Glass previews Eiji Ohashi’s solo show at Galerie &co119, Paris

VENDING machines in Japan, a postwar phenomenon, can now be found everywhere, not only in cities such as Tokyo and Osaka, but in the remotest parts of the country, dispensing sodas, beer, coffee, cigarettes, and cup noodles – the quotidian stuff – or the more unusual: bras, bread in a can, chikuwa (fish cake), religious amulets, hanko (name seals), porn, sex toys.

According to Spoon & Tamago, a blog about contemporary Japanese art, design, and culture, “Japan has the highest penetration of vending machines per person (there’s roughly one vending machine for every twenty-three people in Japan), and the fact that the majority of them are outdoors.” Despite their dwindling numbers, Brian Ashcroft from Kotaku, a site for gamers, wrote, “Today, Japan has the highest per capita rate of vending machines in the world.”

Kutchan-town, Hokkaido, April 2017 ©Eiji Ohashi / courtesy Galerie &co119Kutchan-town, Hokkaido, April 2017 ©Eiji Ohashi / courtesy Galerie &co119

During the day, the vending machines are eyesores, disfiguring the urban landscape with their boxy, kitschy presence. But when the lights come on at night, they flicker to life and become something else, something otherworldly, emanating strange warmth and beauty in the dark, Blade Runner-esque. In a way, they are the hearths of Japan’s modernity and without them the Japanese would be lost.

It was the glow of vending machines, or jihanki, as they are called in Japan, that led Japanese photographer Eiji Ohashi home after he got lost in a snowstorm. The experience inspired him to aim his camera at them, suddenly aware of their presence even though they have been around him his whole life. Like most people in Japan, he hadn’t paid any attention to them, or their ubiquity, until now.

Urakawa-town, Hokkaido, June 2016 ©Eiji Ohashi / courtesy Galerie &co119Urakawa-town, Hokkaido, June 2016 ©Eiji Ohashi / courtesy Galerie &co119

After the jihanki saved his life, he wanted to know them better, to celebrate them. For nine years, he travelled the country shooting vending machines, often in faraway places, many of them isolated like lost Daleks, half-buried in snow, set against the night sky, alone by the sea, or with a snowcapped mountain in the background – perhaps an homage to Hokusai’s Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji?

Takino, Sapporo-city Hokkaido, December 2015 ©Eiji Ohashi / courtesy Galerie &co119Takino, Sapporo-city Hokkaido, December 2015 ©Eiji Ohashi / courtesy Galerie &co119

Ohashi’s pictures are mesmerising. A sense of loss, or melancholia, pervades them. The machines haunt his pictures in an extraordinary way: you can’t stop staring at them as their glow draw your eyes into the photographs. They emotionally connect us to them – to place and memory – and appear to be timeless. They also compel us to think of broader narratives: how Japan’s postwar rush into the future affected its culture; how the American-imposed idea of democracy changed its identity; how Japanese modernity can be more than the sum of its technology.

Haruka-yama, Otaru-city, Hokkaido, February 2014©Eiji Ohashi / courtesy Galerie &co119

And you can’t help but wonder if Ohashi has turned the vending machines into a kind of fiction, and yet, not exactly fiction – the paradox of photography is that its claim to reality is built on illusion. His vending machines exist somewhere between reality and fantasy, as though he has found a way to give them a different meaning. More sentimentally, Ohashi states in the press release for his first solo show in Europe, Roadside Lights, at Galerie &co119 in Paris: “One message in my work is that I wish for a world in which each and everyone is able to shine.’

by Peter Yeoh

Eiji Ohashi: Roadside Lights opens on December 8, 2017 and is on until January 13, 2018 at Galerie &co119
119 rue Vieille du Tempe, 75003 Paris (cour)

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