What’s in a mon­key’s gaze?

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

In its 1,000-year his­tory, the Ja­panese art of saru­mawashi, or mon­key danc­ing, has evolved from an an­cient rit­ual de­signed to pro­tect the horses of war­riors into a form of en­ter­tain­ment per­formed by trained macaques at Ja­panese the­aters, tem­ples, im­pe­rial courts, and on the street. In more re­cent years, saru­mawashi mon­keys have per­formed at Cen­tral Park, Har­vard Uni­ver­sity, the Asian Art Mu­seum of San Fran­cisco, and a sold-out Lin­coln Cen­ter. In a serendip­i­tous in­ci­dence of art im­i­tat­ing life (or is it the other way around?), the mon­keys have also per­formed within the Se­nate cham­ber at the United States Capi­tol.

Sap­poro-born pho­tog­ra­pher Hiroshi Watan­abe, who lived in Ja­pan in the ’ 50s and ’ 60s be­fore mov­ing to the United States, re­calls watch­ing the macaques when he was a child. “While I grew up in Ja­pan,” Watan­abe told Pasatiempo, “I com­monly saw saru­mawashi mon­keys per­form on town and vil­lage streets. They ap­peared dur­ing hol­i­days and fes­ti­vals, but they also ar­rived un­ex­pect­edly when there were no ap­par­ent rea­sons to cel­e­brate. Like any child would be, I was en­chanted by the mon­keys, who were dressed up like minia­ture peo­ple, danc­ing and do­ing tricks. I would watch them un­til my par­ents pulled me away by the hands.”

In Watan­abe’s most re­cent col­lec­tion of pho­to­graphs from his on­go­ing FACES se­ries — which also in­cludes por­traits of pa­tients from San Lázaro Psy­chi­atric Hospi­tal in Quito, Ecuador; Ja­panese bun­raku (pup­pet the­ater) char­ac­ters; Noh masks of the Naito clan; and Kabuki per­form­ers— the pho­tog­ra­pher con­tin­ues his ex­plo­ration of emo­tive ar­tic­u­la­tion through fa­cial ex­pres­sion. Shift­ing his fo­cus to the macaques as sub­jects, Watan­abe said, was his way of un­der­stand­ing the an­i­mals as not just per­form­ers— which was his frame of ref­er­ence as a child— but also as be­ings with deep un­der­ly­ing feel­ings and in­di­vid­ual per­sonas.

An exhibit of Watan­abe’s new work, ti­tled Suo Saru­mawashi: For­mal Por­traits of Ja­panese Mon­key Per­form­ers, opens at Pho­to­eye Gallery on Fri­day, Dec. 4, along with a launch ofWatan­abe’s new Suo Saru­mawashi pub­li­ca­tion (a port­fo­lio of boxed prints) from Photo-eye Edi­tions, in con­junc­tion with Photo-eye’s 30th-an­niver­sary cel­e­bra­tion.

“Sev­eral years ago, dur­ing a trip to the Bronx Zoo in New York, I stud­ied go­ril­las’ fa­cial ex­pres­sions,” Watan­abe said. “They showed a lot of af­fec­tion for each other, and I was amazed by the range of emo­tions they could ex­press. Af­ter that ex­pe­ri­ence, I be­lieved th­ese an­i­mals might have the same in­tri­cate feel­ings and emo­tions as we

peo­ple do. I won­dered, ‘ Are the mon­keys from my child­hood like the go­ril­las I saw? Do they re­ally have feel­ings like us?’”

In 2008, Watan­abe’s son was born in Ja­pan. As the pho­tog­ra­pher con­tem­plated the boy’s fu­ture, he be­gan to think about his own child­hood, and de­cided to pur­sue saru­mawashi per­form­ers as pho­to­graphic sub­jects. Seek­ing per­mis­sion to pho­to­graph the mon­keys, he wrote to the Suo Saru­mawashi As­so­ci­a­tion, an of­fi­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion founded in Hikari in 1977 to pre­serve the art of saru­mawashi per­for­mance. Due to a surge in ve­hi­cle traf­fic on Ja­pan’s city streets and in­creased ur­ban­iza­tion, the art form al­most dis­ap­peared in the late ’ 70s, and the as­so­ci­a­tion be­gan assem­bling train­ers, per­form­ers, and donors in an ef­fort to re­vive it. “As I grew older,” Watan­abe said, “I for­got about the mon­keys ... and it seems they were in­deed quickly be­com­ing a thing of the past.”

