Miyako Ishiuchi: Photo Weaver

“Grain and Image” at Yokohama Museum of Art gets to the aesthetic and conceptual heart of the photographer’s work.

poster for Miyako Ishiuchi “Grain And Image”

Miyako Ishiuchi “Grain And Image”

at Yokohama Museum Of Art
in the Yokohama, Kanagawa area
Ends in 9 days

In Reviews by Magda Rittenhouse 2018-01-26

Miyako Ishiuchi at the opening of her retrospective 'Grain and Image' “Grain and Image” at the Yokohama Museum of Art marking the 40th anniversary of Miyako Ishiuchi’s debut as a photographer is a thoughtfully curated exhibit spanning the artist’s career. Some 240 works from sixteen different series are presented, starting with the grim, dark photographs inspired by Ishiuchi’s early years in Yokosuka and Yokohama, on through to her intimate renderings of female scars and wounds, and ending with images of personal belongings from three series that have brought her international acclaim in the last decade: ‘ひろしま/hiroshima,’ ‘Mother’s,’ and ‘Frida Kahlo.’ Works never exhibited before are among the displays.

“Kime to Shashin” – the title of the exposition in Japanese – is layered with multiple meanings, which seem key to understanding Ishiuchi’s work. Kime, or photographic grain, which is ever-so present in Ishiuchi’s images, can also refer to crops (like rice or wheat) or to a tiny amount of something (a grain of truth); but it can also be used to mean the texture of a material (stone or wood) or temperament.

Shashin is most often translated from the Japanese as “photograph.” But the word is actually much older than the technology that made it possible to imprint images on light-sensitive film or paper. In the most literal sense, shashin means “copy of the truth.” Ishiuchi has always found the physical aspect of photography – its chemical reactions – to be the most fascinating and important. She works exclusively with film and processes each of her prints by hand. She considers prints to be primarily physical objects and has a very visceral relationship with them. “I have always thought that the darkroom is such a sexual place,” she has said in interviews. “Its smell is so strong. And if you do it with bare hands, it’s like you’re having sex. Photography has that quality; it engages the five senses. It possesses something like sexuality.” In fact, it was darkroom work that inspired Ishiuchi to pick up photography in the first place.

Trained to dye silk (she studied weaving at the Tama Art University), Ishiuchi says she turned to photography after realizing that “the process of developing film miraculously fused the two subjects [… ] graphic design and textile dyeing.” She found photographic paper to feel much like fabric. “I print a photograph as if I am dyeing or weaving. The experience of thrilling to the images emerging through the developer, tracking the grains as though I could count each one, wound up becoming happy memories.”

Her early work is far from thrilling or happy, however. Ishiuchi debuted in 1977 with ‘Yokosuka Story’ – a series of dark and grainy images from the port city with a US military base. Ishiuchi’s parents moved there in the early 1950s, after she turned six. “Practically all of my memories are bad,” she remembers. “There were streets where girls were not allowed to walk, and rapes occurred daily but went unreported.”

“The natural choice is to photograph what you like. I chose what I hated,” she reflects on those early post-war years. Yet, returning to that painful and heavy past proved liberating. It allowed her to “cough up bad memories like black phlegm onto hundreds of stark white developing papers.”

Projects that followed – ‘Apartment’ (1977–78), in which she explored the interiors of Tokyo’s postwar housing, and ‘Endless Night’ (1978–80), for which she photographed brothels – were similar in nature: dark, depressing, roughly grained.

Works from Ishiuchi's 'Silken Dreams' series

In the 1990s, Ishiuchi turned to intimate portraits of female bodies, focusing on scars, blemishes and wounds. In her own words, these are “proofs of lives lived.” The black and white images are still grainy – by now her signature technique – yet softer and quieter than previous works. Curators of the Yokohama exhibit present these works on pastel pink walls, further underscoring their delicate nature. Showing close-ups of wrinkles, calluses, burns and stains, Ishiuchi exposes vulnerabilities: what is usually hidden and not always easy to look at. Yet she does so with tremendous empathy, and as a result beauty rather than sadness pervades these photographs.

In 2000, following her mother’s death, Ishiuchi shifted focus to physical objects and started photographing in color. It was a way of dealing with her own personal wounds. As Ishiuchi recounts, for many years, her relationship with her mother was painfully difficult. Now confronted with loss and remorse, she was going through her mother’s most intimate possessions, not sure what to do. Did photographing old kimonos and underwear feel like touching someone she missed?

“I photograph things that are usually hidden. What appears on the surface doesn’t matter. I want the viewer to […] look underneath the undergarments and scars.”

Ishiuchi views her work at Yokohama Museum of ArtIshiuchi’s objective during the Hiroshima project commissioned by the Peace Memorial Museum (which she accepted with some hesitation) must have been similar: to look beyond the surface. Again she photographs personal belongings, this time of people who vanished 70 years ago and who are still remembered by survivors. Paradoxically, this work – even though it bears marks of tremendous pain and violence – is much less stark than Ishiuchi’s earlier photographs. She often directs her lens towards girly dresses made of sheer, beautifully colored and patterned fabrics. Despite being torn, burn, and stained by blood, they still evoke a sense of beauty and innocence.

Of course, as previously, Ishiuchi is interested in far more than objects: “Quietly concealed in the fold of a one-piece dress, once worn by a young girl from Hiroshima, I came across a patch of vivid color. In that moment, the girl from Hiroshima taught me that her dress embodies a history that can never become the past; an accumulation of time, steeped in the dye, that physically exists in parallel time with me,” she writes in an essay published in the exhibition catalogue.

“The girl’s body no longer exists but the memory of the fabric left behind soars up into the sky, enticed by the star of memory that may exist somewhere in the universe, composed of grains that once were Frida and my mother and all of the people who have died on this earth. I pray that a star of memory exists somewhere in the universe, as another form of eternity.”

Nobuyoshi Araki once called Ishiuchi a “photo weaver.” Indeed she weaves her images, exposing grains and mixing them with light, thrilling to them and fixing them on paper. Are these works “copies of truth,” or perhaps a search for it?

Magda Rittenhouse

Magda Rittenhouse. Magda Rittenhouse: Writer, photographer, traveler and tinkerer… Originally from Poland, she moved to Tokyo from New York, which she still misses at times (the energy and noise and pace). A city creature, she feels passionate about architecture, design and urban planning, but will often sneak out for a hike or a long morning walk, be it around Kamakura or in Chiba. When in Tokyo she won’t miss a good photography exhibit and she knows where to get fabulous soba. She loves tea and Japanese pottery, she is curious about Zen arts, and she even tried practicing calligraphy. She likes singing in the rain, but don’t expect her to carry an umbrella! You can follow her on Instagram @magdarittenhouse and visit her blog: magdarittenhouse.com » See other writings

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