The collages of Kensuke Koike have been one of the purest forms of visual pleasure over the last two years. Videos of his working process on his Instagram account show him making miraculous reinventions of images with a single rip (his smoking woman), with a pasta machine (his dog), and with three-dimensional transformations (his sinking boat). It’s work that attracts because it seems so simple.
Take an old portrait of a loving couple, cut their eyes out, switch them around and the relationship takes a new direction. Cut a circle around the middle of a face, offset it a couple of inches, and you’re left with a pathway to that person’s interior. These are pictures that seem simple, but link up to ideas of image compression, ways of seeing, facial recognition and visual agnosias. It’s The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat in photographic form.
Koike’s work has attracted a loyal following, inspired countless copycat activities at photography workshops around the world, and invited collaborations from parties ranging from Gucci to Thomas Sauvin of Beijing Silvermine. It’s the Sauvin collaboration that resulted in Koike’s latest work, a book launched in November. Titled No More No Less, the publication came about after Koike was invited to work with Sauvin’s archive of old images that he recovered from Beijing silver-recycling centres.
“Thomas said, ‘Come to my studio and choose some material and see what you want to do’,” says Koike in a Skype interview from his studio near Venice. Koike selected an old album made by an unknown Shanghai University photography student in the 1980s, simple black-and-white studio headshots that have an evenness of style, tone and lighting throughout.
It contained the silver prints that Koike worked from – applying a simple rule that “nothing is removed, nothing is added” – alongside original negatives, manuscript comments from an anonymous professor, and shows the work of a student who was clearly diligent in making conventional portraits. And so Koike began his process, which starts in Photoshop and ends with endless prototypes trying to get it right.
“People think I make these in one attempt, but it’s not true. I always apply the final decision on the original, but even though I try to make it as simple as possible, it takes 20 times to get it right,” he says, adding: “We made an exhibition in Guangzhou, China. We showed this and, at that moment, we received many offers from publishers.”
Instead of going for a straightforward single edition, however, Sauvin – acting as Koike’s collaborator and manager of the project – decided to choose a more complex option; to have three different editions of the same book, to be launched during Paris Photo, on the same day. “I asked the three publishers [Skinnerboox, the(M) Éditions and Jiazazhi] if they would be willing to be part of this adventure, and I received three positive answers that same day,” says Sauvin.
“Three felt like the right number. Two would have been a bold competition. Four would have been redundant. Three felt right. Plus I wanted one in Italy, where Koike lives; one in France, where I live; and one in China, where the original album comes from.” He set three rules: “Make a publication in an edition of 400; have it ready for 01 November; don’t exchange with us in any way.”
Koike was tasked with making collages for all the different editions. “I was super-stressed,” he says. “To make exactly the same work four or five times is crazy – I needed to make 100 collages – and one collage takes one day to make. So that’s four months of cutting. To cut and cut is very stressful.”
Then the materials were sent off, with Sauvin and Koike – who by his own admission likes to have control – waiting with concern. “We don’t know the size, the paper, if they used all the images or only some of the images,” said Koike, speaking ahead of the Paris event. “Probably they make some mistake on my name, or Thomas’s name, but that could be funny. We’ll see. We don’t know.”
As it was, the three books were launched at Polycopies (the book fair which runs concurrent with Paris Photo, on the opposite bank of the Seine) and both Sauvin and Koike were delighted. All three books are different – dedicated to the aesthetic of the original images, but with visual flourishes referring to the original negatives, their archival form, the cutting and the process. Their triple personality busts the myth of the ‘ideal’ book, as they work as a triptych that in total adds up to a record of how archives are configured, reconfigured and reborn.
With the publishing completed, it’s unlikely that Koike will get any rest. More sifting through experimental cutting and pasting awaits. “I go out from my studio perhaps once a week,” says Koike. “I never leave, I have everything here. My hobby is my job, and my job is my hobby.”