Yes, This Tokyo Photographer’s Candy-Colored Cityscapes Should Make You Feel Unsettled

It takes a second to understand why the images in Rumi Ando’s “Tokyo Nude” are so serene—and yet disquieting.
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Tokyo-based artist and photographer Rumi Ando creates images that straddle melancholy and optimism, mundanity and surrealism. Back in 2010, for instance, her Dream Islands series abstracted the city’s waste-disposal facilities into simple compositions, rendering them beautiful and downright ethereal. In 2016, Ando widened her lens to the urban skyline, capturing an unsettling vision of the city in a series called Tokyo Nude, which became a book last year.

Rumi Ando is a Tokyo-based artist whose main medium is photography.

At first glance, the photographs in Tokyo Nude read like any other bustling cityscape with buildings crowding the frame. But linger with the image for a while, and things start to seem quiet—too quiet. The photos are totally devoid of people, windows and doors, cables, or any of the details that make up the cacophonous Tokyo we recognize.

"The photographs have been partially changed, with people and advertisements, electric poles, the doors and windows of buildings removed," says Ando. "Even the buildings’ colors have been changed. Some of the clouds are synthesized."

By erasing these signs of life, the photographer creates a bland, faceless version of Tokyo—her way of lamenting both the transience and loneliness of the city.

Ando comments on the frenzied pace of development in Tokyo, which leads to an endless cycle of demolition and construction, as well as a rising sense of disconnect as social engagements shift from physical to digital spaces.

"A distant virtual connection becomes more important than a relationship with a neighbor," she says. "The virtual becomes real, and the real is becoming virtual. Now the outlines of the city of Tokyo are becoming blurred." 

With Tokyo Nude, Ando portrays the eventual end point of this reality: a Tokyo stripped of personality and nuance. "The function-deprived city is a dystopia," she says. "But it is from destruction that creation is born; the renewal of the city should aggressively occur." She calls for viewers to appreciate the physicality and tactility of living in a continually evolving city: "However, do not simply destroy, but first, view with your own eyes the analog world you live in."

Ando aims to make the viewers feel comforted and discomforted at the same time. To do so, she draws on traditional Japanese painting to create images that feel frozen in time.

"In order to make the images appear more like picturesque compositions, I photographed the buildings with my line of sight at a horizontally level position," says Ando. "By doing so, I created a flat perspective like in a yamato-e or ukiyo-e painting."

Yamato-e is a genre of painting originating from Japan’s Heian period (794-1185), when figures were highly stylized and pigments were thick and bright. Ukiyo-e refers to a type of woodblock print or painting from the 18th century that features non-perspective drawing, crisp lines, and vivid colors. Their influence is clear in Ando’s work.

Ando’s creative leanings began in childhood, when sketching and drawing proved more alluring than school. Born in 1985, she later left Okayama prefecture’s bucolic environment for Tokyo’s mad bustle when she majored in media art at the Tokyo University of the Arts. 

"Up until high school, I wanted to be a painter, but when I used the film camera that we had at home, I was attracted by the practical representation of photographs," says Ando. 

At university, she took classes on various expression techniques. "I think it was somewhere during that time that I started thinking deeply about the reasons for choosing that medium, and what I wanted to share with viewers," says Ando. Her work experience—retouching images for an advertising company—would also influence her distinct style. 

The muted, dreamlike images in Tokyo Nude—depicting a city void of life except for the interplay of light and shadow representing time’s onward march—now seem prescient in light of COVID-19. "Tokyo Nude was produced before the pandemic," says Ando, "but there is the illusion that the images have become reality."



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