In re­cent years, Watan­abe noted, saru­mawashi has mainly been rel­e­gated to the­aters as fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment rather than ap­pear­ing in out­door pub­lic per­for­mances. “There are in­di­vid­ual mon­key train­ers who con­tinue to per­form on the streets and in the parks with their an­i­mals,” he said, “but they are dif­fi­cult to find nowa­days. The Suo Saru­mawashi As­so­ci­a­tion runs two the­aters, one at the foot of Mount Fuji and the other at the base of Mount Aso— an ac­tive vol­cano in south­ern Ja­pan.” The as­so­ci­a­tion’s per­form­ers and train­ers also tour fre­quently through­out the coun­try.

Af­ter get­ting per­mis­sion from the as­so­ci­a­tion, Watan­abe vis­ited both schools and pho­tographed the mon­keys. For his 2008 photo col­lec­tion, Ide­ol­ogy in Par­adise, Watan­abe trav­eled to North Korea to cap­ture everyday life in the cap­i­tal city of Py­ongyang. While there, two guides and a driver, who stood be­hind him while he worked, ac­com­pa­nied him ev­ery­where.

Watan­abe ex­plained that, af­ter that, it was a re­lief to work in Ja­pan, in an en­vi­ron­ment without so many re­stric­tions and so much gov­ern­ment para­noia— even though his new­est sub­jects wouldn’t al­ways co­op­er­ate. “The peo­ple with Suo Saru­mawashi were very nice and co­op­er­a­tive,” he said. “I could do any­thing that I wanted. The only con­straints came from the mon­keys them­selves— they had lim­ited at­ten­tion spans and wan­dered off when they be­came bored. And nat­u­rally, they wouldn’t do some­thing if they just didn’t want to do it.”

Watan­abe was not in­ter­ested in pho­tograph­ing the macaques while they per­formed. He set up a sim­ple back­drop and asked the train­ers to bring the mon­keys to him one-by-one. The process of cap­tur­ing their per­son­al­i­ties us­ing nat­u­ral light took some time. Watan­abe es­ti­mates that, for each of his sub­jects, 50 ex­po­sures were cre­ated, and all of them were taken us­ing a hand­held cam­era.

Pa­tience was key to un­lock­ing the un­der­ly­ing per­son­al­ity traits of his furry sub­jects, and the re­sults as­ton­ished him. “I am in­ter­ested in hu­man emo­tions, and how those emo­tions are con­veyed on hu­man faces,” he said. “I cap­ture peo­ple as for­mal, in­di­vid­ual por­traits. I ap­proached the saru­mawashi mon­keys the same way. I could not force or con­vince the mon­keys to do things. I just waited. In front of the cam­era, the mon­keys stood up straight and, at first, struck poses from their acts over and over. Then, af­ter a while, they started to fall back to their own in­ner selves, re­veal­ing their true mon­key per­son­al­i­ties.”

For their per­for­mances, which in­clude slap­stick com­edy, phys­i­cal stunts like jump­ing, flip­ping, and bal­anc­ing, and play­ing char­ac­ters from well-known sto­ries in Ja­panese cul­ture (in­clud­ing Kabuki char­ac­ters), “the mon­keys are trained to mimic hu­man ex­pres­sions and move­ments on­stage, and that is what in­ter­ested me,” Watan­abe said. “Un­der­neath that layer of im­i­ta­tion, though, I be­lieve I dis­cov­ered that they ac­tu­ally have sim­i­lar, if not deeper and more sub­tle, feel­ings than we do.”

Saru­mawashi mon­key per­former Right, Hiroshi Watan­abe: toned sil­ver gelatin print Be­low, Ja­panese net­suke (minia­ture sculp­ture) de­pict­ing saru­mawashi, late 18th cen­tury, carved whale ivory

Big With Mon­key Doll,

Hiroshi Watan­abe:

Ai­kichi 2,

toned sil­ver gelatin print

Hiroshi Watan­abe:

Kan­pei Count­ing Fin­gers, toned sil­ver gelatin print

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