Naoya Hatakeyama: Part II

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II. The Strange Gift
Naoya Hatakeyama on the birth of art and the 'absoluteness' of the amateur photograph.

Above: Ciel Tombé #4414 (2007). Below: Ciel Tombé #4511 (2007). Both: Lambda print, 49 x 122 cm. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.

ART iT: We were just discussing the origins of the critical term "literary photograph" and shifts in the understanding of literature in photography circles in Japan in the 1980s and '90s. Have you yourself been influenced by literature, and can you provide any specific examples of authors or books that have shaped your approach to photography?

NH: I don't necessarily read a lot of literature, but I have made photographs inspired by sci-fi novels. My series "Slow Glass" (2001) was inspired by Irish sci-fi novelist Bob Shaw's Other Days, Other Eyes. The novel is about an inventor who discovers a special glass able to slow down the speed of light, which is then applied to various uses, and in terms of the history of photography and filmic images, I found this idea highly thought-provoking. I've also made several series of photographs in underground spaces, related partly to my reading of things like Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth.

ART iT: In what way do such books connect with the photographs you take?

NH: There is a connection in my head, although I have no proof that what is a reality for me is accepted by other people, nor do I see any need for it to be accepted. Nevertheless fantasy is a distinct motivating force in my work, so it is certainly important to me.
I should say I have immeasurable faith in literature. Beyond concerns of literary merit, we are firstly dependent on language. Some people claim that they are visual, and not verbal, but all people rely upon language in some way. Yet, whether reflecting on our own individual pasts or thinking about history in general, it is impossible to identify the exact moment when language was born. What distinguishes literature from other applications of text is its expression of the will to trace language back to its beginnings.
As a parallel example, the architect Toyo Ito has said that setting up a fabric partition in the middle of an open field and then gathering people together to enjoy conversation is what he feels to be the archetype of architecture. Or maybe there are dancers who, as they rehearse, try to recall the first time they stood up or walked. The sense that the tools and media we use must all have had a certain a starting point only deepens with experience. Making art begins precisely with such a desire to touch upon the origins of the world.
I fully endorse the idea that language is the basis for experiencing the world. Developmental psychologists often say that when young children go through the initial stages of learning to draw, they do not seem to distinguish between symbols and icons - letters and numbers may be no different than a mother's face or a tree or a house or a dog. You could say that all of us have experienced a period when we did not distinguish between letters and pictures. Imagining the moment when we first recognized symbols as existing independently of other visual material fills me with emotion, because it is from that process of differentiation that the world itself takes on human significance.
After we've reached a certain age, the process of acquiring a foreign language is exactly the same as what I just described. At first, the foreign language sounds like nothing more than music. But over weeks and months as that music filters into your body, you begin to understand where the breaks fall into what had seemed to be a continuous melody, a before and an after that marks each word. I think a similar process applies to sight, and hearing, and perhaps even touch. Assuming that this differentiation mechanism is the basis for how we respond to seeing or interacting with the world, then language is the most symbolic medium of all.
There are of course all kinds of artists - musicians, painters and so on - but it is my understanding that in the West, poets were traditionally placed at the top of the artistic hierarchy. Some say, cynically, that since poets received little other compensation, placing them in the position of privilege was a mere consolation, but I think there must be a better explanation. Returning to what we were just discussing about the origins of things, I would say that in literature the poets were the most acutely sensitive to this, and that is perhaps why they were raised above their peers.

ART iT: In a sense more than simply relying upon techniques like metaphor and metonymy, poetry and songs are a way to give names to events - not only emotions, but also the strings of concrete and abstract units that comprise a situation. Thinking about what you've just said about differentiation, is it possible that photography is analogous in terms of how it creates images?

