. I’m also interested in questioning myself. What is photography? What changed after the invention of photography? So, for me, these interests (bodies, photography, the absence of identity, moving, places, etc.), I try to realise them by using different techniques and approaches – which aren’t usually used by other photographers.
How do you come up with such unpredictable ideas like placing a marble or even a speck of sand on the camera lens?
The idea of putting the marble inside my camera came from when I bought an old box camera in a flea market. As I opened it, I thought it looked like a jewel box. Suddenly, I wanted to put something inside. The title of How to Make a Pearl came from the process of producing a pearl. Putting a foreign body inside a shell to make a pearl – that seems kind of violent. I made a pearl inside the camera by taking pictures with a marble placed inside. Then, I intendedly destroyed grains of negative film throughout the development process to obtain texture in the images.
You seem very adamant in using very tangible/practical methods in your photography, by using cut-outs of magazines and even using lace fabric to put on top of images. However, in this day and age, this imagery can be easily recreated in digital form. Why do you make a conscious decision not to go digital?
If people look at my photographs only through monitors, smartphones, books or magazines, I don’t need to go through such a complicated process like analogue. But right now, I present my photographs by exhibiting them. They’re tangible artworks. For example, in Eleventh Finger, the part of the photogram (the mask put on top of the person’s face) is exactly one unique real size of a photogram’s shadow. I absolutely need the image to become material.
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Making of "Guernapur, 2018.
In Below Orpheus, I. The Missing Person, you travelled all the way to a hotel in Madrid to photograph a room where a person mysteriously disappeared and was never found. What drew you to this missing person case?
This piece of work combines non-fiction and fiction, like a novel, so some details are real, and some aren’t. What was most important was to move between two places that were on opposite sides of the globe (the farthest places apart on Earth), on the pretext of two stories. The set of two photos (black & white print and Polaroid) is for the evidence of the travels. In this work, the travel also meant to time-travel back to 1726.
In that series, the image seems a little distorted, which makes the viewer feel uneasy and uncomfortable. Are those ever your desired intentions? What do you want people to take from your work?
Yes, I wanted for one of the aspects to not be stable. I attached my camera at a very high position to the tripod to look down to the floor from the top. This view is not comfortable in order to remind people to imagine of another place, lower, and far away in the world. It always exists under our feet.
Your series Transvest shows silhouettes of people that represent different archetypes and professions, like the girly girl, the flamenco dancer and the scuba diver. To transvest traditionally means to cross-dress, or wear the clothing of the opposite gender, but you are using it in the sense to take on a role. Are those who embody a character of sorts exploring a different side to themselves? Or losing their identity by behaving differently?
Maybe, this series is more complex than my other work. My first sketch intended the silhouette to look non-human, like a mysterious figure of a monster or an insect. But then, I preferred it to be related to fashion with mimesis, the mimicry of insects. So the typical archetypes of the silhouette are important to evoke a sort of déjà vu.
And yes, the title Transvest doesn’t refer exactly to its original meaning. After effacing their identity with backlight, these outlines don’t represent any gender. By working with collage and photomontage, there are multiple fragments of images on the inside of the silhouette, as the body takes in the universe (satellite photos, baroque decorations, mountain slopes, candy, ruins, crowds, cars, etc.). When we look at this work from a distance, the inside shows the textures of the clothes. But if we get close, we can find different fragments of images in the world that present the visible and invisible. So this series represents multiple mimicry matters in the different faces.
Study for Image à la sauvette shows PET bottles that have been re-arranged in a Frankenstein-like way and have a green liquid spewing from the top. What does the fluid represent?
The liquid represents the instant moment, which is a characteristic of photography, but I myself created a moment by painting on a real photo. It’s interesting that you mentioned Frankenstein because I wanted to make a new body with bottles as a sculptor would. The deformation of the bottle and the liquid represent the relationship between total motion. This work is very photographic because these bottles, the objects, are only visible by the small reflections of light on the surfaces and the inside of the bottles. This material, PET, may disappear in the future because of its polluting effects.
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Pierre-Yves Caër Gallery, 2017, Paris.
A series of yours that really intrigues me is 12 Speed. These are a compilation of pictures that, at first glance, appear to be repeated. But on further inspection, you realise that the mirror reflects a different angle of what appears to be a forest. This creates a sense of a bigger picture, however, I’d like to ask you, what is the story you are showing through these mirrors?
I wanted to realise still life through photography, but how? How different is it from still life paintings? What are the limits of what a camera can record? First of all, I visited the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre to know what the standard framing of still life paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries were like. Then, my idea was for the images to be practically identical and repeated in a line – that is exactly what a camera can record.
Then, what is it that a camera cannot record? Of course, the out of framing, the opposite side of the camera. So I decided to put the mirror in the centre, as a leading actor. After that, what could I reflect in the mirror? Which meant, where could I take the photos? An idea came to me. The mirror needed to reflect the infinity of nature, so I had to take photographs in a deep forest. I brought all of the objects to the forest of Fontainebleau and placed the mirror by changing its angle slightly – a total of 12 different angles. I took twelve different photos that are practically identical, only the refection of the mirror changed. Also, pink and green complement each other, they create contrast. This still life includes graffiti with the hidden meaning of eternity.
Nostalgia is something that I sense from your work, maybe technical elements such as the fact that many of your photographs are black and white and the graininess employed to achieve that, but I think that it goes beyond that, it has to do with the imagery you portray. How do you think you get us to feel this way?
I don’t feel much nostalgia. For each of my works, my objective is for the image to become material. To achieve so, which technique do I use? That is very important to me. For example, sometimes, I tried old techniques of hand-painting on black and white prints taken by an old stereo camera (like my Roma-Roma series), or I apply varnish on gelatine silver prints, or I do photograms of the paper, which I cut out myself finely, like the lacework. I think these aspects sometimes present nostalgia, and I’m totally glad that different people experience different things from looking at my work.
You’ve exhibited in many places already, but is there any venue/gallery/museum in particular you’d like to see your work hanging?
I would like to show my works in places or countries where I haven’t exhibited before. For example, Spain, Italy, Turkey, or Russia; there are still many! Up until now, I have gotten various responses depending on the location, and I’m very pleased by that.
What does the future hold for Yuki Onodera?
The mystery of photography continues.
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How to make a Pearl, 2000.
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How to make a Pearl, 2000.
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Below Orpheus I. The Missing Person, 2006.
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Below Orpheus I. The Missing Person, 2006.
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Below Orpheus II. Strange Distance, 2006.
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Below Orpheus II. Strange Distance, 2006.
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Study for "Image à la sauvette", 2016.
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Study for "Image à la sauvette", 2016.
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Study for "Image à la sauvette", 2016.
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Making of "12 Speed" in the forest, 2008.
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12 Speed, 2008.
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Making of " Eleventh Finger" 2008.
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Eleventh Finger No.9, 2008.