REVIEW: Paris Photo 2016: “Provoke” at Le Bal


Tucked away down a quiet alley, a few paces from the Pathé multiplex, Castorama DIY superstore, and permanently snarled traffic of Place de Clichy, Le Bal is one of those places you’re unlikely to stumble across by accident.

To those in the know, however, Le Bal is an oasis of civilised calm – a bijou photography bookshop and cool cafe opposite a neat little children’s playground – and one of Paris’s most interesting new photography galleries.

Le Bal takes an intellectual approach to the business of photography. Its ambition, according to the website, is “to seize every possible means — exhibitions, talks, publications, grants, workshops — to confront the public with documentary works that combine… investigation, experience, recording, analysis, description and formal invention.”

Only three years old, the gallery already has influential connections in the international photo fraternity. One of Le Bal’s highlights of 2015, Images of Conviction: The Construction of Visual Evidence, toured to the Photographers’ Gallery in London earlier this year. The current exhibition, Provoke: Between Protest and Performance, is produced in association with Vienna’s Albertina museum, Fotomuseum Winterthur in Switzerland and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Provoke was a short-lived but highly influential Japanese magazine – Noboyushi Araki described it as “like a bomb” – founded in 1968 by photographers Yutaka Takanashi and Takuma Nakahira, critic Kōji Taki and writer Takahiko Okada. Daido Moriyama joined from the second number, in March 1969, and the last issue was published in August 1969. Provoke was part of a journalistic counter-culture, emerging at a time when students, trade unionists, and activists of all stripes documented their anti-authoritarian activities in “protest books.” Just 1000 copies of Provoke were printed each time, and Le Bal’s is the first exhibition dedicated to the magazine.

The end of the 1960s was at least as tumultuous a time in Japan as anywhere else, with student unrest and worker demonstrations to match the US’ anti-Vietnam War protests and France’s student riots. The presence of American troops on Japanese territory, and their use of Japanese bases to prosecute the Vietnam War, was a source of anger and protest. From 1967 on, student action forced the closure of many Japanese university campuses.

The exhibition at Le Bal is over two floors, with Provoke on the lower level. On the ground floor, the exhibition starts with the story of Sanrizuka/Narita Airport.

William Andrews’ excellent blog, Throw Out Your Books, has a great account of the story of Sanrizuka: The Struggle to Stop Narita Airport. In the 1960s it was decided that Tokyo needed a new international hub to reflect the country’s growing prosperity – “a juggernaut of an airport to prop up its hubris in the age of massive economic advancement. It was to be the largest public works project in Japanese history… The final site chosen lay over farming land in Chiba Prefecture.


Sanrizuka-Narita AIrport protests, by Kukijiro Fukushima, thanks to Throw Out Your Books

However, the farmers of Chiba Prefecture were not inclined to give up their land without a struggle. And their struggle was joined by furious sympathisers, ready to fight to the death (with wooden stakes, and shit – literally – loaded onto catapults) against the government’s riot police and water cannon. The anti-airport protests went on for years, with casualties on both sides.

One wall of the exhibition at Le Bal displays photographs of the events, much of it by anonymous photographers.


Above, walking through the start of the Provoke exhibition at Le Bal, © Martin Argyroglo

Another wall displays images from the American base at Okinawa, and the local women who worked there as prostitutes. A vitrine displays a selection of protest books.

As the exhibition goes on, the images get increasingly impressionistic. Sanrizuka is documented by clear, photojournalistic prints, Okinawa by more haphazard images. Downstairs, the black walls give way to double-height displays of huge black-and-white blowups, and you are thrust into the world of Provoke.


The V&A’s current blockbuster exhibition, You Say You Want A Revolution?, presents the 1960s as if the decade was a performance, not an actual historical period of time. Provoke – both the exhibition and the magazine – do something similar.


Pages from each of the three issues are pinned to the wall, with the magazines themselves presented like relics alongside. They are very winsome little things, these magazines, about the size of a seven-inch-single (for those of us who know what a seven-inch-single was). One can imagine a Japanese hipster in 1968 picking up a copy of Provoke and a copy of the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” as a pleasingly matched pair of political and design signifiers… (Reality check: the Beatles performed in Tokyo in 1966, but Western pop music was not big in Japan. The Stones didn’t play live there until 1990.)


Each issue of Provoke had a different title, and developed a slightly different aesthetic, but overall that aesthetic comes down to three – maybe four – rules: tight crops, repetition and blurring. And no colour photography.

The effect is cinematic, and hypnotic. For a magazine that grew out of traumatic times and social angst, gazing at the montage of pages is really quite restful. (This is the trouble with our view of the 1960s, I feel. Presenting it as entertainment – as the V&A’s exhibition, in particular, does – means we are in danger of forgetting that real people were really frightened of what their governments were doing, and they fought against it.)

Browsing the exhibition – or the gorgeous book published in conjunction with the show – it’s sometimes hard to keep in mind that Provoke may look like an art publication, but its intent was very serious. The exhibition runs at Le Bal until December 11th, then travels. It’s well worth travelling for.


Provoke: Protest and Performance, Photography in Japan 1960-1975
Le Bal, Paris 75018, until December 11th, 2016.

© Fiona Hayes 2016

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