NH: That's a beautiful - and indeed poetic - way to think about poetry. In terms of photography, Roland Barthes comes quickly to mind as someone who has written about the overlaps between haiku poems and photography, along the lines that even the simple indexing of things establishes a form of expression, an extremely simple and efficient symbolic mechanism.
In fact just yesterday I attended a discussion on poetry and photography featuring the comparative poetics researcher Keijiro Suga and the photographer, critic and anthropology writer Chihiro Minato. It was a surprisingly interesting discussion. Suga presented a slideshow of photos that he took on his travels of things that simply caught his eye. These were essentially amateur photos, without any sense of the editing and tweaking of art photography. After Suga showed about 20 such images, the conversation turned to how to look at them.
Clearly, these were not the kind of photos you would enter into a contest or display in a museum. Yet Minato raised the point that the photographs change once we have the photographer on hand to discuss them. He cited an image of a crater in a dormant volcano on Easter Island where water had collected and reeds grew in profusion. These same reeds also grow on the mainland in, say, Peru or Chile, but since it seems unlikely that they could have been blown to Easter Island by the wind, you have to assume that they were brought to the volcano by either birds or humans. And the bluish line visible in the image just beyond the edge of this reed-filled volcano lake is the Pacific Ocean. Until we hear this explanation behind what it depicts, the photograph appears to be nothing more than an image of a water-filled hole ringed all around by green, but as we listen to the explanation, the photograph takes on special significance. Minato said that such a "special" photograph becomes a kind of "absolute." The moment that the photographer explains what it is about, the photograph assumes an absoluteness that transcends distinctions of poignancy or banality and becomes something that cannot be forgotten, something unique. So beyond comparing the skill of a photographer in a contest or displaying prints on a gallery wall without any explanatory text and then weighing their impact, there is also this alternative mode of appreciation. This has yet to be properly dealt with in artistic discourse, but recently I've come to feel that this kind of empathetic approach is gaining credence. In other words, instead of trying to determine a photograph's value based on scientific principles, or trying to determine a photograph's excellence based on aesthetic principles, people are starting to embrace a more flexible attitude whereby they discuss the photos as they look at them, and - even though not every single photo will have significance to all people - appreciate them as these absolute objects.
I'm not positive that what I'm saying has a direct relationship to your question about poetry and photographs, but in the event's Q&A period I asked the poet Suga about why he doesn't seem to use rhyming elements in his poems. Now, Suga's poems are composed as written word. But, thinking about the origins of things, language surely existed before literature, to the extent that the age without literature is longer than the age of literature, and the history of oral poetry is surely longer than the history of poetry that was composed through writing. Behind my question was really this interest in knowing what Suga thinks about the long history of poetry before writing.
Suga replied that of course he is well aware of that history, and well aware that his poems do not have obvious rhyming elements. He said that this could be explained partially by the fact that there are relatively few rhyming constructs in Japanese, and partially by the completely different dimensions of using language before and after writing. But he also said that he still gives poetry readings, and that the sound of language is still a concern of his. In any case when you look at Suga's poems on the printed page they are extremely beautiful, just like the script of an accomplished calligrapher. Even as poems, they are visually beautiful; as accumulations of symbols with meaning they are visually beautiful.
On the other hand I can't help wondering about the origins of poetry, just as the idea of the origins of things keeps recurring in our conversation. Further expanding my imagination, I think there must have been a time in human history when language was not yet established in society. I imagine a community that existed before writing, and even before language could be used for communication. I imagine a time when the language system consisted mainly of grunts and gestures, and the social structure comprised only a few dozen people throughout the course of one's life. Although under such circumstances it may have been difficult for even neighboring communities to adopt a means of communication, I imagine - I am positive - that there must have been some kind of poetic expression.
Imagine, in such an era, giving a present to someone you like. In such an instance you would want to give something that could make your object of affection as happy as possible, and so choose something strange or unusual to give. When the gift is given, the other person might experience a momentary shock before figuring out the riddle behind the object. Supposing this object is connected to some kind of shared memory, then maybe the recipient of the gift smiles. I imagine that even in a world in which language was not so developed this kind of scenario probably happened. And in that exchange, you have surprise and metaphor. In other words, something resembling the essence of poetry is already embodied in the gift. This is just a flight of imagination and not something that we can confirm, but I get the feeling that if you could push it that far we could achieve an even broader discussion of poetry that goes beyond the differences in medium between things like language, paintings and photography. On that horizon, the differences between taking photographs or writing texts would no longer be so deterministic. Of course even now there are such poets who do it all, someone like Gozo Yoshimasu who takes photographs, makes sculptures, writes literature and gives readings.

Part I. Flowers-Birds-Landscape-Moon

Part III. Such a Cloven Sensation

A Subjective History of Photography Before and After Literature
2010/10/20 13:00