Q&A with Rinko Kawauchi

Portrait: Ports Bishop / Text: Yumiko Sakuma / Photos: Courtesy of Rinko Kawauchi

Rinko Kawauchi’s most recent body of work culminated in her latest book AMETSUCHI, (“Heaven and Earth” in ancient Japanese), released by Aperture in May 2013. Instead of using her signature Rolleiflex, she wandered into a new realm of expression by using a 4 x 5 format, and weaved five seemingly unrelated pieces into one magnificent story. We caught up with her while she was in New York right after its release.

In your new book AMETSUCHI, (“Heaven and Earth” in Japanese), the central subject was Aso, the site where agricultural burning takes place, surrounded by four more subjects: the Wailing Wall of Israel, a planetarium, Shiromi Shrine's Kagura (a type of Shinto theatrical dance), and the Tokyo sky.
About five years ago, I saw a landscape in my dream and that prompted me to start visiting Aso and photographing Noyaki, controlled agricultural burning. Last year, I had a show at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography called "Illuminance, Ametsuchi, Seeing Shadow." Originally, I wanted to show the agricultural burning, the Wailing Wall, and the planetarium photos, but because of its strong significance, the wall seemed slightly off. It wasn't my intention to make a political or religious statement. I wanted three subjects to be seen on the same level, but the wall seemed to stand out and have a separate meaning. While I was exploring options, I was invited to visit Shiromi Kagura, which I thought would be the last piece of the puzzle. When I laid the photos out, the shrine was a perfect fit as a subject and a part of the whole concept. At the start of making this book, I thought of just focusing on the agricultural burning, but ended up adding one picture of the sky seen from my apartment in Tokyo to the existing four subjects. Then, I felt it was completed.
The Wailing Wall is an interesting addition.
As we say things like, "climbing over the wall" and "up against a wall," walls are a symbol of difficulties and they themselves have metaphors. The Wailing Wall in its existence is symbolic and sad, and coupled with the strength of the land of Israel and religious issues, it serves as a symbol of origins and difficulties. When I photographed it, I thought I didn't have to show the pictures as I felt that it was too strong as a subject. Later, I realized that there was a common thread between the wall and the agricultural burning in my way of facing the subject. Because I was thinking about the origin of the place, I found a connection. Because the world is not a place that is just beautiful, I thought including the symbol of difficulties in my work would add another layer. That is the role that the wall is playing.
There was the central theme of how you connect to the earth among these completely different subjects.
Yes. How I, myself, connect to the earth, and how all these things happen all at the same time on it, being connected with each other and co-existing, these have been always my themes in my work, but I wanted to express them in a new way. My work is proof of my life and with every single body of work, I want to explore how I stand and co-exist with various things and how they are all circulating. It is my mission to explore a new way of looking at things and share them with people. I intend to see a different self and in that sense, it is documentary of myself.
The design of AMETSUCHI is very exquisite. You inserted negative prints inside of the pages.
That the world is made of Ying and Yang and everything has a positive and a negative side to it is one of my theme. We ended up turning that thought into the design of a book. Sometimes you see a glimpse of the negative side and that is another truth about the world we live in. I asked Hans Gremmen to participate as the designer and what he came up with fit perfectly with what I was thinking. He translated my intentions well.
What is next for you?
Over the last two or three years, I have been shooting three subjects: festivals in China, birds of Britain and Izumo. I am in the process of thinking about how to express those subjects which I have been shooting all digitally. After that, I would like to make more moving image work.
How long have you been shooting films?
I bought my video camera around 2005. The first work I released was the one where I filmed Japanese immigrants in San Paulo, Brazil in 2007. Then, I moved onto making "Illuminance" which was at the time of its original showing, 15 minutes long . I gradually lengthened it to 30, and then 45 minutes. At first, I thought it would be completed at an hour or so, but I came to like the idea of adding more footage to it over time. By the time I die, it will be like 10 hours long and it doesn't have to be completed, ever.
Your work has two opposites elements of personal and universal.
Personal is connected to universal. There is the concept of awareness of the whole and we all live on this earth and chime into one another. I have a desire to touch that idea, I do want to touch on the fact that individuals are connected to each other subconsciously. People often tell me my work brings back their memories. That is because my work has elements that everybody has in their memories. If I can touch somewhere deep in people's memories, I could say I have succeeded in what I wanted to achieve. When I finish a shoot, of course I was there and I took that photo, but there are times when I feel like I was shown something, like it is somebody else's doing. If I could feel that, the work has left me and it is completed. When I feel like "I" took the photo, it is still in the works.
What is the attraction of video work for you?
Maybe there was a stress about doing photography. For example, when a moment of curtain waving catches my attention, the sense that I feel doesn't always translate to a photograph. There are times I can put them on photos, but that sensation seemed like the better fit for filming and that is why I picked up a video camera to release that stress. Sometimes it feels like the video would be better for what I wanted to make for all these time. Photography in a sense is a claustrophobic way of expression and there is a limit. For that reason it is interesting, but there is a contradiction that it doesn't have to be photography to express what I want to express. I might be trying to resolve that conflict by doing videography.


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