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Here and There introduces art, artists, galleries, museums, and other cultural facilities around Japan that non-Japanese readers and first-time visitors may find of particular interest.

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image image Family Zoo: Photographer Yumiko Utsu at Fugensha
Alan Gleason
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A white octopus envelops the head of a woman dressed in premodern European finery. A young girl cradles a black-feathered chicken in her arms, her own head replaced by that of a monstrous parrot. The images may call to mind the Surrealist photo collages of Toshiko Okanoue, or Arcimboldo's fruit-and-vegetable portraits. But Yumiko Utsu's photographs are not collages; her models hold living creatures or, in cases like the parrot girl, don realistic masks and pose in front of large sheets of fabric covered with wildlife motifs and tropical landscapes.

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Since her early twenties, Tokyo native Utsu (b. 1978) has been winning awards both at home and abroad for her delightfully bizarre photocompositions. Like Arcimboldo, she has long displayed a fascination with food. Her most recent output, however, is devoted to all manner of animal life -- the creepier and crawlier the better -- juxtaposed with edible as well as human subjects and the occasional plastic model. The fifty-odd untitled works that currently adorn the walls of Fugensha Communication Gallery in Meguro, Tokyo, draw the viewer into an ecosystem of Utsu's making that is often hilarious and discomfiting at the same time.

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Her subjects include butterflies, tarantulas, and lots of snakes. A white snake coils around a cob of corn. A long, snaky lizard mounts a toy dinosaur. A menagerie of stuffed kitties surrounds a hairless white sphynx cat that glowers anxiously at the camera. A tiny, round fat-tailed gerbil looks right at home lying belly-up amid a tableau of shiitake mushrooms. Four multihued geckos pose in formation; the one with the bug-eyed grin turns out to be the only living, non-rubber specimen of the group.

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Much of the credit for Utsu's work with this potpourri of exotic creatures must go to Iruma and Miiko, the young Tokyo-area couple who own the animals on parade here, along with similarly idiosyncratic collections of plants, fossils, and minerals. Utsu made Miiko's acquaintance by chance at a gallery event in 2020 and they bonded over their shared love of weird fauna. Initially, Utsu says, she wanted to shoot a series of portraits of Miiko and her equally photogenic partner Iruma posing with objects from their collections. When she visited their home and found that they had dedicated an entire room to their pets -- mostly rodents, reptiles, amphibians, and fish -- Utsu was hooked. The result is the Fugensha exhibition, which consists largely of photos shot in the past month or so that showcase the couple's household menagerie.

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A prolific artist, Utsu has also self-published some two dozen zines of her work on different themes. Her most recent publication, Iruma & Miiko's Cabinet of Curiosities (2021), shows the couple in imaginative, sometimes erotic poses with items from their trove of animal, vegetable and mineral treasures.

Utsu has found that her two young daughters make excellent models as well. They are also active participants in the staging of their portraits with various critters. The Fugensha show includes a sample of the girls' sketches of their own designs for the makeup they wear for these sessions. Imperturbably clutching cats, frogs, snakes, and snapping turtles, and swathed in the colorful backcloths that Utsu purchases from a Tokyo fabric outlet, they look like the indigenous inhabitants of some primeval rain forest.

 

The photos that line the walls at Fugensha never cease to titillate. Utsu's affinity for particularly slithery subjects taps into what seems to be a collective human unconscious aversion to such -- yet there is something so funny and endearing about the way she poses them that it makes the most squirm-inducing of God's creatures downright lovable. After prolonged immersion in Utsu's personal Eden, even the most squeamish viewers may find their perceptions subversively altered. Time to go out and buy a pet snake or two!

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All images © Yumiko Utsu, published by permission of the artist and Fugensha Communication Gallery.


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Yumiko Utsu: I Call Nature, Nature Calls Me.
15 September - 9 October 2022
Fugensha Communication Gallery
5-3-12 Shimomeguro, Meguro-ku, Tokyo
Phone: 03-6264-3665
Hours: 12 noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday-Friday; to 6 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Closed Mondays and national holidays
Access: 15 minutes' walk west on Meguro-dori Ave. (on the left side) from Meguro Station on the JR Yamanote Line, Metro Nanboku/Mita Line, and Tokyu Meguro Line. Or take Tokyu Bus #01, 02, or 07 from the west exit of Meguro Station, get off at the bus stop "Moto Keibajo Mae" and walk west on Meguro-dori Ave. for 1 minute.
 
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Alan Gleason
Alan Gleason is a translator, editor and writer based in Tokyo, where he has lived for over 30 years. Since 2006 he has edited artscape Japan and written the Here and There column, as well as translating the Picks reviews. He also edits and translates works on Japanese architecture, music, and theater.
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