• by Kay Itoi
  • Special to The Japan Times


At last year’s Venice Biennale, photographer Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947) represented Japan with her “mother’s” photography series. Featuring mostly black-and-white prints of her late mother’s possessions — lingerie, shoes and cosmetics — it was one of the biennale’s highlights.

Ishiuchi started the series when her mother, with whom she had a strained relationship, passed away at age 84 in 2000. She took the pictures as a way to cope with the death. “I never in my wildest dreams thought the photos would be shown in Venice,” she recalls.

One year later, Ishiuchi spoke with The Japan Times at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, where the “mother’s” exhibition has returned and is on view through Nov. 5.

You have said your feelings about your mother and these photographs have changed over the years.

I developed the series after Mother died and I was left with her old things. I opened a drawer to find it packed with her underclothes. They looked like fragments of her skin, and I got scared. Although I couldn’t use or wear them, or give them away to somebody, I couldn’t throw them away like garbage, either. I didn’t know what to do. The person who once used them was gone, but she left so many intimate things. It was sad. When I began taking photographs of them, I think I was recording that sense of loss. It was six years ago. But since Venice, I have begun to feel differently.

How so?

I was in Venice in January and June 2005, first to see the site and then to set up the show and attend the opening reception. Then I went back alone in September. That was when I thought my photographs had become works in their own right — something more than “my mother’s belongings.” It was as if they had absorbed the atmosphere, history and feel of the Italian city, while I had been back in Japan. Of course, photographs don’t change — I was the one that changed. Perhaps I was, for the first time, able to distance myself from my mother’s things.

Why was the show well-received in Venice?

Because, I realize now, a mother-daughter relationship is difficult, no matter where you are. It’s universal. I wasn’t able to communicate with my mother while she was living. Since her death, I’ve been talking to her through taking these pictures. Commissioner [Michiko] Kasahara [chief curator at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, who curated the Venice “mother’s” show] wrote about me and my mother in the Biennale literature. At first, I thought a mother-daughter conflict was such a cliche and didn’t like to talk about it much. But many people came to see my show in Venice because they had read about that. They would spend a long time looking at my work, and wanted to talk to me — sometimes with tears in their eyes.

I also felt that the viewers’ attitude toward photography there was different from that among the Japanese. [In Europe] I feel respected as an artist. In Japan, many think anybody can take photographs. Here, everybody does, with their cell phone.

Why do you call the current show “the complete edition”?

We added a few works which didn’t fit in Venice, and I am satisfied with the scale [40 photographs and three films] and quality of this show. Mounting the works, I intentionally mixed large and small prints, so the viewer would walk around and spend time in the galleries. They have to walk away from the walls to look at the large ones, and walk up to see the small ones. I am very happy with the way they turned out. I don’t feel it’s necessary to expand the series. I am not going to photograph any more of her possessions.

What next?

I have been taking pictures of women who have scars on their bodies for a new series called “Innocence.” It’s very heavy. Most of them survived serious burns or major surgery in their childhood. They don’t actually remember how it happened, and yet the scars have dictated their lives, deprived them of their freedom. Some of them blame their mothers, and it affects their relationship.

So the new series also has to do with mother-daughter issues?

There may be a connection. I photograph things that are usually hidden — an old woman’s undergarments, worn-out shoes, scars on women’s bodies. When I take these pictures, the undergarments and the scars are really not what I want to capture. What appears on the surface doesn’t matter. I want the viewer to think: Why would I take pictures of these, not-beautiful, not-easy-to-look-at things? What am I trying to say? I want them to look underneath the undergarments and scars.

And what is your motivation to do this?

I have always been curious about what’s considered beautiful and what’s ugly. I never understood conventional ideas of beauty or prettiness. I can say one thing — everybody has scars. Some are visible and others are not.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.