Ryuji Miyamoto’s well-known monochrome photographs of Kowloon Walled City, Kobe after the Great Hanshin Earthquake, homeless cardboard shelters and the derelict Expo’ 85 pavilion in Tsukuba are not on show in the Tokyo Photographic Art Museum (TOP) exhibition “Invisible Land.” As these images are responsible for Miyamoto being a major figure in contemporary art photography, their absence is conspicuous.
From the artist’s point of view, this might have been a case of not wanting to roll out the same work over and over again, however loved it may be. From a curatorial point of view, as stated in her catalogue essay, Satomi Fujimura wanted to deal with “work that cannot be encompassed merely by the word ‘ruins.'” This position makes more sense in Japanese, where the word “haikyo” may have been overused in relation to Miyamoto’s work, but for which the English word “ruins” is not necessarily an accurate translation.
In the “Lo Manthang 1996” series of an ancient walled city in Nepal, the sight of traditionally garbed figures in the landscape uncomfortably recalls 19th-century colonial and orientalist photography. In Miyamoto’s better-known works, contrasts of light and deep shadow are partially mitigated by careful attention to exposure, film processing and printing, but in this project the darkness of the shadows often blocks off significant portions of the image much more harshly.
An orientalist/tourist gaze is also an element in Miyamoto’s “Eastern Bazaar,” a series on Asian street markets, the earliest work to be included in the exhibition. However, there is also a sympathetic quality to these images reminiscent of the social activism of American photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940). From the point of view of giving us a greater understanding of Miyamoto’s developing style, the series shows the artist’s skill at giving eloquence to inanimate objects.
Following this are prints from the “Architectural Apocalypse” series; it’s a relatively small selection, but still enough to show Miyamoto’s preternatural ability to find beauty in the mundane and derelict. After a slightly dull set of vertical panoramas of electricity poles and Tokyo Skytree, the exhibition then expands flamboyantly into the last section “Shima Means Community.”
For this project, Miyamoto returned to Tokunoshima, Kagoshima Prefecture, the island where his parents were born and where he lived until the age of 2. The assembly of archive snapshots of island life; documentary portraits; giant prints of native plant forms that date back to the Jurassic Period; video footage; and an installation of pinhole camera-derived images is a reflection on origins, boundaries and connection.
Using a custom-made pinhole camera big enough for him to physically get inside, Miyamoto photographed a beach where he imagines he must have spent time as a toddler, though he has no memories of such. Creating a photograph from inside this camera obscura can be considered a reversal of his act of photographing cardboard houses from the outside. It’s also analogous to the eggs laid by migrating sea turtles that return to the beach where they originally hatched and, of course, to a womb.
Curator Fujimura ends her essay with an Italo Calvino quote to describe Miyamoto’s return to Tokunoshima: “the traveler’s past changes according to the route he has followed,” and it could be said that “Invisible Land” is more about Miyamoto’s journey as an artist than the body of work for which he is best-known.
“Miyamoto Ryuji: Invisible Land” at Tokyo Photographic Art Museum runs until July 15; ¥700. For more information, visit topmuseum.jp/e/contents/index.html.