The exhibition IN THE WAKE: JAPANESE PHOTOGRAPHERS RESPOND TO 3/11 that just opened at the Japan Society in New York inspired us to publish our conversation between Michael Famighetti and Lieko Shiga from our current issue.
Over the past decade, the Japanese photographer Lieko Shiga has created a singular body of work that trades in dreamscapes, intimations of hallucination and dramatic washes of vibrant colour. Elements of the fantastic mark her images; in one, a fireball looms in the air; in another, a naked figure shares a couch with an outsized animal skull. These two images appeared in a series called Canary (2007), now a coveted photobook, which borrowed its name from the expression ‘canary in the coal mine’, used to describe a signal portending danger. Shiga followed up Canary with a body of work called Rasen Kaigan, begun in 2008, and made in Northern Japan, in the small coastal village of Kitakama, which was later destroyed by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.
While her surreal photographs appear to emerge from the dark recesses of the unconscious, creating them requires careful preparatory work. For Canary, Shiga – working in Brisbane, Singapore and Northern Japan – used a questionnaire to ask her subjects about their relationships to where they lived. In the case of Kitakama, the village’s ineffable qualities and natural beauty inspired her to make work there. However, before using her camera, she first immersed herself in the particulars of the place and made Kitakama her home. She became the village’s official photographer and documented local festivals and ceremonies, learning about the residents and the village’s history. In this way, the residents helped Shiga produce her ghostly but lush images, which are laden with oblique meanings. In a statement about her work, she remarks of her intuitive approach: ‘Rather than thinking about various things before I take a photo, I hope that I will react to an image that leaps out at me through the viewfinder, and I try to remove anything that might get in the way of that response, like the questions “What am I photographing?” or “What is the meaning of this image?”’
Michael Famighetti: What does the title Rasen Kaigan mean?
Lieko Shiga: Rasen means spiral. Kaigan means coast or shore or beach. But I didn’t want the title to be ‘spiral coast’, because everyone just thinks of Spiral Jetty. I like to leave the meaning abstract and mysterious. I believe that in a photographic space there is no time, and, for me, taking photographs is like a ceremony. The existence of the photograph is totally separate from me, for example, because I am time itself.
MF The idea of ceremony is central to your work – not only do you consider the act of making a photograph a form of ceremony, but the actual subjects of your images often feature or relate to folk traditions and ceremonies that are specific to the village of Kitakama, in Northern Japan, where you were the official photographer for some time.
LS In the end I like to create a space with my camera. This depends on the photograph. Everything has a different approach. I was a village photographer for a few years, and everywhere around me were ceremonies, so I was influenced by that, by the atmosphere and the spirit that comes from the ceremony. There’s a shared atmosphere, and it’s so spiritual. There are many invisible spirits inside of the village.
MF Do animistic ideas or Shinto religion play into this conception of the spiritual?
LS No, not at all. I’m just influenced by the more local, more personal, more individual things. I don’t know about Shinto or animism. I’m just influenced by the very local village.
MF Now that you so often exhibit internationally, do you see differences between how your work is perceived within and outside of Japan? Your work is so deeply infused with the nuances and specifics of Kitakama.
LS For the Rasen Kaigan project, I made lots of written documentation. I tried to include everything in the photobook of that project, so everyone can feel something, to touch their hearts with the spirit of Kitakama. The differences between Japan and over- seas aren’t so much for me. There are, however, lots of Japanese that know that Kitakama was destroyed by the tsunami – sometimes people ask, ‘How does the work relate to the tsunami?’ But that’s another story, because my relationship with the village began before the tsunami.
MF There’s a distinct aesthetic, use of colour and atmosphere in your images. How did you arrive at this style?
LS Colour is one of the processes that allow me to create a ceremony and a space within the photograph. I do a lot to the subject – painting things white, spraying red colour on the water, or on the landscape, for example. And of course I love sunsets. Every day there are different colours. I prefer the natural colour. Colour is just the result of my process and my action. I don’t want to calculate anything for the final image, but just follow my intention through a process. That process of creating the photograph is like performance for me. I’ve been influenced by dance and performance – when I was young I was a dancer. My approach to the subject is like a form of choreography.
MF There’s a sense of movement and orchestration in the pictures. Maybe you could walk us through an image? How about this first image in the layout, a dreamlike scenario dominated by a giant animal skull?
LS Ah, yes, that’s from the Canary series. That’s a long story, because every photograph has a long story. I have to remember ... That was a long time ago. It was taken in Brisbane, in Australia. I was on a residency. Of course, I could have taken pictures of the town of Brisbane. It’s very easy to take a photo, to just push the button. But to start I made a questionnaire for the people of Brisbane.
