4: Naoya Hatakeyama - Final

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Naoya Hatakeyama: Awesome – a Japanese sublime
Traditional Japanese aesthetics does not invoke the concept of the sublime as espoused in various western European sources and it scarcely features in Japanese photographic practise. The work of Naoya Hatakeyama has consistently turned this tradition on its head. Moreover he does this while extending the tradition of Japanese landscape art and casting an analytical eye over man’s interactions with the environment – most notably through mineral extraction and building. The end result is a fusion - perhaps even a unique fusion - of Japanese and western practise and tradition.

Biographical Background and development of his work
Hatakeyama was born in 1958 in Rikuzentakata, (Comstock, 2012) in the NE of Honshu, Japan. He studied at the University of Tsukuba in 1981, and completed post-graduate studies there in 1984. Currently he lives and works in Tokyo. (PrixPictet, 2012)

He is one of a relatively small number of contemporary Japanese photographers making a significant impact in the West. Sample biographies (PrixPictet, 2012) suggest that he made his mark in Europe before making much impression in the US. For example, he was invited to participate in the Rencontre d’Arles in 2003 (Foam, 2012) and 2009 (EyeCurious, 2009) but his first solo show in the States was not until 2012 (Comstock, 2012). He was short-listed in the Earth category in the 2012 Prix Pictet, and has received a number of awards in Japan. (Wikipedia, 2013)

Hatakeyama has described himself as a “scientist, and said that he uses photography to investigate the “outer world” as he describes nature. (Joy of Giving Something LLC, 2005)

His work certainly displays a clear interest in the interaction between man and his environment and takes the format of a number of series which when seen together, as in the LA Galerie website (LAGalerie, 2012), clearly interweave in their ideas. He has described his work as being about humans’ creations. (Joy of Giving Something LLC, 2005)

In his most well-known works - studies of limestone quarries and cement factories published as Lime Works in 2002 (Hatakeyama, 2002) - Hatakeyama talks of the idea of the quarries being in some senses a negative of the cities built from the excavated material. In a short video for Nazraeli Press (Joy of Giving Something LLC, 2005) he talks of his difficulties photographing in cities until he saw a similarity between the texture of the buildings seen from high up and the limestone in the quarries.

This led him to photograph from high places – trying to capture the “skin of the city” – producing a series of shots of Tokyo from tall buildings (LAGalerie, 2012). In the same video he explains how this led him to reflect on the up and down movement of people in cities, a thought process which culminated in his River and Underground series beneath the street of Shibuya, Tokyo.

His Ciel Tombe series draws these ideas together - being an exploration of the limestone quarries beneath Paris. His interest in mineral extraction also informs Terrils, a study of the slag hills in a coal mining region of France (PhotoBookStore, n.d.) and Blast – an ongoing series of images of quarrying explosions. Atmos (LAGalerie, 2012), extends these studies of man’s interaction with the environment with photos of clouds and smoke being contrasted with more peaceful landscape views. Other later series are more abstract, such as River Series Shadow and Slow Glass. Most recently he has produced a series of the remnants of his home town, which was destroyed in the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. He lost his mother in the same disaster, and this seems to be a watershed in his work. It is noticeable that the images he has produced in these series are of a different character to his previous work. (see later)

A key feature of all but his more abstract work is his invocation of the sublime to emphasise the impact of our interaction with the environment. This is very unusual for a Japanese artist, as there appears to be little or no tradition of the sublime in Japanese art. (Saito, 2002) (Richie, 2007). The nearest Japanese equivalent appears to be “yugen” which carries with it a sense of the unknown but would not be described as awesome.
In a short video clip from the SFMoMA website Hatakeyama conflates the Kantian idea of “too large” or “without boundaries” with the original thought behind the vernacular term “awesome”. (Hatakeyama, 2012). He also uses Burke’s premise that beauty and the sublime are different – indeed he describes the conventionally beautiful as “often not interesting”.

It is worth noting that the sublime has, in the west, usually been associated with natural phenomenon – mountains, great oceans, and natural disasters. Hatakeyama has consistently turned this tradition on its head and used man-made artefacts as the centre of his sublime.

Cultural Context
Traditionally Japanese art had close associations with nature, with the themes of impermanence and change and the idea of long apprenticeships studying the techniques and philosophy of the art form. In spite of its cultural modernity, and the wholesale rejection of certain traditions – e.g ink block painting disappeared as a major form shortly after the introduction of photography – many would say that the link with nature is retained within Japanese culturee.g. (Saito, 2002).

