The Western art world tends to view each major exhibition of Japanese contemporary art as the sudden emergence of a new international player. The reality is Japanese contemporary art has been “emerging” for more than a decade. Major exhibitions in the 1980s, such as “Primal Spirit” and “Against Nature,” and more recently “Scream Against the Sky” and “The Age of Anxiety,” should finally end the continual inauguration. But the novelty of being the new Eastern kid on the block has not worn off. There comes, with each show, an overriding need by curators to dispel the worn-out idea that Japan is a country of ikebana and bonsai artisans; that fifty years of Americanization has filtered into the social structure and become a distinct hybrid of Eastern tradition and Western pop culture. This, of course, has happened, although there is nothing sudden about the transformation. Japanese art moved well beyond shallow assimilation of Western art years ago.

“Photography and Beyond in Japan,” curated by Robert Sterns, has similar signs of treating Japanese photography with an introductory kid-glove approach – an exhibition catalogue that spells out associations (direct and hypothetical) with the traditions of Japan’s cultural past, and a sweeping selection of twelve artists which gives an overview rather than in-depth look at a few. Granted, Sterns’ exhibition is a first, in terms of presenting only photo-based works by artists who have either shown numerous times in Canada and the United States or never before.

Despite the incipient feel of “Photography and Beyond in Japan,” the selection is exceptional in showing Japan’s best art photographers. The exhibition includes artists whose use of photography is not the central medium of their work. The aim is to break the insistence of photography being limited to mounted pictures, or regarding the medium as separate from fine art. Certainly what defines most of the artists is their use of the camera well beyond a limited role of view finding. The camera, for most of them, is only a starting point that has infinite possibilities in technical and visual manipulation.

Hotaro Koyama’s images, for instance, are as much about process as presentation. The stunningly beautiful impact of his large works, some over five metres wide, immediately defy the scale of conventional photography. Like an unfolded map, Koyama pastes together sections of his subject, often using a central image of some vacant view such as a doorway or an entrance to a cave. He then carries out an elaborate treatment of flattening the depth of field by abrasively scratching the image to produce a highly energetic and textured surface. There is a painterly hands-on quality to the work which the artist completely exposes by pinning the enormous sheets unframed to the wall.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s work is as equally intriguing for what it shows as how his photographs are made. Of Sugimoto’s ongoing themes – dioramas, seascapes and movie theatres – the exhibition features his well-known series of mid-twentieth century American movie-house interiors. The artist sits in a theatre balcony and leaves the camera lens open for the duration of the film. The extended exposure erases anything moving, such as the audience – only discernible as ghost-like smudges – to the film itself, which appears as a glowing white rectangle of light. Similar in effect to Koyama’s large-format images, Sugimoto’s subject is the vacant space that is recorded.

Tokihiro Satoh also uses long exposures as a process of adding and subtracting. One work, Breath-graph #87, is an expansive blow-up of one of Tokyo’s most trafficked intersections; a view that has been photographed countless times by professionals and tourists as the quintessential site of the city’s visual saturation and density. Satoh’s image, however, is void of pedestrians due to the extended exposure. In their place Satoh has walked around the intersection with a hand-held mirror directed at the sun, leaving a series of light spots that look as if they are suspended beacons or spirits flitting about the giant pedestrian crossway.

For the first two-thirds of the exhibition there are solid thematic and coherent connections made between the artists. Even the photographers who use the camera in more conventional ways, such as Toshio Shibata’s series of landscapes, or Tadasu Yamamoto’s large-formatted waterfalls, themes gel; studies on vacuous space, time-lines drawn by overlapping images or using long exposures, and employing various ways to eliminate depth of field. Collectively, the body of work leaves the distinct impression Japanese art photographers use the camera differently; more as a tool to manipulate and control images rather than as a form of documentation.

The exhibition is subtitled “Space, Time and Memory,” and the third group, “Memory,” reads as though it is an entirely separate, self-contained show. With the exception of Nobuyoshi Araki, the others are not primarily photographic artists. Miran Fukuda is a painter, Emiko Kasahara an installation and object artist, and Yasumasa Morimura (for lack of a predetermined label) a chameleon of self-portraiture. But they have all used the camera as part of their working process. The reasoning for bringing these four artists together is their use of images that have become cliche through mass reproduction. Morimura’s Slaughter Cabinet II, for instance, enshrines in a lacquer reliquary a reenactment of one of the most overwrought images of the Vietnam War, the Saigon police chief leveling his executioner’s gun at the head of a captured Vietcong, with Morimura himself posing campishly as both parties. Fukuda, as well, has reinterpreted a classic – Diego Velazquez’s The Maids of Honor – but she has turned the perspective ninety degrees so the vantage point is that of one of the painting’s characters, the maiden Dona Maria Augustina. The turned-about image has a casual impression, as if rendered from a snapshot. Both Morimura and Fukuda’s work is brilliantly sardonic, tapping at Japan’s obsessive absorption of Western culture. They recognize the complete immersion of Western art history and culture in Japan, although they do not regard their appropriation as borrowing as much as assuming Western icons as part of their own culture.

Almost in reverse, Araki’s images exploit the cliches of Japan’s floating world, read-dressed in terms of Tokyo’s current red-light districts and sex bars. Shot with an Instamatic camera, Araki’s images are disarmingly graphic in their sexual content. Young women disrobed, in bondage or spreading their legs, he presents the images in poster-size Xeroxes that are plastered across the walls, leaving no visual break from his saturated use of colours and imagery. He is the Nan Goldin of Japan in terms of exposing raw sexuality and emotion with such matter-of-factness that the viewer is forced into a voyeuristic role.

Araki is the most difficult to understand outside the context of Tokyo, where he is more than a photographer – he is a pop icon, a late-night television celebrity, party fixture and ham. He fully intends to push the limits of what distinguishes perversion from decadence, or exploitation from erotica. But it is easy to ministerpret this due to the VAG’s handling of his images – posting a sign outside the gallery room to warn viewers of the adult content. This makes it difficult to interpret the work as intending to do anything other than shock.

Although the catalogue is inclined to cater to an uninitiated audience, the presentation is not meek. “Photography and Beyond” presents a group of artists who have complete control of their medium and have gone beyond any visual or technical limitations the camera might present.