In the light of Rinko Kawauchi

by Emily Wakeling

Special To The Japan Times

It’s quite surprising to find out that “Kawauchi Rinko: Illuminance, Ametsuchi, Seeing Shadow” is Rinko Kawauchi’s first solo exhibition in Tokyo. For a winner of prestigious photography prizes, who has published multiple books — not to mention held major exhibitions overseas — this mid-career show is well and truly due.

Kawauchi has the special privilege of being one of very few Japanese contemporary photographers to have published three books simultaneously: “Utatane,” “Hanabi” and “Hanako” were all released in 2001. “Utatane” and “Hanabi”, lead to her receiving the Kimura Ihei Award, one of Japan’s most prestigious awards for young up-and-coming photographers, bestowed shortly after their professional debuts.

It has been a long wait, but the end product — held at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography — is one of the most emotionally satisfying exhibitions of the year. The museum has put together a modestly sized showcase of Kawauchi’s more recent works, including the debut of three videos — and walking through the show is a beautiful, calm, even meditative experience.

Kawauchi is a master of finding stillness and purity in everyday life. She is best known for her 6×6 cm film format images, such as those of her “Illuminance” series, which are on display in large-scale proportions. Square photographs appeal to the artist because, she has said, the images don’t “pull” in any direction: they are neither vertical nor horizontal. This creates quite a different composition to the standard landscape or portraits, which usually rely on a rule of thirds for the aesthetic appeal. The square format is inherently calm, but in the hands of Kawauchi, it is never boring.

The subjects in “Illuminance” vary: There are flower gardens and city streets, piles of snow, a rough ocean, even a tiny frog sitting on someone’s hand — all evoking a certain sense of stillness and beauty. The first thing visitors may notice is a lack of people. If someone is seen, he or she is but a hand or a foot.

In the exhibition’s catalogue, Kawauchi is described as an artist who chooses her subjects as a child would, focusing on small but fascinating details that are free of heavy symbolism and are reminders of the wonderful world around us. More often than not, she captures these in a limited spectrum of cool, pale blues that have become her signature colors.

According to Kawauchi, “Illuminance,” which she started in 2007, has been in production for the past several years. Every now and then, she adds or removes parts of the collection. This editing process — how the photos are chosen, what order to place them — is part of the artistic process and is more important to her than how or why the photographs were taken in the first place.

“Illuminance” is the scientific word for the measurement of light, and the essential role light has in producing photographs is always a theme. But the images in the series also often focus on the remarkable ways light can transform the world. The series’ main work, a shot taken at the base of a set of subway stairs, depicts commuters climbing the stairs as a ray of bright sunlight descends down the steps into the station. The effect, achieved without any post-production tricks, transforms a mundane scene into a sight resembling a divine passage to heaven.

The scenes from Kawauchi’s first foray into video, “Illuminance” (2012), are as simple and delicate as her photographs from the same series. Two screens play side-by-side. Many of the scenes are static, like her photographs, with some doubling-up of subjects found in the photographic display.

There is more video work in the second half of the exhibition, presented under the series titles, “Seeing Shadow” (2012) and “Ametsuchi” (2012). Two screens play footage on opposite walls: birds moving in aerial patterns over the beach in Brighton, England, on one, and Kumamoto Prefecture’s Mount Aso during an annual field-burning ritual on the other. One the other walls are large-scale photographs.

Ametsuchi (heaven and earth) is a theme that Kawauchi has been contemplating as she searches for the origins of civilization and culture. By capturing the 1,000-year-old ritual of Mount Aso, she contemplates time-honored traditions of humanity. In the series, she includes photographs from three more sites — the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the view from a planetarium, and the Shiromi Shrine dance ritual in Miyazaki —and by mixing these images together, she turns her attention to ancient ceremonies here on Earth as a connection to the heavens.

This is a new theme for her, but there is room for contemplation of the universe within all of Kawauchi’s works. Her images, carefully arranged together, are a delicate balance between calm detachment and intimacy. From a tiny frog to a solar eclipse, “Illuminance” truly is an encounter with all kinds of beauty on Earth.

“Kawauchi Rinko: Illuminance, Ametsuchi, Seeing Shadow” at Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography runs till July 16; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. (Thu. and Fri. till 8 p.m.). ¥700. Closed Mon.