Landscapes that emerge from nature: Retrospective of the work of Naoya Hatakeyama at Huis Marseille

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Landscapes that emerge from nature: Retrospective of the work of Naoya Hatakeyama at Huis Marseille
Naoya Hatakeyama, Rikuzentakata, Kesen-cho 2011.04.04. Photo: ©Courtesy the artist.

AMSTERDAM.- The stories told in Natural Stories – the retrospective of the work of the great Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama – are about the relationships between humans and nature. Hatakeyama’s photographs do not tell stereotypical stories. He takes pictures not of plants or animals, but of stones and minerals, of the raw materials we exploit in order to give ourselves protection and warmth, of the nature we use in order to survive. Naoya Hatakeyama’s camera tells of the poetry of human industrial activity in factories, coal mines and quarries. Hatakeyama photographs landscapes that emerge out of a shared history with people. A part of nature may be either beautiful or ugly in itself, in Hatakeyama’s view, but the process of documenting it in a certain way turns it into ‘landscape’ – that is, a part of nature that has been ascribed a certain meaning. It is always people who turn nature into landscape; nature itself is indifferent to people.

A short story within a general history: the tsunami
The unpredictability of nature was forcibly evident on 11 March 2001, when natural disaster struck the east coast of Japan. A tsunami destroyed the city of Hatakeyama’s birth, sweeping away his childhood home and killing his mother. Hatakeyama grew up on the banks of the 100m-wide Kesengawa, which flowed through the city of Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture. After the disaster he returned to take photographs of the devastated city.

Seen in the light of the general theme of Natural Stories, these photos offer a new perspective. Hatakeyama is not a photojournalist but a lauded photographer, whose images seek a path through the personal tragedy linked to this natural disaster. After the tsunami had crushed the landscape in which he had grown up, and on which he had ‘sharpened’ his visual experience, he had no choice but to make photographs. In doing so he connects general history (rekishi) with a narrative told within it (monogatari). For Hatakeyama, this is the first time such personal photographs have been included in an exhibition.

A series of elements, stones and minerals
This exhibition also shows a selection from earlier series by Naoya Hatakeyama, including one of his most important early works Lime Hills, whose subject was the limestone quarries in the landscape of his youth. Although these photographs make deliberate references to the work of the German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, Hatakeyama is not depicting inner religious experience but simply the world as it is, in an admittedly ‘deadpan’ way. The photographs calmly and dispassionately show the beauty of form and colour. Blast, a series of photographs of explosions in limestone quarries, was made possible by the use of a high-speed motor-driven camera. Other series photographs included in this exhibition were made outside Japan – in France, Germany and Switzerland – and portray how we characteristically deal with nature in the western world. In Untitled (Another Mountain) the Swiss seem to want to tame their mountains. In the series Atmos, steam clouds dominate his photographs of a French steel factory. They resemble thunderclouds, and in Hatakeyama’s eyes, in mixing with the atmosphere they have become part of nature itself. Zeche Westfalen I/II, Ahlen examines an abandoned coal mine and Ciel Tombé portrays a dilapidated limestone quarry below Bois de Vincennes, east of Paris. Finally, Terrils looks at the conical hills left behind by coal mining activities. These hills, too, are slowly incorporated into the landscape, although some of these artificial hills no longer change their form. The only changes are those that take place within the people who stand on top of the hill. These contrasts between ‘nature’ and ‘humanity’ characterise all of Hatakeyama’s work; they are the elements which determine the history and meaning of Natural Stories.

A celebrated photographer
In 2002 Huis Marseille exhibited a brief overview of his Japanese work in ‘Naoya Hatakeyama Retrospective’. With Natural Stories, almost ten years on, his vision of landscape has broadened and developed to the point that it is able to bring the cultural differences between Japan and Europe into a sublime balance. His photographs of the remains of Rikuzentakata and his images of the city as it used to be form the greatest possible contrast in this exhibition, which has already been shown in the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.

Naoya Hatakeyama (1958) was born in Iwate prefecture, Japan. He graduated from the School of Art and Design at the University of Tsukuba in 1981, gaining his Master’s there in 1984. He belongs to a group of prominent Japanese photographers who have also gained an international reputation. In 2001 he represented Japan at the 49th Venice Biennale. His photo books, which are minor artworks in their own right, include Limeworks (1996); Atmos (2003); Zeche Westfalen, Ahlen (2004); Two Mountains (2006) [with Balthasar Burkhard]; and Scales, 2007. Following his exhibition at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, in 2011 the photo books Terrils and Ciel Tombé were published together with the catalogue of Natural Stories, with accompanying texts by Philippe Forest and Satomi Fujimura.

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