Lines, Models and Other Illusions
By Aveek Sen
Installation view of TWENTY-FOUR BLASTS 2011 (2011). Courtesy Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.
Architects continue to think and work towards the completion of architecture. But every step closer to completion takes something away from us…It is in this very paradox that architecture comes into itself.
– Toyo Ito, Introduction to Under Construction, by Naoya Hatakeyama and Toyo Ito (Tokyo, 2001)
In the beginning of The Ruined Map, Kobo Abe’s Kafkaesque thriller of the late 1960s, a private investigator is driving tensely up a steep incline. He barely misses a young roller-skater, steps on the accelerator and suddenly finds himself in a housing complex, where he stops his car. The houses lie beside “a straight, white line of road stretched to a sky daubed with white”:
The perspective was strangely exaggerated, perhaps because the grass had withered unevenly, and I was struck with an optical illusion. It was as if I were looking at some patterned infinity: the four-storied buildings, identical in height, each floor with six doors, were lined up in rows of six to the right and left. Only the fronts of the buildings, facing the road, were painted white, and the colour stood out against the darkish green of the sides, emphasizing even more the geometric character of the view. With the roadway as an axis, the housing development extended in two great wings, somewhat greater in width than in depth. Perhaps it was for the lighting, but as the buildings were laid out in staggered lines, on both sides one’s view met only white walls supporting a milk-white dome of sky.
This is a scene of disappearance, in which human beings, when they do appear fleetingly, start looking reduced and unreal:
It was all ordinary enough at first glance, but when one focused on the distant landscape, people seemed like fanciful reflections. Of course, if one were used to living here, I should imagine the viewpoint would be quite the opposite. The view became fainter and fainter, transparent almost to the point of extinction, and only my face emerged like a picture printed from a negative. I had had enough of distinguishing myself. For this human filing cabinet with its endless filing-card apartments was merely the glass frame, each encasing its own family portraits.
The illusion of infinite repetition, rather than making more real what is being repeated, takes it toward a sort of vanishing point. As the houses disappear into the landscape, something peculiarly contradictory begins to happen to the presence of the human within this vista. While being informed with the human, the vista reduces the human to a “point of extinction.” And this contradiction is produced not so much by the landscape itself as by an individual’s gaze.
Abe’s narrator records the fading away of the view in front of him. But he also sees himself as more sharply etched against this dissolve. The residents of the endless row of houses seem to disappear into a dehumanizing filing system. But the narrator begins to assume a more “distinguished” being through the act of looking. What he experiences is not just an illusion, but an optical illusion. It affirms the very existence of the eye in actual space. The observer – alert to his own presence in a perspective that reduces people to nothing – becomes the positive to the illusion’s negative. Landscape, architecture, vision and subjectivity come together in Abe’s use of the language of photography here. A way of seeing and of giving material form to seeing, photography provides the metaphors for exploring architecture’s paradoxical relations with the human and the real.
In Abe’s novel, the housing development is somewhere in the outskirts of Tokyo. But it could well have been in the British town of Milton Keynes, where the Japanese photographer and writer, Naoya Hatakeyama, went around in a jeep for four months in 2001, photographing housing estates. Hatakeyama writes about how he shot the houses from a height of three meters, going up a ladder to reach his “old-fashioned” camera placed on a giant tripod. With his cumbersome equipment, fluorescent-yellow waistcoat and “Asian face,” he was the perfect outsider in the quintessential New English Town. His re-mapping of this fruit of late-20th-century urban planning is an unsettling mix of visual languages. Titled “Still Life,” Hatakeyama’s pictures of the housing estates are what a historian of art photography calls “deadpan” photography, its “seeming neutrality and totality of vision” going back to the industrial and architectural photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher in Germany. But the stillness of this work is also infused by an idea taken from science-fiction. “Still Life” becomes part of a book called Slow Glass, the title of which alludes to a form of glass that slows the speed of light, as imagined in a short story by Bob Shaw. This glass stores light from another time, keeping a record of scenes and events from the past. The same Milton Keynes houses that are shot with preternatural clarity in “Still Life” are captured in Slow Glass as vivid blurs of colour, light and form, seen through a glass pane covered with tiny drops of water that suggest the English drizzle. The droplets form a screen of tiny mirrors in the foreground, each holding within its little world the scene we are not allowed to get close to by the glass. We are at the mercy of a distance regulated by another mind, and the photographs are more about this distance, and this mind, than about what lies across the distance.
