From a talk presented at the Izu Photo Museum, Nagaizumi, Japan, January 30, 2013
Around 1970 a topic of public discourse that drew a great deal of attention was landscape. It fell under the general heading of fukeiron, or “landscape theory.” At the time, I was an elementary school student in the countryside, and the term landscape—as it was used, for example, by the film critic Masao Matsuda or the photographer Takuma Nakahira—was not a word I would have known. It was after I entered college and came into contact with Kiyoji Otsuji that I became familiar with a number of concepts in use in the Japanese photography world of the time. By then “landscape theory” was already roughly ten years in the past, and the interest in landscape among the photographers around me had undergone an essential transformation.
Landscape, as used by Matsuda and Nakahira, seems to have referred to what they saw as a lifeless and unmediated “scene” (nagame) created by a conservative power structure to force a desired order on the environment and society in a way unbeknownst to the indolent and unconcerned masses. For both men, such a “landscape” was not something to contemplate or admire but something to be cut up and dissected as much as possible, something to be overcome and to serve as a point of departure.
Let’s say, for example, you have a landscape with land or trees, mountains, and sky—landscape such as that described by Kenneth Clark in his Landscapes into Art (1949) or as used in the spatial analysis of the French Annales School. What Matsuda and Nakahira referred to has little to do with this kind of usage. In the “landscape theory” discourse of the late sixties and early seventies, landscape was seen to have been employed to suppress critical vision and was therefore to be censured and rejected. It can be understood as a metaphor with a highly negative nuance, very similar to metaphors that were later frequently employed, such as “order” or “the system.”
How is it that landscape, a word that brings to mind beauty and the arts, came to be so negatively charged during one period of time in Japanese history? I suspect it could simply be due to a strong dislike of the word landscape itself, which from the Meiji period up until the end of the war was used by ultranationalists to assert Japan’s unique beauty and cultural identity (Shigetaka Shiga, Nihon Fukeiron, 1894). What troubles me as an individual is how much influence this ultranationalist concept of landscape and lens-based media such as film and photography, which at the time had been completely appropriated by the masses, had come to exert on each other. That is, why was it that such photography and projected media, as interpreted by cultural purists, had come to be accepted as truth by a portion of intellectuals and artists? However, I sense that my thoughts on this topic are not on today’s agenda.
I will provide some information about the Japanese word fukei (“landscape”) for the Americans in the audience. The word, of course, was transmitted from China. According to encyclopedias, the term seems to have been first used in the third or fourth century. One point of interest is that this word was created from Chinese characters that are quite beautiful in meaning: “wind” and “light.” The word includes no concept of land or place, as do the Western terms landscape and paysage.
In China, earth, water, fire, and wind were considered the four elements that constitute all matter, including human beings. The character for “insect,” 虫, forms part of the character for “wind,” 風. It is said that the character for “bird,” 鳥, was originally used in place of “insect.” Wind, as a divine being, was thought to have the shape of a bird. And the second character, kei, means “light.” In fact, there is another word, fuko, 風光, with the same meaning as fukei. Fuko is said to refer to the glistening of grasses and trees as they are moved by the wind. The word is all-inclusive in its focus and at the same time accompanied by movement. This movement of glittering light allows us to experience “the immediate moment,” that is to say, “nature.” A phenomenological recognition of nature is already incorporated into the word fukei. Unlike words created by Europeans with reference to the “shape of the land,” the word fukei is already latent with aesthetic value and poetry.
Yet this word landscape has other usages quite above and beyond the etymological meanings of “wind and light” or “shape of the land.” In English, for example, the expression political landscape uses the word in a way quite removed from its original usage. And Japanese expressions like ikka danran no fukei (“landscape of a happy family gathering”) were commonly used from early on. How does one translate “landscape” in this expression? I would like to ask the interpreter.
Some time ago there was an account in the newspaper about an incident when a certain writer accompanied a famous actor to a noodle shop. The actor was very popular and had appeared repeatedly on television and in other media, so when he entered the noodle shop all of the customers immediately recognized him. Those customers nonetheless acted as though they had not noticed anything out of the ordinary, since showing excitement would be behavior unbefitting adults. But there were many people in the street outside the shop who also recognized the actor and began to gather there, gradually increasing in number. The actor’s seat was just below the window where a number of fans were peering in, but despite this he simply began eating his noodles. The writer, who now and then looked up at the excited group of people outside the window, asked out of concern for the actor, “What shall we do?” The actor replied, “Don’t worry, it’s just ‘landscape,’ only ‘landscape.’” For me, the actor’s use of the word landscape fit the situation perfectly.
I suspect that “landscape” is used in a similar way in French and English. For example, you are in a college classroom giving your all to teaching art history, yet the students display no interest in what you are saying. Some are dozing off, some are staring out the window, some are absorbed in their iPhones. I may be the only one to think so, but would it be altogether strange if an expression like “What a landscape!” or “Quel paysage!” floated through one’s mind at the time?
If the word landscape indeed fits such situations perfectly, then I think I understand the special characteristics of the word. Landscape, in such situations, has moved from the original etymology of “land” or “pays” and “wind and light,” and has become psychologically quite a different expression. I think that it might be correct to say that “landscape” here refers to a “scene” (nagame), something psychologically estranged, psychologically distant, that no longer bears any direct relationship to oneself.
