Issue 4 April-May 1992 RSS

History Pictures


Paul Graham

James Roberts: Your new photographs from Japan are not the kind of archetypal images of ‘Japaneseness’ that we have been bombarded with during the recent Japan Festival…

Paul Graham: Well, they’re not tourist pictures of Japan! What has preoccupied my work for the last ve or six years has been the way that History bears down upon society. It started with the work I did in Ireland - Troubled Land - which are apparently innocuous landscape photographs. In fact, each photograph was booby-trapped - if you will excuse the term - with a small device that launched it into a political area, and made the landscape act as a reflection on that society. This was in 1984-86, and then in 1988-90 I moved on to work in Europe with the nine countries of the EEC - the capitalist countries of Western Europe - where the work concentrated on looking at how history, or historical pressures, were prevalent within society. One could see the fissures and nervous tics in the surface of each city or particular country: the pressure of the past on the German conscience; how Franco has a bearing on contemporary Spain, for example. Using photography to reflect upon History is very strange… it sounds like a contradiction in terms.

I think there is a more fundamental problem in photography with the relationship between the caption and the photograph: how the text may totally alter your reading of the image. This is something that interests me about the Japanese series in particular: that you can’t immediately read the significance of the subject. When you look at the work with the two skies, for example, the meaning changes radically when you know what they are.

The one on the left is a backdrop in a war museum in Tokyo called the Yasukuni National Shrine…

The secret war museum?

The low-profile one, yes. It was controversial because the Japanese Prime Minister wasn’t seen to be visiting it on their equivalent of Remembrance Day, but now he does. It has Kamikaze planes and things like that, and this was a backdrop to little model planes flying in front of it.

It’s a very Hollywood Happy Ending type image.

It’s a happy beginning - the sun rising and bursting through the clouds - very much like the Japanese military flag. On the right is an aerial photograph of the atomic cloud over Hiroshima.

The dream and the reality.

On one level it is as simplistic as the promise and the reality, but there is more to it than that. A number of the images are very close, very intense - I used a macro lens on things that were only two or three inches high - so that they are more or less unidentifiable until you get the general drift of the topic.

You could make a fairly good guess at what images like the atomic cloud are, but whether you could identify…

...the keloid scars…

...or the people bowing in the photograph with the Be Happy Every Day! tissues. There is really no way you could work out what they might be doing - apart from bowing.

I think every Japanese person would know what that is.

So how do you intend that to work for a non-Japanese audience?

Well, I don’t rely on titles for the works, but captions are important. Telling someone what the subject is and the location, is valuable. The caption to this work would be something simple like ‘listening to Hirohito’s speech of surrender’. I am not aiming to mystify, or to play on ambiguity in the sense of ‘what on earth is he photographing?’. It is necessary for people to get the caption information to understand the image.

Some of the contemporary images are very obtuse: the work with the bar code, for example. The image on the left is trying to be a photograph.

It is a piece of wrapping paper I was given… It is difficult to explain exactly what is going on even though it is so simple: it has flash irises - the shapes you get from the diaphragm from a camera when you point it into intense light - superimposed on top of a pastel coloured rainbow.

It’s very cosmic.

Yes, it’s very psychedelic, explosive almost… It was paired with an image of the Nagasaki fireball taken from a 16mm film shot by the Americans from an observation plane.

...In glorious Kodachrome. It’s equally psychedelic.

All these pairings have a very superficial link on one level: there are the four fluffy clouds and the four fluffy cats; the sky and the sky; the flash of the fireball and the flash printed on the wrapping paper. So there is a superficial level at which one can get involved and start to unlock the image. Then one has to beg the question of why these two images are paired - what it is that binds them beyond this superficial link. That is how the work tries to engage the viewer: besides the obvious, what is the personal, internalised connection that underwrites these two things within Japan, past and present.

Don’t you think there is a danger in that: that people will just read the work on this superficial visual level and then move on?

There is a danger, but it works both ways. If it is not there, then people won’t engage with them at all. I think that one has to help people engage in the first instance. In some cases there is humour, and that helps. It is something I used with Troubled Land, for example, by making the landscape photographs look very beautiful, very seductive, so that one is drawn into engaging with the image - what a nice sky, what lovely fields - and then the concentration is caught and one can manipulate it to address something else. It is the same with this work.

I think the scale does that as well. Having a very large, lush image is very attractive.

The scale and presentation of the diptychs is important. Firstly, they are large, and secondly, they are not two photographs mounted on something, but two images printed on a single sheet of paper - a single skin. If you want to get dreamy about it, this makes a bond between the two images - a continuous skin between the past and present.

Like the four Hiroshima clouds and the four cats in the calendar… The photographs of the Hiroshima atomic cloud are very bizarre. They are displayed in the Hiroshima Peace Museum with a caption underneath, but they are so tightly cropped that they are almost abstract photographs rather than documentary work.