Together, Slow Glass and “Still Life” create two kinds of reflectiveness and melancholy around homes and neighborhoods: the former, by inserting a screen of silent feeling between the viewer and the houses; the latter, by portraying the houses in the glow of human absence. The golden afternoon light brings to mind the classical serenity of Vermeer’s View of Delft, but also infuses the scenes with a desolation closer in spirit to the beginning of The Ruined Map than to the bleakness of the Bechers. For Hatakeyama, to look at these housing estates as “still life” is to think of them more as “still alive” or “quiet life” than as nature morte or “dead nature.” But this quietness is linked to the objectifying power of photography. He recalls that the Japanese word for still life, seibutsu, literally means “still object.” And, as objects, what these photographs of the houses remind him of are “table-top models.”
What does it mean for an artist to photograph buildings to make them look like models, and models to make them look like buildings? Hatakeyama has done both, memorably. He has used the resulting bodies of work to reflect on architecture and photography, and, crucially, on the relation of each to human life, thought and forces of nature. Illusion and critique, tricks of sight and rigorous thinking, come together in his photobook, Scales (2007), in which models of New York buildings displayed in Japan and China form two series of photographs. In a black-and-white that is reminiscent of early-20th-century New York photography, these familiar skyscrapers, shot from familiar angles, look rather unremarkably real until we start noticing the people on the streets, and something strikes us, though still vaguely, as not quite right. Then, in the last but one image of the sequence, we suddenly see a man crouching among the buildings like a human King Kong or Goya giant, upsetting our sense of scale altogether. That is when we realize that we have been looking at model buildings and people.
This is followed by a series in color, again of New York cityscapes, that looks obviously unreal. They are shot from close, without any glimpse of sky, people or other indications of life and scale. The images look like flattened, abstract patterns of lines, colors and forms – a childlike, but desolate, Legoland world that reveals signs of dilapidation and fragility on closer inspection. Then the pages open out and we see a black-and-white series of what we take to be vertiginous aerial views of Tokyo. But one of the texts in the book, which we may choose not to read at all, reveals that this vertigo is false – like Edgar’s illusionistic description of the view of the sea from the cliffs of Dover to his blinded old father in King Lear. Hatakeyama’s aerial photographs are actually diagonal panoramic views of a model of Tokyo on a scale of 1:1000, 7.7 by 10.2 meters large, displayed in the Mori Building. Even without reading the text, optical doubt has been planted in our heads by the two earlier series, so that reduction, elevation and realism – the tools of mapping, modeling and design – create disorientation rather than certainty about what exactly we are looking at.
Enabled by an invitation from the Canadian Centre for Architecture to study its archive of photographs of architectural models, Scales begins with an essay by Hatakeyama that starts with a simple question he often would ask as a child: “Why are people in the distance so small?” On pondering this question as an adult photographer, Hatakeyama comes upon two, somewhat disconcerting, recognitions. First, there is an essential element of reduction in the very nature of art: to represent an object is always to “give up” certain dimensions of it, like volume, color, smell, the tactile or the temporal. So, modelling becomes almost a metaphor for art-making, and photographing a model is to make “a model of a model.” Second, with the digitization of design, architecture could get rid of the model altogether, blurring the distinction between design and construction. “It is as if,” an architect tells the photographer, “a large model itself becomes a building.” And this makes the photographer wonder, “What if someone looked at an actual building and said, ‘That model is very large’?”
It is at such a moment that architecture, challenged by the relative and subjective quality of perception itself and about to fall off the edge of the real, could let go of something crucial, some vital dimension whose absence takes it to a level of abstraction removed from human lives and time. Hatakeyama’s photography and writings register this “giving up” of the ghost, the human spirit, of architecture as a reduction, a kind of loss, for both architecture and humankind. To understand this loss is not only to understand the vagaries of scale – why people in a distance are so small – but also to let the scales fall from the eyes, to lose our visual innocence and not see the way a child sees. Hence, the shadow of a pun in the title, Scales, and the book’s opening image of a gigantic Gulliver of concrete lying helpless and alone in the snow, reducing the world of real trees, vehicles and factories around him to absurd, toy-like objects. Who better than a photographer to show how, in a world that makes a fetish of enlargement, the architect as well as the artist could become victims of scale?
