III. Such a Cloven Sensation
Naoya Hatakeyama explains his first attraction to photography.
Blast #12022 (2005), C-print, mounted on aluminum, 100 x 150 cm. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.
ART iT: We were just discussing the idea of “absolute” photography and how each photograph, no matter how skillfully executed, contains a unique situation, or story. Is there anything in particular you are trying to communicate through your photographs? For example, you raised the idea that in the 1990s people like Nobuyoshi Araki were trying to communicate sensations through their works.
NH: To clarify my use of “sensation,” I mean it literally in a physical sense. You feel something, and then express that feeling in a bodily way – for example, crying. This includes emotions we feel before engaging abstract thought; in essence, a form of bodily thought. As contemporary society has become more open, or rather as contemporary art has become more diverse, we can no longer deny the appeal of that aspect of experience.
In my case, although I was undeniably influenced by the prevailing concerns of the time when I first started making photographs, many of my works tend to emphasize a sense of being cut off from the world. You could even say that was what attracted me to making photographs in the first place. Perhaps more than wanting to communicate something, what I am doing in my works is investigating why it’s possible to feel a sense of attraction from this cut-off sensation.
Other themes that engrossed me when I first started photography were the idea of “anti-humanness” and the idea of “the object.” Everyday life is relatively stabilized. I was in thrall to the excitement – or thrill even – of destabilizing that sense of security. And it wasn’t just me. If you are familiar with post-war art and literature, then you know that in the 1950s and ’60s many artists shared a pervasive doubt about the idea of agency. This skepticism – it can’t be called nihilism, in which case agency would have been completely eradicated – is something that has continued unabated for the past century across various constructs and situations. For example, groups such as Mono-ha found a way to give elegant and visible form to the invisible relations between objects and space – or if not form, then a state on the verge of becoming form. They were groundbreaking. Even prior to Mono-ha there were artists who emphasized the idea of the objectivity of materials in their works, what my photography teacher at university, Kiyoji Otsuji, a former member of the collective Jikken Kobo (Experimental Workshop), often referred to as viewing “objects as objects.”
So until about the 1980s a mistrust of humanism – a mistrust of subjective idealism – was deeply ingrained in artistic circles in Japan. It’s not that I modeled myself on those precedents; I simply gravitated to that way of thinking. I found the humanistic talk to be so mind numbing I could hardly bear it. It seemed that it only reinforced the status quo of the world and how we engage it. I was much more into things that were completely outside of or that could in some way challenge the anthropocentric mindset. Fortunately, my teacher Otsuji was also the kind of person who enjoyed expressing himself in ways that would disturb the complacent types. Under his influence, I was interested in seeing how I could use photography to shake up the world.
But now I am at a point where I believe it necessary to think more analytically about how I came to pursue those ideas. You could say that photographs are born at a remove from the human mind: once you release the shutter the image is produced through a mechanical process. In taking photographs, you often witness a moment when the self-evidence of the world is disrupted – which in itself is interesting, but I want to know whether there’s any way to push that further.
When we look at a mechanically produced image, we inevitably read some kind of meaning into it, just as we tend to view nature in terms of “landscape.” For example, the practice in Europe of mountain climbing is in fact relatively recent. I’ve been told that mountains were traditionally feared as the realm of evil spirits, and viewed only from a distance. Thus the Matterhorn was not scaled until the mid-19th century, and the first expedition to reach its summit was led not by a local but by an Englishman, Edward Whymper. The English pioneered the modern sport of mountaineering, leading ascents on peaks like Mount Everest and in places like the Alps, and it was only then that the legends of the mountains and their sublime beauty took root in the collective consciousness. So there are these profound gaps between what we understand to be our own impressions and the historical record. I like this aspect of reality – as revealed by historiography – that can upend our preconceptions of aesthetics and humanity. That’s why I feel photography is perfect for me. It’s not that literature precludes such experimentation, but I believe photography sets up a condition where you have to be passive, turn yourself into an antenna for receiving all kinds of signals and encounters with the world. Literature is necessarily generated by people, but a photograph fundamentally exists externally to people. What I like about photography is this sense that you’re not being surprised by something that a person has crafted; the surprise comes from those aspects of photography that are not human.
ART iT: But what you describe as the “passiveness” of photography actually sounds a lot like Modern literature, in the sense that you have authors who reflect upon events that happen inside themselves and write in response to these various stimuli as opposed to composing more action-centered narratives. You might even say that the Modern era brought about a literature that resembles photography, all the more so in light of novels like Kobo Abe’s The Box Man, in which the voyeuristic narrator goes through life covered by a box, and which features photographs inserted into the text.