It is said that before the word fukei came to be used in China, “nature” (shizen) was metaphorically linked to man, that man and nature were one. In other words, nature was given anthropomorphic identity. But after fukei entered the lexicon, nature became an objective existence independent of man, something one could look upon. When was it that the natural environment became a “scene” independent of God and man in Europe? It may be that this occurred in modern times during the course of the establishment of a scientific worldview. The development of “landscape” art began very early in China and did not place great emphasis on actual representation, whereas in Europe the development was late and the emphasis was on representation. While there were indeed differences in recognizing that the meaning and usage of “landscape” had changed from what they had originally been, acceptance of this “distance” was also greatly affected by the times and regional characteristics.
Whether through painting, poetry, or photography, as one repeats the representation of reality/perception, one cannot but consider the difference that emerges between perception and reality. Understanding that difference, if one again projects an image within real space, the environment that the viewer sees is revealed to be an aesthetic environment accompanied by psychological distance, that is to say, “landscape.” When one has journeyed thus far it is only another step to where nature copies art (life imitates art). In other words, it is not that “landscape” gives birth to art, but on the contrary, art produces the “landscape” before our eyes. A critical understanding emerges that “landscape” is the natural environment as human beings aesthetically shape and nurture it. This clearly contains the possibility of a political debate that encompasses power and ideology, and when we arrive at this point landscape has become a very contemporary word. I sense that the chief focus of “landscape” today, whether in the East or in the West, can probably be boiled down entirely to this psychological distance and the political agenda that creates the aesthetic environment.
I enjoy talking about the word landscape, but when it comes to speaking about my own work as it deals with “landscape,” I run into difficulty. That is because the shape of my work is constantly changing as chance events occur during the course of my life. If I could give my work some general conceptual unity as a whole, I would probably seem to be an outstanding artist, but things do not go that smoothly.
To begin with, let me show you a few examples of photographs that I took when I was a student (see fig. 1). I think you will recognize something of an inclination on the compositional side. For example, there is a clear differentiation between figure and ground. The ratio between the frame and the size of the subject is relatively uniform. I remember how fascinated I was at the time that just by taking a photograph, the subject I was trying to capture would transform into something of a puzzle.
At the time, I was already fully conscious of the word distance. One could call this “distancing” by the photograph: the temporal, spatial, and psychological distance that is suddenly produced when one attempts to transform objects into a photograph. Within that distance, a space appears that makes possible all kinds of images. I think this is akin to defamiliarization in literature. This photograph (fig. 2) looks cold and nonhuman, as though a robot had taken it. At the same time there was a moment when I sensed something amusing, and I recalled several works of French Surrealism that my teacher Kiyoji Otsuji had introduced me to. This was at the beginning of the 1980s.
The first time I personally addressed “landscape” in the Kenneth Clark sense was in the latter half of the 1980s with Lime Hills (see fig. 3). When you look at these photographs, I think you can recognize that in my youth I was overwhelmingly influenced by American color photography of the 1970s. This work began with the limestone quarries around the area where I was born and raised, and it became a major undertaking as I visited quarries throughout Japan. By this time I had moved to Tokyo. I believe I became accustomed to looking upon scenes of the lime quarries in the countryside and scenes of the city in which I was living through the common denominator of limestone. I came to take photographs while imagining in my mind a tale in which two disparate places are linked together.
Work that occupies a similar position to Lime Hills is Terrils (see fig. 4), from the latter half of the 2000s, in which I photographed slag heaps in northern France. At the time I was an artist in residence on the outskirts of Lille. These mountains in the middle of the land were made from waste from local coal mines. Dropped from the sky, the slag was piled on the surface of the land by men. First it moved counter to gravity, and ultimately it gave way to gravity. Despite the fact that men created these mountains, they appear to be supernatural structures that have fallen from the sky.
Finally, I would like to show you several “landscape photos” that I took quite recently (see fig. 5). These were taken over a period of time since 2011 and are of a single small town in the Tohoku region. As I am sure you will recognize, I began to take these photographs following the terrible devastation of the catastrophic tsunami, and they record the process during which the piles of rubble were gradually cleared away and the town once again became still. The link between catastrophic events and landscape art, particularly photography, is long-standing and can be said to form a major genre. I do not know at this point if my photographs fit into that genre. And that is because if the question of “distance” reposes in these photographs, then it is a “distance” that produces an immeasurable space between others and myself. I can’t speak for you, but at least for me even to feel “distance” is difficult. That is because this place was once the place where I was born and raised.
The pain and personal history of the person who took these photographs require words and not light, and there is simply no way to capture them in a photograph. They must be put aside in judging the value of the photographs. It was, I believe, an American photographer of the latter half of the twentieth century who clearly put this viewpoint into words. The new “distance” manifested in the “social landscape” he confronted most certainly provided us with “scenes” of a very new world.
I suspect that it is impossible to read anything about me personally—the one who took it—from this photograph (fig. 6). In it there is only “landscape.” Above a ravaged land, a rainbow appears against the dark sky. It resembles an artistic “landscape,” such as those found in Romantic-era oil paintings from somewhere in northern Europe. Yet I know that at the base of the rainbow my house once stood. From the spot where my house that was washed away by the tsunami once stood, a rainbow now appears as though rising out of it. That is the primary reason that I took this photograph.
“At the base of the rainbow my house once stood.” With this verbal information from me, the impression one receives from this photograph suddenly changes. After that, can it still be a “landscape,” I wonder, or is it no longer one? With respect to the value of this photograph, have words created an obstacle? Are words necessary? If it is the case that there should be words, I wonder if this means that, in the mind of those who consider words an unnecessary obstacle and insist the photograph should be viewed as an artistic “landscape” that arises from the natural environment, there lurks some kind of ideological agenda. Recently I have thought constantly and exclusively about this.
Translated from the Japanese by Frederic J. Kotas.