“During the shooting, I often imagine unrelated matters which are the impressions I receive from the subject; going away from the simple intention to explain or to illustrate the subject, one somehow attains abstraction” (Toshio Shibata)
Toshio Shibata’s (b. 1949) new exhibition ‘Bridge’ in the Daiwa Foundation (London) , organized in collaboration with Ibasho Gallery in Antwerp, can be viewed on many levels. Firstly, the show presents mainly photographs of bridges, often from remote mountainous areas, exposed to heavy rains and prone to landslides. This already points at the theme of a strong interdependence between man and natural environment, in which the power of the nature and the ingenuity of humans coexist side by side, creating often stunning habitats. When driving around the countryside, Shibata stumbles upon such oneiric scenes and – in his words – borrows them to ‘design’ photographic landscapes in a swift and intuitive way. Secondly, the show bridges two periods in Shibata’s artistic oeuvre spanning over four decades: the early years dominated by black and white style, and the later one (2004 onwards), significant for Shibata’s rediscovery of colour. Revealing exceptional attention to detail and compositional rigour, Shibata’s fragments of landscapes somehow maintain an unprompted and accidental charisma.
More importantly the bridges are, literally and metaphorically the places where two sides of the world meet: the manmade and the natural, the tamed and the wild, the old and the new. Without farfetched symbolism and overly imposing political commentary about technology conquering the wilderness, Shibata conveys images of everyday realities hidden from the human eye and devoid of human existence. The sheer visual aesthetics of these spectacles surpasses the allegorical tropes. Unresolved and arresting, the photographs recollect visions of the Earth just after everyone abandoned it. There is a sense of an open narrative in these images, which prompt imagination.
When considering Shibata’s photographs, one cannot resist from musing on the uncanny relationship between both the surrounding nature and the bridges, which look like they sprang organically from the neighbouring shrubbery. With the light captured as it moves across the constructions, we can also take a closer look at the qualities of the manufactured materials and subtly weathered surfaces. The passing of time and the changeability of seasons, very much celebrated in the Japanese culture which reveres in all things transient, is an important context for Shibata’s imagery. The bridges therefore appear as they have always been there, suspended between their birth and obliteration; bridging two time platforms – between their own longevity and the camera’s hasty shutter. The mood of the pictures relies on their timelessness.
Having been trained in oil painting, the artist quickly realised that the medium was too heavy for him and – inspired by Edward Weston’s style – switched to photography that allows for greater spontaneity. His early affair with paint handling can be observed though in the consideration of the forms and the fluidity of colours. Take for instance image of perhaps the most recognized ‘Red Bridge’ (Okawa Village, Tosa County, Kochi Prefecture, 2005), in which the strong red presence of the construction cuts through the foggy land behind. Despite its dynamic angular appearance the bridge gains subtlety through plays of light, shadows and air that make it more eerie and sublime.
Often shot from striking perspectives, for example the stunning ‘Grand Coulee Dam’ (Douglas County, WA, USA, 1996) which looks rather like a black and white theatre curtain, the photographs challenge the viewer’s gaze. The asymmetrical layout of the exhibition, resolved in a very Ibasho Gallery style also contributes to the task that Shibata so exquisitely laid in front of us: to reimagine the world and to be thrilled by it once more.
Shibata, T. 2015. The Red Bridge. Le Pont Rouge.
Cavaliero, S. (ed). 2013. ‘Toshio Shibata’. Revelations: Photographie Japonaise Contemporaine. Poitiers: Le Lezard Noir. pp. 26-35.
To watch the video with Shibata’s commentary go here