Intense Immobility: “In the Wake” at Japan Society
In the Wake: Japanese Photographers Respond to 3/11 at Japan Society
March 11 to June 12, 2016
333 E 47th Street (between 1st and 2nd avenues)
New York, 212 832 1155
In his seminal treatise on photography, Camera Lucida (1980), Roland Barthes presents two qualities he believes are found in photographs: the studium (the photo’s general, cultural context) and the punctum (the picture’s pointed, personally significant moment). Barthes defines a photograph’s punctum as “that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).” The latter quality provokes the viewer, presenting “a tiny shock, a satori, the passage of a void […] close to the Haiku.” Indifference to the image is therein disturbed. Like the photograph, the haiku presents the moment directly, as wholly present, brief and marking. Barthes often describes this phenomenon as a seism — an earthquake.
It is easy to locate such rushing poignancy in The Japan Society’s latest exhibition, “In the Wake: Japanese Photographer Respond to 3/11.” Marking the fifth anniversary of the catastrophic Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami, the exhibition’s 17 photographers are handlers of so much puncta. Their extended interactions with the photograph, by hand or hard drive, find fresh and dynamic potential for Barthes’s punctum beyond the personal; as images by seism and of seism, many of these photographs are both puncturing and physically punctured. In choosing work that is not purely documentary or of studium, this exhibition presents 3/11 in a context larger than a single day.
For many of these artists, such a monumental natural and nuclear disaster can only be quantified or documented; they try to capture, as Barthes tried to understand, “what cannot be transformed but only repeated.” Takashi Arai documents sites of atomic disaster by daguerreotype, a sensitive medium of silver plate burned by the subject’s reflection. His blown-out daguerreotypes from Hiroshima, Fukushima and Nagasaki are equated, across time and place, in his series “Exposed in a Hundred Suns.” As details are over-exposed and flushed from photographs of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or a family of Fukushima survivors, viewers are bruised by the blue-black event horizon beyond which history’s details are not visible. Arai’s A Maquette for a Multiple Monument for Wristwatch Dug Up from Uenomachi (2014) is a literal reversal of time as he horizontally flips an iconic World War II image: a wristwatch, found in Nagasaki, which was stopped at 11:02 on August 9, 1945 by the second atomic bomb, “Fat Man.” This simple and punctal detail, not immediately noticed, collapses the time and distances between these disasters, speaking to how progress can often seem futile.
The most stunning representation of this catharsis in counting is realized in the Lost and Found Project. Organized by Munemasa Takahashi and other residents of Tohoku (the northern region which bore the brunt of the disaster’s devastation, and for which it is named), the Project has been collecting and cleaning thousands of photographs remaining in the tsunami’s wake. Under the banner of “Memory Salvage,” they have recovered, cleaned and digitized over 750,000 photos (returning an incredible 400,000 to their owners). Water-damaged and sun-bleached, the photographs’ erasure of faces, hands and landscapes are unsettlingly beautiful: here is memory undone, the photograph un-developed. Indeed, the punctum is carried in the actual bruising of these images, evidence of the physical damage against the subjects’ homes, their visages and too often their person.
Nobuyoshi Araki’s work is similarly marking and marked by both time (being date-stamped) and experience (in the mutilation of the negatives). In Untitled (2011), Araki has scratched and gouged at a bright little cloud in the sunny sky of March 11th. Nearby, the scratches, vertical daggers — like black rain — puncture urbanite umbrellas. As in the bleached wounds of Takahashi’s images or Arai’s stopped watch, the implementation of a date-stamp is that forceful punctum that marks time and marks the viewer. The date-stamp is found in most of Araki’s oeuvre and yet it has never been so jarring. Like a time loop, the moment wounds the artist and the artist wounds the moment — however futilely. Here is punctal, and punctual, revenge.
As time is a flexible material for these artists, it is important to note Lieko Shiga’s work, as much of it was created previous to the disaster at hand. In 2008, Shiga moved to Kitahama — a serene and isolated town in the Miyagi prefecture of Tohoku. In Japan, Miyagi is famous for its mysterious and timeless spirit, making the destruction of its scenic coast especially devastating. Shiga has an oneiric aesthetic; she often manipulates photographs digitally or in cross-processing (using the wrong chemicals to develop film in unique and unexpected ways) to glaze them with new narrative. Framing her floating subjects with blown-out nightscapes, she presents something like nuclear fallout, post-apocalyptic ceremony, or perhaps prophecy. For instance, Mother’s Gentle Hands (2009) shows an elderly woman, eyes closed, resting just off-center against a glittering and cosmic wall, her arms seemingly doubled into two pairs of clasped hands. Like much of Shiga’s work, it takes a great deal of looking to decipher the discomfort of this arrangement. And just as Barthes was taken with the clasped hands in a Mapplethorpe photograph, this image “holds me, but I cannot say why.” Shiga loves multiplicity in metaphor and timelines, so the viewer may see a mutated resident of the evacuation zone as easily as Shinto’s wrathful four-armed deity of fire, Sanbō Kōjin. The hands are perhaps not the punctum, but they do restrain the viewer, doubly so by their abstrusity to hold us inside that world of horror and wonder, the artificial stars blinking behind. (Perhaps it is in the stars.)
Shimpei Takeda’s “Traces” also resemble scattered cosmic galaxies; in actuality, these are the photographs produced by the radioactive particles contaminating Fukushima’s soil. Trace #7, taken in 2012 from Fukushima’s Nihonmatsu Castle, is the most aggressively galactic. Other Traces, sampled from the soil around hospitals or shrines, are less crowded — safer — and yet uneasy. This leaves the viewer with a disturbing desire to see more of these “hot spots” in a temporary confusion of pollution mistaken for cosmic dust. To see the stars in the soil captures that feeling many humans have towards the cosmos: hopeful, yet hypoxic. Time is lost in such a space — it becomes theoretical, measured in half-lives. Staring at these images one wonders at the government’s method of handling such insurmountable contamination, as expansive as these universes, with little more than spades and trash bags.
Barthes was a philosopher who loved Japan. His Empire of Signs (1970) celebrates the beauty and intelligence of the island nation, and he often weighed the simplicity and spark of the haiku against his burden of Western philosophy and semiotics, traditions that labored the past into the future. His study of the haiku colored his understanding of photography as the moment’s twin but not its copy; the actual moment, temporally and physically, is ineffable. So too, he writes, the “the notation of a haiku […] undevelopable […] might (we must) speak of an intense immobility, linked to a detail (to a detonator), an explosion makes a little star on the pane of the text or of the photograph: neither the Haiku nor the Photograph makes us ‘dream.’” As with the haiku or the photographic punctum, so with tragedy: we can only know of the experience, not experience it; even still, it pierces us.