Yet, just as architecture can reduce the human, it can also be reduced by the human, turning loss into gain. In the same year that Scales was published, Hatakeyama had an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura, in which he showed his architectural works. He called this show “Draftsman’s Pencil,” and wrote an essay called “Tracing Lines” for the catalogue. In this particular presentation of his works, the reduction inevitable in modelling and photography becomes something other than loss. The city and its photographic images are seen as an increasingly complex web of actual lines, a combination of drawing, writing and building, which become graphic, manual activities that are directly connected to the activity of the human imagination, mind and will. It is the task of photography and writing, each with its own “naïvely honest pencil,” to restore to the dehumanized lines of the city their vital links with volition and the living hand.
Hatakeyama feels the oppressiveness of a city’s “artificial lines and planes” through the eyes of a dying man who has reached “the limit of the severity of looking at things.” He remembers Takagi Jinzaburo, the nuclear scientist turned anti-nuclear activist, lying in his deathbed and looking out of his window:
The window frame, the curtain rail, smooth glass, the joint where the wall and the ceiling meet, the edge and wall of the opposite building, the windows cut through there with regularity, the water tower and antenna on the roof, the power lines traversing in midair – such lines drawn by the human hand appeared unbearably loathsome to his exhausted eyes. On such occasions, his eyes kept wishing for organic lines and planes that continued to change all the time. He would search for trees, plants, water, the clouds and birds in the sky, or the mountains.
Everything that this dying man looks for through his window, the changing worlds of water, sky and mountains, together with the mortality he embodies, was at the heart of Hatakeyama’s latest exhibition, “Natural Stories,” which closed in December 2011 at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. None of the earlier architectural works was part of this show. Yet, in a sense, “Natural Stories” was about the beginning, and the end, of architecture. Having lost his mother and his hometown to the tsunami in March 2011, the “naturalness” of the stories that Hatakeyama tells take on a terrible beauty, at once sublime and apocalyptic, evoking the First and Last Things.
The stories of architecture, of building and unbuilding, of human dwellings being made in order to be unmade by uncontrollable forces of nature, become inextricable from one another in this exhibition. As early as 1995, Hatakeyama had gone in search of the origins of his city to Japan’s limestone quarries, out of which comes the stuff of which Tokyo is made. “Lime Works” takes the story of cement back to its geological sources, collapsing the artificial into the natural by photographing the dynamite-powered blasts with which limestone is extracted from the quarries for human use. This is the work that Hatakeyama returns to in this exhibition, placing it at the very end. The images of the blasts are projected in slow motion upon an immense wall in a room that is darkened at regular intervals for the projection. But, in order to come to this room, we have to make a journey, first through his photographs of mountains, most of which turn out to be terrils or slag heaps, hidden among whose man-made sublimities we see, if we look closely enough (to look closely at the Sublime is itself a paradox), long rows of tiny homes forming lines that merge with the lines of nature. We then have to pass through a sequence of photographs that documents the tearing down of a building as a slow-motion catastrophe of epic proportions. From this, we move underground to a work called “Ciel Tombé” (Fallen Sky), which tells the story of how “the sky fell down”: “It penetrated vertically through the cities, architecture and our bodies, falling underground. The sky has now become an ancient layer of earth permeating below the city we live.” It is only after making this subterranean journey that we come to the innermost chamber of the show, in which Hatakeyama presents his most recent work: a huge grid of photographs that records the devastation of his hometown by the tsunami.
We emerge from this chamber, stilled by the classical restraint with which it accepts the naturalness of the story unfolding in it. The room we come out into suddenly darkens and, defying chronology, the limestone blasts are projected soundlessly before our eyes, the slowness of the projection placing the work somewhere between the still and the moving image, monumental in its dimensions, yet proclaiming in silence the absolute fragility of human monuments.
Aveek Sen is senior assistant editor (editorial pages) of The Telegraph, Calcutta. He studied English literature at Jadavpur University, Calcutta, and University College, Oxford, and taught English literature at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. He was awarded the 2009 Infinity Award for writing on photography by the International Center of Photography, New York.
Naoya Hatakeyama: Lines, Models and Other Illusions