May 18: Reliquary

Date #18May 18: Might photographs of objects transcend the hackneyed genre of the ‘typology’ to restore and amplify their aura?

Today is Photo London’s first day open to the public. While the ‘photo fair’ itself takes place in Somerset House, there are other satellite exhibitions being presented in outside venues.

One is already familiar to Australians. Tomohiro Muda‘s commemoration of the disaster in which Japan’s northeastern coast was hit by a powerful earthquake and tsunami on March 11th, 2011 was shown in Sydney at The Japan Foundation Gallery early 2016 as part of  Art Month Sydney 2016.

This is the first time Japanese photographer Tomohiro Muda (*1956, Gosho city) has shown in the UK, and the venue is the  former place of worship for the old Middlesex Hospital, the Fitzrovia Chapel.

Tomohiro Muda’s exhibition Icons of Time installed in Fitrovia Chapel, yesterday. Photo: @Londonist.

The chapel is a compact gem of a building, and heavily decorated; do photographs work in such a space? They are exhibited on easels that lean against the variegated marble tiles of the walls.

The photographs are described by Tomohiro:

The objects featured in my works may appear to be mere debris, things abandoned by the tsunami, but they’re not. Each item belonged to someone and suggests the presence of someone who is no longer present. In this exhibition, these fragments tell stories of a post-tsunami landscape and allow us to imagine the activity in these areas before the tsunami. 

He had visited the disaster zone not long after the tsunami in 2011, but found it overwhelming. It was only when returning in 2012, nine months later that he devised a means of photographing what he found with reverence for the many who died and whose possessions he was handling.

Taking each object, he placed them on a sheet of clean white paper and photographed them near where he had found them, replacing them afterwards.

Tomohiro Muda (2012) 7.24.2012 Ishinomaki Miyagi Prefecture.

He made images of around 5000 items from which he has selected these few for exhibition.

The tsunami hit the northeastern Tōhoku region, destroying thousands of homes, leaving 15,894 deaths, 6,152 injured, and 2,562 people missing, and it sparked the explosion of a nuclear power plant in coastal Fukushima. Officially The Great East Japan Earthquake, the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and plant explosion has become known in Japan as “3.11”, paralleling the immortalisation of the 9/11 attacks in western popular consciousness. 2017 marks the sixth anniversary of these events.

Tomohiro Muda (2012) 5.29.2012 Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

The relation of Tomohiro’s images to the beautiful Fitzrovia Chapel invites comparison with the practice of placing relics in such buildings. His photographs legitimately can be considered relics, though these are traditionally possessions or attributes of a saint or holy person, and quite often they are the purported remains of parts of their bodies that have been preserved after death. Many are of dubious provenance but are of high symbolic value nevertheless. His simple record of the shredded remains of pants that have been torn from where they were pegged by the waves is not of human bones, though it bears the same physical and symbolic properties; how fresh is their contact with the deceased!

Not restricted to Christian practice, in Japan, Buddhist relics are known as shari, and in these religious cultures, including Hindu, the object is housed in an elaborate reliquary and kept in a shrine or place of worship and carried in processions for the veneration of the faithful. The strong tradition of the veneration of ancestors in Japan Obon compounds the power of Tomohiro’s work.

Tomohiro Muda (2012) 7.22.2012 Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture

The apparent embrace of these koala toys, so popular with Japanese visitors to Australia, is especially poignant. Stored in a plastic bag perhaps they had been preserved as a souvenir or memento by an owner who had grown up.

Hanging Reliquary German (Meuse) Medieval third quarter of 12th century Maker Unidentified DIMENSIONS 16.9 x 10.6 x 3.7 cm
German Hanging Reliquary (from Meuse), Medieval, third quarter of 12th century, Maker Unidentified, 16.9 x 10.6 x 3.7 cm

The sight of the relic in Christianity is powerful, and indeed many reliquaries are fitted with a window through which it can be glimpsed. This negative sleeve is made to play a parallel role.

Tomohiro Muda (2012) 11.9.2012 Naraha, Fukishima PreviousNext

While his photographs may at first sight be overwhelmed or outshone by their surroundings, it is such an environment that amplifies their purpose, which one work placed on the altar reinforces.

Tomohiro Muda (2016) 5.30.2012 Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture

Fitrovia Chapel was never consecrated, but was open to the staff and patients and patients’ relatives as a place of contemplation and a refuge of some comfort to many in a time of great distress. The artworks connect with this because the way that the idea of the relic resonates in these images is not coincidental.

After holding his formative exhibition “Hikari no Bashu – Sherpa” in 1988 which brought his work to notice, he photographed Romanesque art, Buddhist relics and stones, Buddhist statues and other antique art objects along with landscapes while exploring “the connection between nature and the universe as a fundamental connection”. This image-making resulted in his exhibitions Medieval Romanesque Art Photography Exhibition of Prayer,  National Museum of Western Art, Japan, 2007; the world-touring The way of prayer Road of Santiago pilgrimage and the Kumano Kochi” with Luis Ocaña (2008) and Holy Land · Prayer · Illusion – Inner World seen in the Photograph (2011)

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 9.59.53 am
Tomohiro Muda (2007) Mizu 17, Inkjet Pigment Print, 30 × 45 cm

His is a profoundly spiritual art, but it in the Japanese Buddhist tradition, in which waterfalls and water lilies lead to a more direct reading of the divine, than they do to western eyes. Waterfall pictures abound in art photography, usually with slow shutter speeds but Tomohiro represents the impact of water on rock as a titanic struggle of opposites. The presence of water is tangible too in each his selected images of the aftermath of the tsunami.

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 10.03.59 am
Tomohiro Muda (2011) Mizu 01, Inkjet Pigment Print, 80 × 120 cm

3 thoughts on “May 18: Reliquary

  1. Wonderfully informed commentary James. The photographs also have a poignant remembrance of that greatest of Japanese disasters – the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and that most famous image by Shomei Tomatsu ‘Atomic Bomb Damage – Wristwatch Stopped at 11.02, August 9, 1945, Nagasaki, 1961’
    These images come from a long line of documenting disaster through photography using the trope of placing the surviving objects on a contextless background. Whether this double fetishisation (of the object and the photograph) enhances the aura of the object and the power of the objects memorialisation is open to debate. Perhaps such representations are too easy a way out?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, and for your feedback Marcus, especially your mention of Shomei Tomatsu’s work, which provokes further thought. I’ll add a bit about Muda’s previous work which will add some context about his efforts to represent the spiritual in art, of which this is just one manifestation, though I’d argue it is the most successful in the latter stages of a career that stretches back to 1988, precisely because of its installation in Fitzrovia Chapel. I enjoyed your commentary on Tom Goldner’s show especially your appreciation of “strong, fibre-based analogue black and white photographs printed by the artist from medium format negatives”…instead of “crappy, digital ink-jet prints”. Hear hear! Photography…quo vadis?

      Liked by 1 person

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