Paul Graham

Empty Heaven. Photographs from Japan 1989-1995

19. 8. — 12. 11. 1995


Paul Graham was born in Harlow, England, in 1956 and lives in London. Over the past few years he has come to be regarded as the star of the contem­porary British photo­graphy.
His works reveal a social concern and a political boom in “political correct­ness” on the art scene.

In the series ‘Beyond Caring’ of 1984/85, Paul Graham put the English social system under the magni­fying glass. In the mid-1980’s he photo­gra­phed the escala­ting conflict in Ireland; the result was the series ‘Troubled Land’. Between 1988 and 1992 Graham travelled repeatedly through nine West European countries – including the newly reunified Germany – and the resulting series ‘New Europe’, was exhibited as the opening of the new photo­graphy museum of Winter­thur, Switz­er­land. In 1994 he took the cease-fire in Ireland as the theme of a series of large-format colour photo­graphs of grey skies above Northern Irish towns.

Paul Graham is an extremely subtle observer, and although his photo­graphs have the apparent sponta­n­eity of snapshots, he often intui­tively grasps the essence of a whole genera­tion, a society or a nation. The photo­graphs never add up to a compre­hen­sive reportage; they are neither a finite selection nor a straight forward narrative.

They represent a fragment, a sequence of details and pictorial metaphors that seek to make the invisible visible: war, recession, unemploy­ment, consu­me­rism, friendship. They are the image of the end of our century, with its mood of terminal decadence and its simul­ta­neous sense of a fresh start.

‘Empty Heaven’ – Photo­graphs from Japan 1989–1995 is Paul Graham’s first museum exhibi­tion in Germany. The work consists of 55 colour photo­graphs taken over the last seven years on numerous visits to the “Land of the Rising Sun”. The are the result of Paul Graham’s intensive encounter with Japan, its socio-cultural struc­tures and its history.

In 1941 Japan declared war on the United States and Great Britain with the aggres­sion of Pearl Harbour and so entered World War Two. After the dropping of two atomic bombs by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945, the Japanese bid for hegemony in Asia ended in uncon­di­tional surrender on 15 August 1945.

Fifty years later Paul Graham’s work sets out to question the nation’s apparent amnesia. His aim is to reach the point where strenuously repressed memories of painful past collide head-on with the social and psycho­lo­gical disci­pline found in the economic super­power that is modern Japan.

Paul Graham’s motifs have little in common with the familiar clichés about life in Japan. Despen­sing with the tradi­tional photo-journa­lists wide angle lens, most of his photo­graphs are close-ups and are all taken with intense direct flash. They are filled with powerful sense of claus­tro­phobia, an inexor­able confron­ta­tion between the traumatic and the trivial. The faces of the employees of the Tokyo financial district; the artful coiffures of lone teenagers on the subway, and portraits of young Japanese women are juxta­posed with the horrors of the atomic bomb: details from historic photo­graphs; scraps of irradiated skin preserved in formalin; burnt body parts. At the same time, he constantly reverts to an everyday world of insistent cheer­ful­ness: artifi­cial flowers; cuddly animals in a bathroom; gift wrappings in hectic colours; coloured sugar in an elabo­r­ately painted sugar bowl, a resple­ndent mural of the rising sun. Every­where is a sense of the total control of personal freedom: a massive steel door, the tangled root-ball of a potbound plant, trees bound with cloth; even the sun symbol, the plain round disc, is cast concrete to adorn a brigde pillar.

Collec­tively these seemingly discon­nected subjects begin to resonate, to coalesce, the trivial becomes shocking, the shocking becomes common­place. Questions about Japan and questions for us all begin to emerge from the work. Do we have to bear the weight of our history or should we shield ourselves against it? What should be hidden, re-written, sweetened, masked? What price do we pay to maintain order in our society?