Culture to Culture
Leo Rubinfien’s photography on display in Cooley Art Gallery
Eyehold to Eyehold, an exhibit of Leo Rubinfien’s photography in Asia, is now open to the public at Reed’s Cooley Art Gallery. The exhibit will be up from February 7 through April 28, and the Gallery hours are 12:00–5:00 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday.
Rubinfien’s Cooley exhibit introduces his photography with a collection of books he has published, including A Map of the East and Wounded Cities. The former is a collection of some of the most significant pictures in Rubinfien’s career, taken in a variety of Asian countries. The latter tells of Rubinfien’s experience with 9/11 and includes both a written narrative and photographs describing the event and its aftermath.
At the entrance of the exhibit room is a stack of posters with a long description on the back that tells about Rubinfien’s life and the exhibit itself. The gallery features almost life-sized photographs without frames, increasing the photographs’ intimacy. The subjects of the images include people gathered for a picnic, a foreign man sitting at a booth reading the newspaper, a girl with a purse decorated with a peace sign in the shape of a heart, a boat sitting quietly off a littered shore, graffiti of an electric guitar and dice, and a small shrine coupled with a broken fan and a table umbrella. Foreigners, as well as locals, are often the subjects of Rubinfien’s photography, because they reminded him of himself.
Rubinfien is a Reed alumnus, a Westerner born and raised in Japan who feels a strong connection to his home in Japan and the Asian world but who also feels like a foreigner with a foreigner’s perspective. His family never expected them to become fully Japanese, and Rubinfien suggests that complete assimilation would have been impossible as an outsider in Japan.
Ever since Rubinfien came to Reed and later moved to New York, he has frequently made his way back to Asia, mostly to write and take pictures but also to visit family. His travels have taken him to a multitude of Asian countries, including China, Thailand, and Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma.
On his trips, Rubinfien walks down streets and alleyways for hours at a time, looking for moments to capture. He describes his love for travel and exploration as both an escape and a fascination, both exciting and liberating in the effort to understand a foreign way of life. Rubinfien describes his pictures as specific moments that he hopes will give the audience some understanding of “what it is actually like to have your feet on the ground there.”
Rubinfien often captures the phenomenon of the Westernization of Asia in his work. In the last two centuries “there has been a tremendous amount of Western influence upon Japan,” he said. “On the other hand I think that...any time any western phenomenon or effect comes into the Asian context, it is transformed, it is immediately remade, reinvented, re-understood by the people who have taken it on, and so it becomes their own expression.”
One example of this is the peace sign, seen in the purse decorated with a heart-shaped peace symbol in the photograph. Rubinfien explains that the peace sign was originally the symbol of the British anti-nuclear movement at the beginning of the 1960s, and then became a world-wide anti-war symbol by the end of the decade. Whoever made the handbag was likely from Thailand, where the woman was from, or from China. Whomever they were, they reinvented the peace symbol by making it an emblem in the shape of a heart, which the woman in the photo wears prominently in front of her, making it an expression of her own. Whatever the peace symbol started as, it became something very different by the time Rubinfien captured the photograph.
This exhibit, concerned with the interaction between cultures and the interaction between the artist and their culture, will be on display in the Cooley Gallery until April 28.