Sohei Nishino, “Diorama Map San Francisco” (2016), chromogenic print (image courtesy of the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London)

Skies and oceans like paint swatches. Squares spread across walls full of swans, people, façades shot from myriad views. A panoply of telescoping limbs, animals, and cranes hide in composites. Lured into them, noticing that many of these photos are taken from a distance, one guesses they are the product of digital printing, drone photography, aerial pictures taken by Google Maps cameras. Sohei Nishino finds himself high up in buildings to stand in just the right spot.

Born in Japan’s Hyōgo Prefecture in 1982, Nishino lives and works in Kanazawa and Shizuoka and studied at Osaka University of Arts. In the past few years he was included in Out of Focus at the Saatchi Gallery in London (2013), Contemporary Japanese Photography Vol. 10 at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Tokyo (2012), A Different Kind of Order: ICP Triennial at New York’s International Center of Photography (2013), and had a solo exhibition at Michael Hoppen Gallery, London (2015).

“New Works: Sohei Nishino,” installation view (image courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo by Katherine Du Tiel)

New Works: Sohei Nishino at SFMOMA, the artist’s first solo exhibition in the US, presents works from two series. From his Diorama Map series (2003), there are seven photo-portraits of cities on view: London (2010), Rio de Janeiro (2011), Jerusalem (2013), Amsterdam (2014), Tokyo (2014), Havana (2016), and San Francisco (2016). That last one is the 20th map in this series about cities that the artist walks around in for up to three months, taking photos at various locations and angles. Moments are remapped according to Nishino’s memories of particular places, his experiences, and his relationship to history.

His recent maps are nearly ten times larger than the first ones and feature 15,000–20,000 photos apiece, taken with single 35mm frames of photographic film and developed with contact sheets that are then cut up, arranged, and pasted onto a board. The result is tableaux-mural of photos, some up to six by seven feet. The original collage is then photographed digitally and made into limited-edition prints in two sizes.

Nishino features each city’s quintessential buildings in the maps. In Rio de Janeiro, Christ the Redeemer stands like a centerfold, arms wide on a mound, welcomingly breaking up the cityscape amid the Olympics Stadium, a skein, a helicopter, and lots of square close-ups of waves. San Francisco is angular, streets turned to triangles galore. Sometimes cartographers deliberately include errors and trap streets in their maps as protective markers so they can identify infringement if someone copies their work. Others embed erroneous curves or fictitious places for fame or as a hoax. Nishino’s maps become hellish auto-portraits, subjective representations built through fantastic repetition. While Inō Tadataka (1745–1818), the cartographer of the first map of the coastline of Japan, was influential for Nishino, narrativity emerges in Nishino’s obsessive chronicling. His painstaking diaristic reconstructions of printed, hand-cut contact sheets pieced together have a humbling effect.

Sohei Nishino, “Diorama Map Rio de Janeiro” (2011), chromogenic print, 68 7/8 x 59 1/16 in. (image courtesy of the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London)

While he could have easily achieved a similar effect digitally, his process collapses a mélange of temporalities: musings around a city, encounters with historic landmarks, banalities. The split second when the photos were taken becomes secondary to any moment’s reintegration and revisiting in a larger composition that reveals no dominating, ideal gaze or image — however meticulously positioned. Colorless and graphic, the prints are more charged by the appeal of a gaudy religiosity than futurity, touched by the longevity not only of ancient and painterly method, but of the timelessness of photos and the clarity of walking’s own practice.

Each amalgam is enlivened by details of a compact and motley assortment of ordinary pieces that seem overtaken by a wanderer, dramatically altering the cities’ famous places. Step back and façades of buildings fall into a twist — delayed, made fittingly macabre. Enormous and startling protrusions, curves in imagery both lively and delicate, distant and angled, a carousel of syncopated moments wherein humans are not central and a building’s vision is felt through the leverage Nishino finds to capture his images. The majority of the photos frame something not from standing height but as part of a dizzying rotation along a vertical spectrum; the eye strives for a place to land across the collage’s contortions. As a whole, these align neither with the wandering of Baudelarian flâneurs who roam the streets to experience a city, nor the tunnel vision of a hunched promenade on pavement. With eye-level sidelined, how to develop new habits of approaching an environment? Who takes the time to go to the top?

Sohei Nishino, “Diorama Map Havana” (2016), chromogenic print, 41 5/16 x 66 15/16 in. (image courtesy of the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London)

Each city is excessively noted through photos, and no single photo holds the reins — dense repetition lets banal scenes become otherworldly. Time-lapse videos of Nishino’s entire mapping process are documented in his studio and viewable online; these usually begin with the artist sketching out a loose figure, sitting, thinking, sometimes listening to music, slowly and intuitively beginning somewhere, journaling a memory of a place, usually near the center, and gluing on photos by hand, one by one, until the entire painting is full.

“New Works: Sohei Nishino,” installation view (image courtesy of San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; photo Katherine Du Tiel)

Next to the other works, “Day Drawings” (2016) seem conventional, blurry white lines on all black: Nishino’s GPS walking paths in San Francisco reflecting back and revealing the routes of Diorama Maps. Titles specify the dates they were taken around the city in May and June.

Mapping is construction arrived at by valuing certain bodies, roads, and patterns over others. If these embodiments of perception and energy built on surroundings transcribe Nishino’s own personal stories, there is no legend. Finding unanticipated points contained in a larger whole, we learn about what our eyes prefer to hold on to and how to record a way of passing through.

Sohei Nishino, “Diorama Map London” (2010), chromogenic print, 50 3/8 x 90 9/16 in. (image courtesy of the artist and Michael Hoppen Gallery, London)

New Work: Sohei Nishino continues at SFMOMA (151 Third St., San Francisco) through February 26,

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Maia Nichols

Maia Nichols is an artist and writer. She has exhibited internationally and has written for SFAQ and Carla, among others.