Deep feelings at high altitudes

Naoya Hatakeyama's mountainous landscapes both daunt and inspire

by Danielle Demetriou

Special To The Japan Times

Eight white doves nest, fly and chirp in a metal cage shaped like a pointed teepee. A colorful window made not from stained glass but thousands of slowly melting gummy bears floods the space with rainbow-bright light.

There are plenty of distractions that instantly catch the eye when entering “Traces of Disappearance,” the latest exhibition at the gallery space Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo on the top floor of the fashion brand’s flagship store in Omotesando.

Perhaps less attention-grabbing but no less thought provoking are the 12 photographs that neatly line three of the spare white walls: stark, memorable images of rugged mountain terrain.

The photographs, taken by artist Naoya Hatakeyama, hint at both the beauty and dangers of a mountain, as reflected in the shades of light and darkness alongside textures of soft-edged snow and sharply lined rocks.

The images may appear to inhabit a different world from the three other pieces on display — the dove-filled “The Soul of the World” by Anne and Patrick Poirier, “The Sheer Size of It” window by Kasper Kovitz and Goang-Ming Yuan’s video installation “Disappearing Landscape — Reason to be a Leaf.”

But describing the unity that brings them all together, the curators — Murielle Hladik and Eva Kraus — told The Japan Times: “It was a crucial point for our curatorial decision to present different artistic approaches within the themes of decay, passage of time and metamorphosis.

“All of them are discussing the condition of our fragile world and bring philosophical questions into formalization.

“Their common ground is the poetic language and that is probably what creates a strong entity and ties them together so well.”

Here, Hatakeyama explains the story behind his mountain tableau.

What is the appeal of mountains?

Mountains symbolize a landmark from ancient times and soar up from the horizontal land where people dwell for daily life. Viewed from the distance, mountains can contrast with the sky. When viewed at close range, however, mountains are quite multi-dimensional and come to life in response to our movements. Mountains are something that awaken a primitive sense of “viewing” and for that reason, I am attracted to them as a photographer.

Why the European Alps?

From 2005 to 2006, I had an opportunity to stay and shoot in Switzerland and chose the Alps as my main theme. The Alps are now world-famous tourist spots, but from the 18th to 19th century, when only geologists and explorers attempted to conquer the peaks, these mountains were viewed as difficult, horrifying places nobody would think to visit.

Later in the 19th century, people tunneled through the Jungfrau in order to build railway tracks for tourism. This transformed the Alps from something that was regarded as a devil’s nest into a place of beauty. I wanted to explore this mystery, the sudden psychological shift in the way people viewed these mountains.

And Mont Ventoux in particular?

This is the same mountain that the Italian poet Francesco Petrarch famously conquered in the 14th century. According to his notes, he decided to climb the mountain with his brother, just for fun, while staying in a monastery in Avignon. Some historians believe his feat reflected a very modern attitude, others believe he is the grandfather of mountain climbing. That’s why I decided to climb this mountain in particular.

What were the challenges you faced in climbing and shooting on the peak?

The trip was one week long, from Christmas 2004 to New Year’s Day in 2005. The photographs for this exhibition were taken over three days. Mont Ventoux is actually only 1,911 meters tall, with a gentle sloping road that leads from the foot of the mountain to the top. The Tour de France passes by every summer. But during winter, vehicles cannot enter due to the snow, so I climbed on my own two feet.

How did you feel when you were shooting these images?

When I stood at the peak, I remember I felt thrilled to witness the same Alpine mountains that Petrarch had seen. By looking at the same ridges, I felt like I had flown back seven centuries.

What kind of sentiments are you hoping to evoke in viewers with these images?

I want to evoke a sense of humility, loneliness and the epiphany-like rapture one experiences when confronted with the power of nature. I want to share this sense of isolation with those who have this same deep feeling in their life experiences.

How do you perceive that these mountain photographs tie in with the concept of Traces of Disappearance?

This title has Romantic connotations, a beautiful echo in the sound and a nuance of early Modernist aesthetics. The photographs’ connection to Petrarch, the symbolism of the Alps and the atmosphere of classical landscape paintings inherent in all my works tie into this title.

And how compatible do you think your photography is with the other artworks appearing in the exhibition?

I did not initially find any particular similarities between works done by other artists, but after the exhibition, I felt like each one was voicing its own distinct harmony, making the gallery more like a choir hall. I had the impression that my collection of framed photographs looked like windows opening on the walls, carrying a breeze from Mont Ventoux to cool down the gallery.

Traces of Disappearance runs till April 13 at Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo; open noon-8 p.m. daily. espacelouisvuittontokyo.com/en. This article was written with assistance from Sang Woo Kim.