In The History of Japanese Photography Fumio Nanjo is cited as arguing that a dilemma for contemporary Japanese photographers is the balance between presenting an international face without being regarded as an imitator and maintaining a cultural identity without being trapped or stereotyped by tradition. (Nanjo, 1989) cited in (Friis-Hansen, 2003). Friis-Hansen suggests that one adopted solution to the dilemma has been the development of the landscape/cityscape tradition of Japanese art to reflect the continuing physical changes to Japan. Hatakeyama’s work sits squarely into this category with its concentration on the development of cities and the consequential erosion of the landscape itself – he is on record as saying “Mines and cities are like the negatives and positives of a photograph”. (Hatakeyama, 2006)

In the same essay he discusses the impact of man on the environment, and the idealized view of nature that grows among those – like most in modern society – who live cut off from it. He observes that even in the most idealized of photographs of nature man is still present – at the edges of the frame, and behind the viewfinder. He highlights the irony that if we try too hard not to participate our absence becomes a political statement of itself.

In a discussion on the development of Japanese photography Japanese critic Takeuchi (Takeuchi, 2008) identifies that “a number of photographers came to the fore with series that stand at the crossroads between art and photography”. She argues that they can be roughly divided into two groups: one which uses photography as an intellectual tool to investigate the world and the other as a tool to explore the “imaginary and transcend time and space”. She identifies Hatakeyama as belonging to the former category.
I would argue that he is rather different from prominent western landscape photographers. His images are detached and objective – although unlike proponents of New Objectivity there is no obvious attempt at typography. Neither is there a sense that they are taken purely for their aesthetic impact - he is not chasing the light like a Cornish or a Rowell.

On the converse, neither is his work overtly campaigning. He is not seeking to justify conservation like Ansel Adams, nor deliberately highlight the insidious effects of poorly controlled industry - like say Burtinsky, or Misrach in Cancer Alley - for all that his work majors on the impact of man on the environment. Nowhere in his writing and interviews have I found a suggestion that he considers this impact should be halted. Neither have I found any obvious political statements – in fact he has directly refuted the suggestion that his Blast series is in any way related to the events of 9/11 in the USA as some have suggested, describing the idea as a “shock”. (Rawlings, 2008)

In line with his description of himself as a scientist his work is much closer philosophically to a series of investigations into the changes to the natural world wrought by man and time. In this I sense the remnant of Japanese landscape tradition with its portrayal of man playing a part in an impermanent and ever changing world.

Hatakeyama’s work and style
Hatakeyama’s style has been variously described as “deadpan” (Cotton, 2009, p. 93), “austere and beautiful” (Friis-Hansen, 2003) and “calmly and dispassionately show(ing) the beauty of form and colour” (Huis Marseille - Museum voor Fotografie, 2011).

It has been suggested that he is influenced by the New Topographics movement (Sauer-Thompson, 2009) and he has acknowledged the influence of the Becher’s on his work. I believe that this is true only in the broadest of senses – along with much other contemporary landscape photography. He produces series of similar subjects e.g. Rivers, Ciel Tombe – although though not in the typological sense of the Bechers, and in the same article he also notes that “Their work is so strong I think that no artists today can say they are not influenced by it.” (Baker, 2012).

Perhaps more pertinently New Topographics was concentrated on the banal (O'Hagan, 2010) – the trite, feeble and commonplace – and Hatakeyama’s works feature the huge (Lime Works), the hidden (Rivers) and the impossible to observe without photography (Blasts).

More credence can be given to the suggestion that he has been influenced by the works of Caspar Friedrich (Huis Marseille - Museum voor Fotografie, 2011) (Bradner, 2012) perhaps most obviously because of his use of a similar colour palette and his use of distance, shadow and perspective to invoke the sublime (Liebs, 2002).
IMAGES: Friedrich: Das Eismeer Hatakeyama: from Lime Works   Friedrich: Chasseur In The Forest Hatakeyama: Rivers

See the sightswithin website (Anon., 2007) for examples of Friedrich’s works. Hatakeyama is also on record in the Liebs article as saying that Friedrich is his favourite artist, and this does seem to have been repeated regularly across many references to his work.

