PHOTOGRAPHY / Street wise: Edinburgh's 'Liquid Crystal Futures' explores the spiritual side of life in modern Japan. Jane Richards reports

In 1985 Takashi Takagi, a Japanese art director, commissioned Manabu Yamanaka to photograph the street people of Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka who seemed to him to fit the guise of Buddhist arhats (traditional spiritual beings who have attained enlightenment and are detached from all earthly desires, transcending even life and death).

Takashi Takagi had long been interested in Buddhist art and was particularly inspired by the Tang dynasty artist Guanxiu's arhat style. Historically there were 16 high- level disciples of the Buddha who vowed to defend the faith of Buddhism in ancient India. These disciples are worshipped as the 16 arhats, traditionally depicted in paintings as wizened figures in rough clothing, living deep in the mountains. But Takagi recognised them in the street people of Tokyo. Manabu Yamanaka's resulting series is one of the highlights of 'Liquid Crystal Futures', currently on show at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh.

The exhibition of 140 works by 11 photographers is intended as a report on contemporary Japanese society. Elsewhere there are Toshio Shibata's exquisite studies of man's intervention on the landscape, Ryuji Miyamoto's architectural studies of urban decay and buildings in the process of being demolished, and Tomohiko Yoshida's gawdy colour landscape and cityscape abstracts.

And then there is Akira Gomi's extraordinary 'Yellows', a series that draws on the applications of photography in anthropology and criminal records - four images each, two nude, of 10 women - in an attempt to determine the essential characteristics of post-war Japanese woman. The idea of standing naked in front of a camera has inevitable pornographic connotations, yet the pictures prove anything but.

As a record of human bodies, all hint of sexuality has been eliminated. The women appear to be actively participating in a clinical experiment - as opposed to submissively posing naked for a voyeur. Shown, here, on CD-Rom (originally to get around the Japanese censorship laws of exhibiting images with pubic hair), the viewer can select the women's blood-types, hair colour, age, height and weight.

Meanwhile Manabu Yamanaka's arhats are people who really have fallen into poverty to the extent of consciously severing their connections with the rest of the world. Yamanaka worked hard at winning their confidence and co-operation. His greatest success has been persuading them to stand in front of buildings which provide pale backgrounds - embuing these proud figures with the spiritual luminosity that befits their arhat state.

(Photographs omitted)

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