That’s right - but as an historical aside, it turned out that the photographer later died from radiation poisoning because he was so close to the explosion. It’s not that he cropped his pictures, but that he was so close that he couldn’t get anything but the cloud in the photograph.

There seems to be a much stronger formal element in your Japanese work. That may be something that comes from the subjects - the wrapping paper and toys for example - but there is an aesthetic pleasure in the images: their colour combinations…

...and their playfulness as well: putting four fluffy kittens with four fluffy atomic bomb clouds. It is almost something that one shouldn’t be playful with, but it is something that Japanese society plays around with - very gingerly and possibly subconsciously. That is one way of dealing with it.

That aestheticism has slipped through in some of the photographs that you have used. The documentary photograph of the woman Hiroshima victim burned by her Kimono, looks like Ingres’ Grande Beigneuse - the pose is almost identical. I wonder about the person who took the photograph… there is an aestheticism in that kind of image.

That is a problem of photography. Photographs re-contextualize. Even if it was, say, a medical student who took the picture, that photograph has now become one of the iconic images of the war.

Maybe that’s why - because of the formal qualities of the photograph.

There are only probably half-a-dozen, or maybe a dozen, key images about that period of time that have become branded into the Japanese consciousness.

I have appropriated two or three, of which the Kimono woman is one. This image is particularly powerful for the fact that it is a Kimono that has been burnt in. The Kimono, along with Sushi and Sumo, is one of the two or three things that everybody knows about Japan. It is one of the gentlest and most innocent of cultural forms in Japan - for what it represents about Japanese femininity - and to have that burned into your skin by the flash of an atomic bomb is just… If it was a man’s shirt, it wouldn’t be so interesting. The fact that it was a Kimono was particularly shocking to me. The image paired with the burn victim is a pink candy floss wrapping paper: a cartoon little girl with her eyes open in amazement, and an elder girl waving a magic wand against a pink background of starbursts and hearts floating in the sky. The whole idea of a beautiful dreamworld where happiness and love abound, and magic wands can make all the problems go away, is so poignant in this combination.

The keloid scar photograph - or rather, the subject itself - is even stranger… I think it’s because of the way the scar tissues are presented in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. All the glass specimen bottles wearing their little hats, and the cotton cat’s cradles that hold them in the centre of the jar, point to a fussiness that disturbs the essentially horrifying nature of the object itself. I get the feeling that there is a juxtaposition of techniques, or conventions of representing objects, going on in the work besides the simple juxtaposition of images.

I think that is a sub-text of the work, but it is only after I take the photograph that I am able to articulate it. Part of the image is the showiness of the museum display - a kind of ‘look at what we have got’ - that is reflected in the way the keloid scars are over-presented: carefully teased out into these shapes and put in beautifully packaged pickle jars. It is the same with the Kimono photograph. This was something that disturbed me in the Hiroshima museum. The presentation is something very particular: it is not ‘neutral’, if such a thing exists.

I wonder whether that is an intentional approach on the part of the museum curators. Items are presented in the same way as, say, Chinese ceramic fragments: as foreign things from another culture that you look at but don’t really connect with, and which don’t really affect your life. They are just things passing in front of you in as pleasurable way as possible until you move on to the next one.

I wouldn’t like to pin it down, but I am suspicious that it might be a possibility. It is a way of dislocating the past from one’s life: of neatly pickling, not just the keloid scars, but the whole topic of the war and the bombing. The Hiroshima Peace Museum is a very dubious phenomenon. The Hiroshima Peace Park, of which the museum is a part, is a very sterilised, sanitised display. It has the most horrific things, but they are totally isolated - in a bell-jar, as they say. It is a place where The Bomb takes place in a vacuum, without any context or relationship with history. There is no mention of the Emperor, or even of the war. You wouldn’t believe that Japan even had an army, let alone one that was engaged in a war; just that the Americans came along and dropped a bomb… That is very reflective of the Japanese approach to discussing the past.

With the contemporary images that you use, there is a sense that the present has somehow become acceptable by being removed from history through the use of cartoon culture. The candyfloss wrapper is a good example…

It is more than a form of escapism. When one considers Japan and the Japanese people in the light of what has happened in the past, and wonders how they deal with it, it appears that they don’t. They don’t talk about the war - the guilt has been suppressed. As they are not an overtly confessional people, one asks how this trauma has been dealt with on a personal, internal level. What intrigued me, are the connections with the cartoon world of fantasy characters. This imaginary world of pleasure is itself a part of Japanese history that was commented on by the first Western visitors to Japan in the 19th century: that Japan was like a dream world, that everything was perfect and there were presents for everyone, lovely colours, and so forth. This, in the post-war period, has exploded with the input of American culture. Cartoon characters are everywhere: on your chequebook, for example; or you might go to some salaryman’s house and he could be wearing little slippers with Snoopy on them. I began to make links between the trauma and the daydream of happiness: this child-like, heaven-sent world. As I began to put things together, starting with the four fluffy clouds and the four cloud-like cats in the calendar, the connections just began to build…

It is almost as if this is a conscious reversal of the masculinity and austerity of Japan under the military government of the 1930s and 1940s.

