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Issue 231

Ishiuchi Miyako Captures What We Leave Behind

At Stills Centre of Photography, Edinburgh, the artist holds the spirits of her absent subjects in the gallery, forcing us to commune with their stories

BY Lisette May Monroe in Exhibition Reviews , UK Reviews | 10 AUG 22

Ishiuchi Miyako’s first solo exhibition in Scotland brings together works from three photographic series – ‘Mother’s’ (2000–05), ‘ひろしま/Hiroshima’ (2007–15) and ‘Frida’ (2012) – each of which depicts the belongings of those who are no longer with us: her mother, victims of the 1945 Hiroshima nuclear attack and the artist Frida Kahlo. Through her close observations, Miyako reveals that the mundane objects we leave behind bear traces of us once we are gone. 

Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida #23. Courtesy: the artist and Third Gallery Aya
Ishiuchi Miyako, Frida #23, 2013. Courtesy: the artist and The Third Gallery Aya

The exhibition begins with a selection from the 48 photographs commissioned by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum to document items belonging to victims. Miyako portrays some objects as extending beyond the edges of the frame – a device that momentarily distracts us from the holes and tears that speak to the brutal reality of the incident that caused them. Other garments, such as the charred remnants of a dress in ひろしま/Hiroshima #106 Donor: Hashimoto, H (2016–17), are captured in their entirety yet, despite being laid out on a flat surface, appear almost in ghostly motion. 

Elsewhere, images from the series ‘Mother’s’ – taken by the artist after her mother died in 2000, as a means of documenting their relationship – capture a lipstick whose greasy remnants spill out of its metal casing (Mother’s #35, 2002), a mound of false teeth (Mother’s #37, 2002), and strands of hair caught in the bristles of a brush (Mother’s #19, 2001). The bottle of perfume in Mother’s #65 (2001–02) is photographed casting an elegant shadow on rough stone, as though in a fashion advertisement. 

Mother’s#38, courtesy Ishiuchi Miyako / The Third Gallery Aya
Ishiuchi Miyako, Mother’s #38, 2002. Courtesy: the artist and The Third Gallery Aya

In a recent conversation with Stills director Ben Harman to inaugurate the show, Miyako said that, after her mother passed away, her belongings felt so heavy that she wanted them to float in a gallery untethered from their place on this earth. As a result, perhaps, most of the images in this series are mounted on mirrored edging, lending them an ethereal quality. This is augmented by Miyako’s decision to paint the walls of the gallery silver and cobalt in reference to the colours of the house in which, since she couldn’t afford art school, she taught herself photography during the 1970s. Of the 40 works in ‘Mother’s’, only two are framed in black. Made while the artist’s mother was still alive, Mother’s #66 (25 March 1916) (2000) and Mother’s #46 (25 March 1916) (2000) contain close-up shots of the burns she suffered in a cooking accident.

ひろしま/hiroshima#71, courtesy Ishiuchi Miyako / The Third Gallery Aya
Ishiuchi Miyako, ひろしま/Hiroshima #71, 2007. Courtesy: the artist and The Third Gallery Aya

The final gallery contains selected works from ‘Frida’ – a series made at the invitation of Museo Frida Kahlo. After she died in 1954, Kahlo’s husband, Diego Rivera, locked her personal belongings in a bathroom of their house and instructed that it should remain closed until 15 years after his death. After 50 years, in 2004, the bathroom was finally reopened, and its contents revealed. Miyako’s photographs render these once-hidden objects in vibrant technicolour. I imagine the plastic of Kahlo’s sunglasses sliding over my own ears (Frida Love and Pain #51, 2012–15); I picture her red nail polish glinting at the end of my own fingers (Frida by Ishiuchi, 2012–15). Through Miyako’s lens, I feel the reality of Kahlo’s life story more keenly than ever. 

History erases detail and memory contorts reality, but Miyako holds the spirits of her absent subjects in the gallery, floating them in front of us, forcing us to commune with their stories, keeping them alive.

Ishiuchi Miyako’ is at Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, until 8 October 2022.

Lisette May Monroe is an artist and writer based in Glasgow, UK. She is the co-founder of Rosie’s Disobedient Press, an artist-led publisher that focuses on writing from marginalized perspectives.