NH: That’s true. I think this probably first appears with 19th century naturalist literature, which addressed not only the beautiful but also the ugly and the insignificant in a way that overlaps with the idealized vision of the camera as a mechanical medium for documenting the world without bias. In any case it was certainly around this time that the word “nature” took precedence over the gods as representing an existence greater than humanity, as representing the transcendental. With the rise of phenomenology in the 20th century, even more complex discussions emerged about whether transcendence can be found in subjectivity, and literature developed in pace with that. In that sense, I think literature can respond quickly to epochal shifts, with similar constructs appearing only somewhat later in art and photography.
As an aside, it is said that naturalism was inspired by contemporaneous advances in scientific theory and publications like Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. There were also groups reconsidering photography from similar perspectives, such as the English Pictorialism group. At first glance the works of the Pictorialists appear to mimic Impressionist painting, but they were actually based on a faith in scientific principles. For example, the Pictorialists understood from physiological research that the human eye cannot see everything in all directions in pan focus, so they felt that the correct composition for their photos was to focus the line of sight on one sharp point, and then leave everything else blurred.
We can see another example of the parallel relations between literature and photography in the concurrent popularity of recent trends like French “autofiction,” in which authors fictionalize their own biographies, and Japanese “I-photography” [the name of which, shi-shashin, evokes the early 20th-century Japanese literary genre of the I-novel]. You could almost jokingly say that Modern literature and photography are tied at the hip, with all these odd couples like Flaubert and Walker Evans, or Nouveau Roman and Japan’s provoke photographers, Beat and Robert Frank and so on.
Looking at things circumstantially in this way, you start to see the crudeness of everyday language and thinking. Yet instead of finding clarity, the more closely you inspect things, the more the points for closer inspection proliferate. It might indeed be more productive to just write off all this introspection as “literary” and get on with my work, but on the other hand since making photographs is essentially about viewing the world more closely, as a photographer I am compelled to look closer.
Blast #12023 (2005), C-print, mounted on aluminum, 100 x 150 cm. Courtesy Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo.
ART iT: Are there any books that you yourself are reading right now?
NH: I’m reading the new Japanese translation of Sartre’s Nausea (Jinbun Shoin, 2010) by Michihiko Suzuki. The book was first translated into Japanese in the 1950s and had been left untouched since then. There are many differences between the original and new versions. For example, one of the book’s diary entries notes only, “Nothing. Existed.” In Suzuki’s translation, all instances of the original word used for “exist,” jitsuzon, have been replaced with the word sonzai. For a long time I had never been able to get my head around the use of the word jitsuzon, which thwarted my appreciation of the book, but with that one change the new translation read much more smoothly. As the humanistic evolution of the philosophy of being (sonzai no tetsugaku), existentialism (jitsuzon shugi) had a profound impact on post-war Japanese society, but honestly for contemporary Japanese the use of the verb form of jitsuzon conveys only a sense of datedness, whereas I feel that Suzuki’s use of the verb form of sonzai will help extend the life of the book into the future. (1)
The other book I’m reading is Italo Calvino’s The Cloven Viscount (translated into Japanese in 1971), in which the protagonist heads off to war and then has his body split down the middle by a cannon ball. It’s a wild story that concludes with a confrontation between the two halves of the viscount (one of whom is oppressively bad and the other of whom is overbearingly good), who have returned separately to their home. You could read it as Calvino’s critique of dualism. Moreover, the way he layers details into the story, or the way he constructs scenes, is something that no ordinary writer could achieve. In contrast with Nausea, this story has a clear narrative arc, but what I like about it is that, like an exciting ride, it gives you this sense of leaping through time and space.
ART iT: Actually, earlier when you mentioned the idea of a society without language and a poetry before words, it immediately brought to mind Calvino’s Cosmicomics, in which he uses the history of the universe as the basis for a group of short stories. For example, there is a story that takes place during the time when it was theorized that the entirety of space was contained in a single point, with all the characters in the narrative also contained in this single point.
NH: Calvino’s sense for responding to conditions of “nothingness” is nonpareil. He had this unique ability to start with a condition of nothingness and then bring forth an entire, vivid story. He created being from non-being. And ultimately that, I feel, is closely related to the essence of photography.
Naoya Hatakeyama‘s work is currently on view in the solo exhibition “Scales” at the Daiwa Foundation Japan House Gallery, London, through December 15.
A contraction of the term genjjitsu sonzai, the word jitsuzon was a neologism created in the early 20th century for the purpose of translating existentialist literature, and is used almost exclusively in academic contexts, whereas the word sonzai is more appropriate to everyday usage, and is arguably more reflective of the tone of the writing in Nausea, in which a narrator records his thoughts and experiences through a series of diary entries.
A Subjective History of Photography Before and After Literature