An examination of one or two more examples will allow us to explore these similarities further. These two images are typical of his Lime Works series: IMAGES REMOVED

There is a very different viewing experience seeing these images on line – in both cases the print version has considerably more impact. The first impression in both cases is of massive scale. Both images emphasise this by having the subject run out of frame and dramatic diagonals which encourage our eyes to the edges of the frame and beyond. Couple this with very limited reference points to show true scale this invokes – emphasises even – the idea that these objects are too large to easily comprehend and conjures up the forces required to reduce a mountain to a hole in the ground. Finally the colour palette - blues and browns - and the sombre tones add a feeling of mystery. Comparison with Friedrich shows – at the very least – a visual similarity.

This visual similarity is taken even further in the Atmos series which features many pictures of mists and vapours,
IMAGES REMOVED: Friedrich: Drifting Clouds Hatakeyama: from Atmos
and his Blast series which again features rich brown colours, clouds (of rock and dust) and the implicit power of explosions to create drama.

In addition to the colour, tone and scale there is clear sense of distance between the viewer and the object in these images. Hatakeyama himself has talked about the idea of feeling cut off from the world when taking these photos and this contributes to the feeling of “otherness”. His frequent use of high viewpoints as in his aerial views of Tokyo emphasises this sense. Again he frequently allows the subject to spill outside of the frame to emphasise the scale of the subject and he has also presented the cityscapes as large collages which emphasise the idea of their scale even further as in the examples he displayed at the 49th Venice Biennial. (Anon., 2001)
As noted previously he has spent a lot of time photographing below street level most notably in three series – Rivers, Underground and Ciel Tombe. (LAGalerie, 2012)
Because of the crowded nature of the Tokoyo cityscape he was forced to use his panoramic camera on its side in Rivers producing a tall thin image with claustrophobic buildings above and on both sides and a dark wet unknown below. The bleak formality of this series, with its vertical panorama format and central horizon line, also emphasises the idea of nature under control. In nature limestone formations are frequently shaped and moulded by water so there is, for me, a strong sense of irony in the idea that we have dug the limestone out and used it to shape and mould rivers.

In Ciel Tombe and Underground he is photographing in tunnels – frequently with a single strobe. Underground is an extension of his Rivers series – he has simply ventured into the tunnels whose mouths we see in Rivers, while Ciel Tombe is a separate piece of work, captured beneath Paris which he describes as being about gravity. These series seem in some ways to be set in opposition. Underground has darkness encroaching on all sides emphasising the alien, while Ciel Tombe frequently has a blast of almost heavenly light shining from the ceiling – as a result of the lighting technique used. The piles of rock on the floor hark back to some of his quarry images.

The last series we will examine here is the one of his home town Rikuzentakata taken after it was totally destroyed by the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami in 2011. Hatakeyama’s mother died in the tsunami, and his childhood home was destroyed. Unsurprisingly this has had a major impact on his work. The personal impact can be seen in a video interview he gave at the site of his mother’s home on the 1st Anniversary of the tsunami. (Courdy, 2012)

The resulting photos are considerably more personal than his previous work and by coincidence he is able to compare them with a series he started prior to the tsunami – a before and after. (Bohr, 2012) In spite of the scale of the disaster the images do not, to me at least, invoke the same sense of mystery or sublime. The wreckage fills the image and spills beyond its edges, so some sense of the appalling scale of the event is retained, but at the same time it is at the photographer’s feet. There is a sense of being there, rather than observing.

The two panoramas in the source cited appear as prints stuck together– a far cry from the technical mastery on display in his previous works. Even the manner in which has chosen to display his images is different – clustered closely together like memories in a long stream – rather than boldly displayed as large individual prints. (Wired, 2012) It is almost as if the scale of the disaster and the personal tragedy has overwhelmed him. In the same video he talks of his memories being washed away with his hometown, and how his perception of himself as a scientist trying to understand nature has been brought to a full stop.

Hatakeyama’s work effectively combines the traditional Japanese artistic themes of nature and change with the western aesthetic of the sublime, and as a result produces which capable of speaking to audiences in both cultures. He exhibits a clear and lasting interest in the interactions between man and nature, but unlike many western photographers there is no suggestion that he is doing this for political impact. Rather he has been interested in the scale of man’s activities and they changes they have wrought as an intellectual exercise – he has been an investigator.

There is every indication that he would have continued in this vein but the Tohoku earthquake has clearly had a major impact on his life and the direction of his photography.
He is one of a growing number of Japanese photographers making an impact on the international scene. His increasing impact is underscored by his first US solo exhibition in 2012 and his frequent appearances in Europe.

How his work and his impact will develop in the light of the personal tragedy he has suffered, alongside many thousands of his countrymen, remains to be seen.

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