It struck me as a feminine way of dealing with the problem; not in the sense of it being something that women do, but in the sense that one has a masculine and a feminine solution to most problems. One has one’s rage, one’s anger and one’s confession, but one also has one’s gentleness, compassion and understanding. That is what I tried to lock into in this work, because, in post-war Japan, the masculine way of dealing with political problems had become almost unacceptable. The feminine way of dealing with the past, with the trauma - through immersing oneself in happiness, pleasantry, politeness and beauty - has become dominant.

Is this how the portraits of Japanese women came about?

Once the diptychs were underway, this feminine quality began to make itself more apparent as the work progressed. At first, I envisaged them as separate works, but they ended up being integrated with the paired photographs. Usually, there is a diptych comprising a photograph of the trauma - directly of the bomb, or an appropriate image of the time - paired with an image from this kitschy, plastic, cartoon present. Then one comes across a portrait of a Japanese woman sitting in a bar. They are all taken very close, with direct flash - a very unprofessional portrait technique - which creates a very aggressive lighting that is important to the feel of the portraits. I didn’t want any of the gentleness or smoothness of some of the other pictures: I wanted something without romance - without the cobwebs. The hard shadow that was created plays upon a traditional Japanese drawing technique, where everything is delineated by a black outline. There is also the literal sense of being pursued by the shadow of the past… Flash also has connotations in terms of explosions, of bombs.

To where does the masculinity escape in contemporary Japanese culture?

I don’t want to make simplistic platitudes… At the risk of making simplistic platitudes (laughs), I would say that a masculine solution has two main outlets. To immerse oneself in one’s work - to become a drone - and disappear from society by keeping one’s head under the desk…

That seems to have been a characteristic form of behaviour in post-war Germany as well.

That’s right: ‘I can’t cope with these problems so I’ll build the best car engine known to man’. I suppose outright rebellion was the other choice. That seems to be what people in Germany tend to have done: to position themselves very obviously outside society, as a critic upon society - hence so many artists in Germany perhaps. That approach is not very viable in Japan because of the nature of Japanese society, which is very hermetic.

‘A nail that stands out will be hammered in’ as they say…

Yes, exactly. The work solution is the main one, and that is what I am looking at now: images that link the trauma with things like car engines and electronics, and combining these with portraits of Japanese men.

(Looking at Naoko, Tokyo)

They are very casual portraits. The caption to this is just something like Naoko, Tokyo. If I know the person’s name, then it is captioned: Naoko; Yuko;

Mariko… Naoko is pointing at her nose, which is the Japanese way of saying ‘who, me?’

The girl in white is performing a very ambiguous gesture. It’s kind of indeterminate: she could be resting her chin on her hand… but not really. She could also be pointing, but it’s not assertive enough.

That is what attracts me about the image, and probably why I selected it. It is hard to articulate because the indefinite nature of the gesture makes one wonder what was going through her mind at that point… probably nothing! The gesture is so unclear and imprecise that it doesn’t fit into one’s categories of expressions…

Physically it is very precise. She’s not throwing her hands around: the gesture seems to be so carefully performed and so precise in where she’s placed her hand - but it has no meaning.

That’s right. I can’t imagine myself ever making that gesture… The gesture of Yuko’s hands is very important. They are folded in front of her, and one could easily find oneself saying that it is very feminine, very Japanese. The humility and modesty of that picture is what attracted me. The focus of the image, if you look carefully, is only on the hands. In all three of these portraits the gesture of the hands is very important, but ultimately they are portraits. They are printed on large sheets of paper, about 40” x 50”, although the image size is quite small - about 16” square - right in the middle of the paper. In the case of the Japanese women, there is a huge white border around them, so that there is an idea of drowning in sterility: of being isolated by whiteness, by notions of cleanliness and purity.

Some of the other portraits seem to be of women in a state of embarrassment - caught off-guard almost.

There is a very drunk woman in a bar, another woman giggling - I don’t know her name - and there is Hiromi in a Karaoke club, who has had too much to drink and has gone red with the alcohol. She is holding a beer can to her face to cool down. The last one is a woman laughing with her hand over her face… you can see her bared incisors through the fingers of her hand.

James Roberts

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Issue 4, April-May 1992

by James Roberts

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