Photographs do not always disclose clues,
nor lead us to the sites we imagine,
nor release us from what lies in the silences
and the ambivalent traces imprinted onto their surfaces.
(Annette Kuhn & Kirsten Emiko McAllister)
Memories are never still. They can expand, shrink and mingle with reality to the point where one trusts the vision and abandons the certainty. Memories can look, smell, sound, taste and feel but they do not materialise, although some say that a photograph (a materialised image) is the closest form to memory. Capturing life and death, still time (shot) and eternity at once, a photograph spills out of its flat frames and opens to possibilities and imaginations. Photography is liminal, because everyday is liminal; and because memories are never still.
The first thing one notices about Miho Kajioka’s photographs is how evocative and fleeting they are. Small in size (10 x 20 cm on average) and scattered unevenly on the four walls of Caroline O’Breen Gallery in Amsterdam (concurrently with a show at Ibasho Gallery, Antwerp), they convey an intimate feeling of opening a granny’s drawer filled with family images and old postcards; secret moments captured spontaneously and casually. Printed in black, white and sepia, they appear as happenings from a distant past, despite being a collection of the current everyday encounters with the artist’s immediate surroundings. These recollections of instances can be also smelled, courtesy of the installation of tiny bottles by Miki Tanaka, filled with the scent of a pine forest, strong and lingering.
The title of the exhibition So It Goes is a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s book Slaughterhouse Five and hints at the inevitability of things and events (‘life happens’ as they say), but also at the history repeating itself. Vonnegut’s masterpiece starts with the words ‘All this happened, more or less’, which illustrate the flimsiness of memory, especially when exposed to trauma and loss. With an acute eye for detail and receptiveness to the atmosphere of the scene, Kajioka creates ‘acts of memory and imagination’ (Anette Kuhn, 2002), where time becomes an image painted by light: soft, fluid and vague. And so, the series’ mood peels off layer by layer – from the enchantment, through sorrow, to hope and enlightenment.
The composition of the photographs is what captures the gaze and triggers the subliminal. Some vertically elongated, other horizontally stretched, they are dominated by emptiness and silence, out of which people and objects emerge like some ghostly presences. In one of the scroll-like photographs, a peacock appears on the horizon. Frozen in time, it exists only now/then when the picture was taken and with no references neither to the past, nor to the future.
We are reminded here of one of the most captivating aesthetic ideas prevalent in the Japanese culture: the concepts of MA 間 (space in-between, gap, pause), MU 無 (nothingness, without) and KU 空 (sky, open space). There is more air than a substance in these depictions, forming a rhythm, which create something of a photographic haiku. This recounts Roland Barthes’ words from the Camera Lucida that ‘the air (…) is a kind of intractable supplement of identity (…): the air expresses the subject’. Shadows, reflections and suggestions of something otherworldly make these vignettes mesmerizing and pertinent. We all dream of uninhabited places and remember mere scraps of events. We all forget what, who and where, but recollect only a feeling of the space we experienced for a brief moment: the rustle of the twigs, the swoosh of the cuckoo’s wings, the sound of the footsteps, and komorebi (木漏れ日) – light filtered through the leaves on the trees. Thus, the artist asks ‘Where did the peacocks go?’ and I am tempted to respond, ‘Are the peacocks real?’. Truth is liquid.
Aside the dreaminess and painterly qualities so satisfying for the eye, these images posses an uncanny feel of something lost, which Kajioka captures in a collection of words included in her new photobook And Where Did the Peacocks Go?. It is a diary with no dates; just an imprint of the moment, poetic and vivid:
Wave: She had never seen the beach so empty in August
Paper aeroplane: [empty]
Alice and the flower: Seven years ago Alice said good-by to her family in the north
In the book, there are also thoughts on the post 3/11 reality and we learn from one of the entries that in the aftermath of the disaster, peacocks were seen abandoned in the evacuation zone, wandering aimlessly and confused. We also read that
Kindergarten: “Many of our friends moved away from here so I am a bit sad” Next to a kindergarten there was a temporary storage space for bags with contaminated soils
Night in Tokyo: “According to the Czernobyl case we will start seeing the visible effects of radiation on human bodies from five years after the accident” a specialist said Then I walked in the glamorous Tokyo at night and felt dizzy with the contrasts
This adds another dimension to the reading of the photographs, which now become images of loss. Overexposed, the pictures hint to the effects of the radiation and detract from the sentimental setting by giving way to the silence after the catastrophe. Vonnegut was right, the history repeats itself and Japan was struck by a calamity once more, but the humanity persists and can be seen in Kajioka’s book filled with moments of grace and beauty. The lighthearted scenes of friends strolling in the park and the artists’ simple tricks with the photographic format confirm that all we can save from the flow of time are remnants of the day and the joy of living.
Miho Kajioka’s photographs are currently on display in Ibasho Gallery, Antwerp (9/Sept – 4/Nov).