Naoki Ishikawa does not seem to want to take fantastically dramatic photographs. He has travelled from the North to South Pole, climbed “The Seven Summits,” the highest mountains of every continent, and traveled the length of the Japan, but his images are remarkable for their restraint and subtlety. In his solo show at Art Tower Mito, there are awe-inspiring views to be seen — the huge slab-sided wall of a glacier jutting into the sea under an overcast sky, for example, or the peak of Mount Fuji floating on a sea of clouds — but pictorial extravagance may not be the main point.
Sweeping views in eye-popping color and razor-sharp focus are the meat and potatoes of professional and dedicated amateur landscape photographers, whose objective is for the viewer to gorge themselves with visual pleasure. But photography is only part of what Ishikawa does. For Ishikawa, traveling, “peak bagging,” watching, walking, reading and writing all seem to be considered as part of a whole that is living. It’s a Renaissance man thing, with the addition of the mechanical gaze of the camera, which Ishikawa, more often than not, uses to promote general consideration of his surroundings, rather than delight or awe.
The work of American philosopher, educational reformer and humanist John Dewey (1859-1952), I guess, may be close to Ishikawa’s heart. When criticizing the separation of art and life in his critique “Art as Experience,” Dewey wrote: “Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations.” For Dewey, art was about having aesthetic experiences in life, rather than considering objects with purely theoretical detachment.
This “art as part of life” idea fits very well with Ishikawa’s work, which gives us a glimpse of his search for aesthetic “experiences.” The images themselves are, in some sense, a byproduct of Ishikawa’s life journey, and this is reinforced by the inclusion of an installation composed of Ishikawa’s worn and rusted climbing gear, mementos and books. By depicting mountains and other extreme environments as dangerous, forbidding, sometimes gloomy and only occasionally awesome, Ishikawa shows an understanding that he must acknowledge his presence in the landscape, while recognizing that nature does not need to be romanticized.
Having said that, Ishikawa does get luscious in his 2005 “The Void” series. These studies of dense tropical forests, rocks and water build on the landscape photography of the 1990s, and are particularly reminiscent of Thomas Struth’s “New Pictures From Paradise” series. Struth’s photographs were radically anti-pictorial — confounding the idea that nature was somewhere you could, or would want to escape into, by depicting impenetrable surfaces of foliage. Ishikawa does the reverse, showing wilderness as an inhuman abyss from which there is no return.
When Ishikawa’s camera is pointed at people there is an anthropological bent. His project “Archipelago,” published in 2009, and the result of 10 years work, looks at traditional festivals and practices from Taiwan to the Gulf of Alaska and points in between. It is displayed very effectively in this exhibition in a long straight corridor, allowing it to be seen in an unbroken line, going south to north. The continuity is a thing here. National divisions are revealed to be incidental and late-to-the-party when it comes to our animal needs and instincts, and the resulting quirks of social behavior.
As an off-kilter look at people living on the borders of post-industrialized society “Archipelago” is very effective in recalibrating any assumptions we may have that everyone who resides in supposedly developed countries lives in the same comfortable slice of the 21st century. We see people dressed in fantastical tribal costumes, stray animals in fields or liminal spaces, abandoned factories and forlorn apartment blocks covered in snow, and despite the diversity of the subject matter, somehow the series holds together, tied with a slightly melancholic bemusement.
The exhibition closes with the least aesthetically refined, but the most directly life-affirming project. Children in the Tohoku region, that is to say the region affected by the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, were provided with cameras to photograph their daily lives, in the hope that this would encourage them to treat every day as precious.
There is a problem, however, with this coda. It highlighted the fact that in Ishikawa’s work there is an underlying assumption that, alongside a general contemplation of art-in-life, we also observe and acknowledge the worthiness of his own life and physical achievements. Should young kids emulate Ishikawa’s extreme globe-trotting? How democratic and ecologically sustainable can adventuring be, as it becomes more available to paying clients? Mountaineering and exploration has a checkered moral and economic history, which were only obliquely acknowledged in this exhibition, quietly and gently uplifting though it was.
“Naoki Ishikawa: Capturing the Map of Light on This Planet” at Art Tower Mito runs until Feb. 26; 9:30 a.m-6 p.m. Closed Mon. ¥800. www11.arttowermito.or.jp/gallery_en/gallery01.html