Daisuke Yokota: Synaesthesia

In this profile, Foam curator Mirjam Kooiman chronicles the relationship of music and art and freely interprets how this could be applied to the work of photographer Daisuke Yokota, who seems to capture 'noise' in the broadest sense of the word.

Untitled, from the series Nocturnes, 2012 © Daisuke Yokota

Music has inspired some of the most progressive art of our time. From the 1860s onwards, James McNeill Whistler went through several musical phases in his painting career, going from paintings he called ‘harmonies’, to ‘nocturnes’ and ‘symphonies’. Georgia O’Keeffe experimented with “the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye” with a series of abstract paintings early in her career, such as Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918). From 1911 onwards, Wassily Kandinsky devoted a significant part of his artistic practice to examining whether it was possible to translate music into the language of visual art, exemplified in series with generic titles such as Compositions, Improvisations and Impressions.

In an interview with American Photomag in 2012, the Japanese photographer Daisuke Yokota cites the experimental electronic musician Aphex Twin as a key influence in the work he creates: “First, Aphex Twin has a lot of aliases, so his work is less about seeing his real name as some kind of symbol, and more about the songs themselves. There’s a sense that you can’t really see him, and this kind of confusion is interesting to me. To speak about his music, there’s a lot of experimentation with delay, reverb and echo, which is playing with the way that you perceive time. Of course there’s no time in a photograph, but I thought about how to apply this kind of effect, or filter, to photography.” 

Untitled, from the series Fog, 2009 © Daisuke Yokota

The inspiration Daisuke Yokota drew from Aphex Twin is at first instance more emphasized as relating to the notion of time in music rather than sound itself. For several series and subsequent books, Yokota made work out of photographs he took with a compact digital camera between 2007 and 2008. Reprinting them, shooting them again with a medium format camera and developing with boiling water, burning them or agitating their emulsion with acid, the process keeps adding more distortion each time. The end results vary greatly, even though they come from the same images.

As photography usuallly attaches a specific moment to film roll or pixels, the process of chance and manipulation of the image of that moment seems to add time to the photograph. Yokota feels that the lack of sense of duration and perception of time is a weak point in the photographic medium, making him experiment with other ways of evoking the aspect of time in his work. For example, by creating images that refer to memories, dreams, or mindscapes that enable the viewer to make a mental journey through time.

Untitled, from the series Backyard, 2011 © Daisuke Yokota

The visual poetry of Yokota’s work appealed to the Danish singer-songwriter Broken Twin a.k.a. Majke Voss Romme, using the emerging photographer's dreamlike analogue images as a music video for her song Out of Air in a slideshow-style montage edited by Jonas Bang. Yokota picked a song from her album he felt most resonated with his work and took the melancholic pictures during a flight from Amsterdam to Tokyo, as he felt “a subtle sorrow and a fear” when listening to the calm tunes of Broken Twin’s songs.

In the collaboration with Broken Twin, his images resonate as mindscapes of the affect evoked by her music. But Yokota’s intensive working technique itself has also led to collaboration with musicians. As part of the official program of Paris Photo 2015, he performed Extra Inversion with electronic musician and visual artist Aki Onda at Silencio Club, during which he developed hundred solarized prints from pages of his artist books that also function as visuals to Onda’s musical composition Forgot to Answer. Here Yokota used the night club as his dark room.

Excerpt from Forgot to Answer, performance by Daisuke Yokota & Aki Onda, 2015

The latest work of the Japanese photographer Daisuke Yokota is called Colour Photographs, yet it is made without a camera. With this series, as Yokota explains, he “tried not to take pictures,” and instead sought to “draw out the physical aspect of film.” Through means of darkroom experimentation, Yokota layers sheets of unused large format colour film and applied unorthodox developing methods before scanning the results. The mixing and manipulation of the film's chemicals produces colourfully vibrant, almost psychedelic compositions. “I guess it is common to think that the documented image is what is real in photography,” Yokota contemplates in an interview with Parapera in 2014, “but by accentuating the materiality of the film, which by nature is more real than the documented image, the image actually becomes more abstract, and I'm interested in this reversed perspective.”

In the same interview, Yokota refers to his emphasis on the physicality of the recording medium as 'noise' – what is normally considered as the element disturbing the (digitally) recorded image from the photoshoot. The word ‘noise’ actually comes from a Latin word for nausea; in audio engineering, the term describes any unwanted information that interferes with the desired signal. There is a whole rainbow of noise colours, named for a loose analogy to the colors of light: white noise (like that static sound of an air conditioner), for example, contains all the audible frequencies, just like white light contains all the frequencies in the visible range.

Untitled, from the series Colour Photographs, 2015 © Daisuke Yokota

Defined by distortion, Daisuke Yokota’s Colour Photographs seem to capture noise in the widest sense of the word. Yokota: “There are times when you photograph because you’re driven by the desire to see. When you’re trying to capture your ideal image, you’re inevitably working with the mindset of showing it to somebody. And when someone sees that, they’re passively being showed to, and it restricts them from seeing it freely. Instead of that, I want it to be in a more disarmed state, where it’s possible to see more proactively.”

Kandinsky appealed in his manifesto Concerning the Spiritual of Art (1910) to the evidence of synaesthesia, the curious condition where there is a mingling of the senses due to cross-wiring in the brain. Hearing a musical note, for example, might cause a person with synaesthesia to see a particular colour. In Yokota’s urge to “see more proactively”, his liquescent photography evoke the sensation of sound and rhythm, capable of appealing to other senses than vision only. “By not photographing, I don’t determine the landscape, and the viewer is free to read something from the piece.”

A longer version of this article was first published in Foam Magazine #45. 

About Daisuke Yokota

Daisuke Yokota (b. 1983, JP) is the winner of the 2016 Foam Paul Huf Award. He was first featured as a Foam Talent in 2013, and works from his Site/Cloud series were the subject of a 2014 solo exhibition at Foam. Yokota lives and works in Japan, where he graduated from the Nippon Photography Institute in 2003. Last year, Yokota won the PhotoLondon John Kobal Residency Award.

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