On May 14, Michael Hoppen Gallery in London opened an exhibition devoted to Miyako Ishiuchi’s photographic record of Frida Kahlo’s personal belongings. Yet this is just the tip of the iceberg of the famous photographer’s oeuvre
Born in 1947 in Japan, Miyako Ishiuchi took up photography at the age of 28. Shomei Tomatsu and Daido Moriyama were her first teachers, and later her associates. At the forefront of attention for this young woman who had just taken a camera into her hands, was the state of Japanese society. This was much the same as it was for her famous contemporaries, all of whom were haunted by the traumatic memories of World War II, which marked the beginning of a new era in the history of Japan and sparked irreversible changes in the formation of a new self-identity for the Japanese nation.
The chronicle of Ishiuchi’s creative life begins with the trilogy series “Yokosuka Story” (1977), “Apartment” (1977-1978) and “Endless Night” (1981), all shot in the small town of Yokosuka, where the artist spent her childhood. A US naval base, once located there, turned the town along with other occupied Japanese seaports into a symbolic space of the foreign culture invasion. The photographic language, which Ishiuchi started to speak (black-and-white, coarse-grained and high-contrast images), she borrowed from the representatives of the Provoke movement, which represented a sort of new-wave of Japanese photography. This movement was triggered by the publication of the magazine of the same name in the late 1960s. Young photographers filled the pages of Provoke with the manifestation of a new aesthetic paradigm, briefly expressed in the triad Are-Bure-Boke, which meant “Rough-Fuzzy-Blur”, which seemed to correspond with the mental state of the Japanese in that uncomfortable period. At the same time, taking pictures of urban architecture, narrow streets in residential areas, interiors and (seemingly accidentally caught in the frame) inhabitants of apartment buildings in the town of Yokosuka, the artist opens up the theme of trace that came to define her whole career.
The philosopher Valery Podoroga in his work “On philosophy of archive” distinguishes two types of traces. The story of the town of Yokosuka tied to a specific location on the map and devoted to reflection on the consequences of a specific event, told unsentimentally but with melancholy by Ishiuchi, becomes an archive of traces-in-space, which will eventually take on an immanent feature of dumbness, morphing into a kind of fixed and closed sign of the past. In her later series, the artist appeals to a different type of trace – a trace-in-time, which, in contrast to the first, is fluent, continuous and belongs to two temporal dimensions simultaneously – the past and the present.
From the late 80s, on her way from the concrete to the abstract, Miyako focused on the human body. On the tabula rasa of a newborn infant’s skin, time writes down its stories of individual and social history, turning one’s scars and wrinkles into the souvenirs of experience. Working on her project “126.96.36.199”, the artist created a series of close-up shots of the hands and feet of women born in the same year as her. Such fragmentation became an inherent feature of her visual language. Another significant series devoted to body memory is “1906 To the Skin” (1991-1993) – a series of portraits of an outstanding choreographer and dancer, one of the founders of butoh dance Kazuo Ohno, born in 1906. Leaving the face outside the picture frame, the photographer gives voice to scars and wrinkles, where every fold becomes a new offshoot of the story of firmness and vulnerability of the hero.
In the 90s, Ishiuchi created her series “Scars”, where she rendered in common view something that typically belongs exclusively to the private sphere and is conventionally hidden from prying eyes, at the same time transforming the traditional notion of beauty. By the author’s work, scars, burns and sutures paradoxically become fascinating features of unique beauty. This dialectic of the beautiful and the ugly, juvenility and senility, where one does not exist without its opposite, and where the boundaries between them are so blurred that one’s features are becoming attributes of another, is even more obvious in her final series about scars – “Innocence” (2006 -2007), so intimate that each frame seems to become a confession. Yet it was also just a step – in her classic series “Mother’s” she raises the theme of body memory to a new level.
In 2005, the project “Mother’s” (2000-2005) was exhibited at the Japan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. The series is a life story of the artist’s mother, and the narrative unfolds between the images of fragments of her body strewn with burns and wrinkles and images of her belongings that Ishiuchi carefully catalogs in an attempt to reconcile herself to her sudden loss. It is significant that all those objects were once in direct contact with her mother’s body and formed her “second skin” – the dentures, underwear, cosmetics, hairbrush – they all quietly keep the traces of their former use. The artist makes a discovery – that the folds of the clothing fabric are similar to those of the skin; they change their form according to the individual body relief of their wearer. Not only the body keeps the memory of the past, but also things themselves recall those to whom they belonged. Through these things, the photographer engages with her mother, affording an opportunity to reconsider their parent-child relationship. Thus, “Mother’s”, representing a study of the past and directing into the depths of the photographer herself, becomes both a retrospective and introspective narrative.
The photographic work on the phenomenology of reality, started with “Mother’s”, continued in 2007, when Ishiuchi began the series “ひろしま Hiroshima” at the invitation of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The project consists of a few dozen color images of items that once belonged to people who died from the explosion of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima on a Sunday morning in August 1945.
According to Michel Foucault, who consistently develops the theme of archive, the latter is the foundation of knowledge and, consequently, of culture. Whoever creates an archive takes up a position of power and initiates a certain way of looking and interpretation. Any archivist is able to transform the perception of the archive, and that is just what Ishiuchi does. Her contemporaries similarly do not avoid themes of national tragedy and their artifacts – Kikuji Kawada created a memorial chronicle, taking pictures of veterans and war relics, while Shomei Tomatsu made portraits of victims of the tragedy. Yet, while both of them remain within the black-and-white visual language of Provoke, Ishiuchi deliberately chooses color. Her pictures do not have much in common with the icons of anti-war propaganda, which are generally associated with the traditional black-and-white “historical” archive of disaster. The objects represented in her works do not immerse the viewer in the past as the traces-in-space, but as with the traces-in-time they build up a distance and reveal a gap of some sort where the past meets the present.
Ishiuchi consciously avoids accompanying the pictures with any explanatory texts, choosing not to identify the personality of the former owners of those objects and wearers of those clothes. She seeks mainly not to document the objects, but to create a certain imagery, intended to encourage the viewer’s own inner efforts to perceive the other’s pain and to guide him beyond the tragedy of Hiroshima to the idea of martyrdom itself. In this sense, the fragments of dresses, sleeves and stockings become the bearers of affect, a meeting which provokes an instant recollection – a flash of involuntary memory, as Henri Bergson once called it. On the other hand, the fragile beauty of the things recreated by Ishiuchi tells about the joy of the life people experienced immediately before it came abruptly to an end.
In her latest project, created in 2013, Miyako Ishiuchi reaffirms her magical role of secrets-exposer. This time the secret seems to be the most intriguing, as it has aged for almost two decades in a locked bathroom of the Frida Kahlo house museum. More than three hundred of the objects formerly adapted to mask the effects of many injuries and operations undergone by the Mexican cult artist have come under the reverent and inquiring gaze of Ishiuchi. Out of these seemingly plain shots, the photographer creates a complex portrait of a legendary woman, who through art and fashion boldly turned her infirmities into the basis of her unique identity and striking love of life.
Her multidimensional and deeply rich creative research lasting already for four decades has brought Miyako Ishiuchi the most prestigious photographic awards. The reason, undoubtedly, is in the everlasting significance of her topics of memory, identity, trauma, death, corporeality and beauty.
© Bleek Magazine. Text: Feodora Kaplan. Translation: Daria Kuznetsova.
All images courtesy Michael Hoppen Gallery, London.