Buddhism and computer games collide in Kenta Cobayashi’s digitally manipulated photography


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Buddhism; 90s computer games; Japanese tradition; and photographic theory. These four disparate topics are some of the fundamental concepts that underpin Kenta Cobayashi’s philosophical creative practice. The Tokyo-based artist uses photography and film to examine the meaning of truth – a lofty statement, but one that’s quickly borne out by his thought-provoking creations. However, to fully understand Kenta’s images, you have to first look at the Japanese language and how the artist exploits its nuances and ambiguities to question notions of veracity.

For anyone who, like us, doesn’t speak Japanese as a native language it’s important to first understand that as a phonetic language, English is precise and definitive. We spell with letters, which we recognise as sounds, which, bundled together, we then recognise as words with meanings. The Japanese written language, on the other hand, is formed of layers of characters which suggest subtly different meanings, depending on their combinations. So to understand Kenta’s work, we must also understand that it revolves around the shifting meanings that come with the formation of the Japanese language.

It is through this exploration of language and its meanings that Kenta creates warped versions of reality via photography. He heavily edits images until they are almost unrecognisable and builds immersive VR films in a similar vein. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s start at the beginning.

Growing up in the industrial city of Kawasaki, Kenta’s first introduction to the creative arts was through the old computer in his family home. He spent his childhood flicking through the pixelated pages of digital books or playing computer games on its old, fuzzy screen. It’s an experience that’ll resonate with any 90s kid who spent their time playing computer games like Riven or Pickle’s Book, written onto CD-ROMs, or onto the even rarer species: the floppy disk.

“I realise these programmes educated me with their innovative visuals and sound experience”

Kenta Cobayashi

Looking back on his childhood, Kenta tells It’s Nice That: “I realise these programmes educated me with their innovative visuals and sound experience.” As Kenta matured through his teenage years, his artistry also progressed with the acquisition of a “Garakei”-style flip-phone. At the cusp of the smartphone revolution, the flip-phone brought “its unique culture” to Kenta’s attention. He started to access the internet and take photos, and this early form of technology is still a highly traceable influence in Kenta’s work.

“When I recall that time, I realise I learnt so much from that online scape,” says the artist. “Not only from the games companies but individuals too. Through the internet, we were able to exchange, collaborate and distribute ideas.”

As Kenta’s interaction with digital technology increased, the medium also proliferated throughout wider Japanese society. Kenta references the image-editing app Prikura, for example. The application features an in-built algorithm to make your eyes abnormally large and images can be decorated with a bank of sparkles and other abundantly cute additions. It is partly because of apps like these that Japan has become synonymous with image distortion and a tech-focused aesthetic. Not only is it a commonplace experience to use such apps (take stumbling upon one of Tokyo’s roadside photo booths for example), but it also marks the culture that has impacted Kenta’s practice.

As he grew up, Kenta “started to have a desire to produce something. At the time, there was a website where you could share snowflake animations that were designed with Flash and I posted some of my works on there… One of my happiest memories was when I received messages about my snowflakes from overseas,” he adds. And just like that, Kenta’s world “suddenly expanded” past the Kawasaki districts as a “connection with the rest of the world” erupted thanks to the internet.

With this newly found method of communication with the rest of the world, Kenta went on to major in painting at Tokyo Zokei University. But it was only when he began to think “about what art should be” that he started experimenting with photography. Kenta’s first photography project was conceived as a way to archive his childhood experiences, and as his practice developed, he started to consider the etymology of the Japanese term and what this really meant. To this very day, Kenta’s work is consumed by the consideration of the Japanese word for a photograph: “sha-shin”. “In Japanese, ‘sha-shin’ means truth,” he says. But for Kenta and many others, truth is not a fixed term with a fixed meaning: “Truth makes me think of a reflection, which is always moving and changing.”

“In Japan, there is a never-ending discussion around the true translation of photography. The word for photography should be ‘ko-ga’ which means ‘to draw with light from the past’.” By contrast, Kenta feels like the recognised word for photography, “sha-shin”, resembles “a kind of beautiful dialogue between Zen priests”. The Japanese character that translates as “sha” also has another meaning which refers to the word “u-tsu-su”, which means ‘to capture or reflect something’ in English”.

“In Japan, there is a never-ending discussion around the true translation of photography”

Kenta Cobayashi

“U-tsu-su”, in turn, conjures altogether different imagery for Kenta. He pictures “a mirror image reflected on the surface of the water”. And so Kenta plays with the dual meanings of “sha-shin” in his work through image manipulation. Through repeatedly clicking “undo” and “redo” in Photoshop, Kenta’s work embodies the convoluted meanings of “sha-shin”. Distorted images resemble neon drawings of light while water-like imagery acts as an investigative metaphor into the ideas of what truth even means.

And if Kenta’s constant probing into etymology wasn’t thought-provoking enough, his practice is also rooted in Buddhist cognitive studies. For Kenta and many other Buddhists, “truth” embodies the idea of “flow”, a kind of invisible energy that runs through everything as a kind of life force. Flow informs the laws of nature and the composition of the universe; it’s a mindful mental state that energises focus and wellbeing, most attainable when practising yoga or tai chi, for example.

“As human beings, we understand ‘a structure of flow’ by words and language,” explains Kenta. “But once a word is created and hence has a meaning, there is a distinctive break in the separation of language and flow.” Once a noun is known to mean something, the flow is corrupted by the limitation of the word, as it has a fixed meaning that cannot change. For Buddhists, this is nonsensical, as beings and energy are always changing with the passing of time, so it makes no sense to align something as fleeting as flow with the static rigidity of language. In other words, the essence of something is so much more than the finite word we use to describe it and Kenta’s work attempts to explore this disjunct between language and object.

“We misuse the function of words, and suffer as a result. This is what Sha-ka (Gautama Buddha) says,” Kenta continues. “In short, human beings misunderstand the laws of being, in favour of un-ageing definitions that only exist in the form of words.” With all this in mind, Kenta’s interests lie in “the overlap between the truth of language, the meaning of ‘sha-shin’, and the media.” Fragmented imagery distorts the accurate realism of photography. While some photos are barely recognisable in their original form, others mutate only slightly from their original by extending smudges of light or blurring at the edges.

“My aim in photography is to reduce a resolution of the reality,” Kenta remarks. As language also reduces a resolution of reality through its finite vocabulary, Kenta visually represents this limitation through photographic manipulation. “As the microscope redefined our understanding of life and space, it is also necessary to understand the laws of nature in order to comment on the shape of our reality.”

Having now exhibited across Japan, participated in residencies , and collaborated with many emerging creatives in the contemporary art world, it has been a busy few years for the artist. Wholly influenced by the development of digital graphics from the 90s onwards, Kenta hopes to further combine this aesthetic with his increasing interest in traditional Japanese culture. “The more I research, the more I have a great interest in Japanese customs. I want to depict a new landscape by reading a code unconsciously left in modern life by our ancestors.”

Clearly not just the kind of photographer who knows his way around a camera, Kenta’s detailed thought processes set him apart as a conceptual artist as well as an adept photographer. He exhaustively considers the way we consume information through language, and questions the true value of what this information really means. As an artist, his work is intriguingly original in its style and conceptualisation, making him a well-deserved member of Ones to Watch 2019.

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About the Author

Jynann Ong

Jynann joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. She went freelance in 2022.

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