MF You often get to know your subjects through research before you begin a project. Did you send a letter around Kitakama too?
LS That’s the first contact with the people I don’t know, or a place I don’t know, or where I’ve never been before. I don’t know where to start the project. Most of the time, I like to make a friend, or get to know the place well. I could go to the library to research, but instead I like to ask people living there about the place. Then I can create an original map or relationship. That’s why I asked many questions of the people who lived there. Things like, ‘Could you tell me your own personal place where you feel dark or bright? Positive or negative?’ Then I made dots on a map, and marked routes of the journey in Brisbane. Every little thing became a subject of my photographs. For this photo, I met a woman and we became friends. She was a unique woman who collected skulls from the desert outside of the town. One skull was in her garden. I suggested that we could take a picture of her with the skull, but the skull was really small, so I decided to create a huge skull out of plaster and place it next to her on the couch. I brought it to her house, like a present for her. It’s a strange story.
MF Your practice extends beyond photography – it’s at times sculptural, as in the case above, and there’s also a social practice angle, at least in the way you collaboratively engage your subjects as active participants in helping you to shape projects. You mentioned dance earlier as an influence, and at times you can sense that in the work – the concentration on the body, on gesture. But has film, the moving image, been important to your thinking on photography?
LS No, for me the space in a photograph is not regulated by time: there’s no past, present or future. By contrast, my body is time itself. My body is the past, present and future. I’m going to die. I get older everyday. I’ve felt this so strongly, since I was a child. That’s why photography is really shocking for me. I can feel that the space inside the photograph is outside of time. Existence for me and the photograph is totally the opposite. Film is time itself – it’s different. But I was influenced by Werner Herzog, the film director.
MF Which films by Herzog?
LS Even Dwarves Started Small, Land of Silence and Darkness and Cave of Forgotten Dreams. I like everything, especially his attitude. He’s closer to animal than man.
MF Sure, especially with his obsession with the wildness of the jungle.
LS Yes, it’s so impressive for me.
MF Let’s return to the idea of dance and performance as an influence.
LS When I started out, I was looking at performance, more than photography, old Japanese festivals and dance, as well as Pina Bausch.
MF Do you see your work as performance?
LS My photo-shooting is really like performance. I don’t know the final image when I’m shooting, so I try to call the spirit from the land inside of the photograph. It automatically becomes a performance. The unexpected image comes into my camera.
MF Do you surprise yourself with your work?
LS Yes, sometimes the photo-shooting takes a month, sometimes just a few minutes. I keep on until there’s something unexpected, until a strong reality arrives in the photograph.
MF You travel quite frequently – I recently saw you speak in Sweden, and right now you’re Skyping with me from Los Angeles. You’ve also lived abroad – in London for a number of years, and in Australia as you mentioned. Does such distance impact your work in any way, since what you produce is so often deeply connected with Northern Japan?
LS After the Rasen Kaigan project, I married a man who lives in Miyagi Prefecture, and I’ve decided to live there forever. I’ve got a root there, and feel really relaxed now. I live in the countryside, so I can enjoy the contrast with being in a place like Los Angeles.
MF How do you find Los Angeles?
LS This is actually my second time here. I need a car. With my baby it’s too dangerous – it makes me a bit tired and stressed. But the sunlight is so beautiful, and in contrast to home, everyone is living in the sunshine and relaxed.
MF How do you approach exhibitions? In Japan the photobook is often viewed as the ideal mode of presenting work, and the exhibition is often secondary to the book. How do you approach the book versus exhibition forms?
LS In a photobook, the world is closed. People need to open it by hand. It’s a personal and private experience. The book for me is like a paper plane. Because of my photobooks, I receive emails from people on the opposite side of the world, from Africa, from Mexico, from Brazil. Only a few people, by comparison, will see an exhibition.
An exhibition, or installation, is about creating a space. In a way it’s similar to the process of shooting for me. The exhibition is difficult. A beautiful frame on the white wall is okay – it’s simple and strong – but I like to try to create more of a performative feeling. I want to share the atmosphere of the space.
MF What are you working on next?
LS I’m starting something new, slowly, with my baby. It will take a few years. It always takes time. I always need to work for five years. You mentioned the social aspect earlier, but the single image is more important than the process or the social activity. I have to do that work, though, or I wouldn’t create an image. For me, it’s really close to religion, or prayer. Sometimes I think, ‘Am I afraid of death? What am I afraid of? Why do I so desire to photograph?’ Maybe I feel a secret in my body, and so I follow the photographic process to get at that secret.
IN THE WAKE: JAPANESE PHOTOGRAPHERS RESPOND TO 3/11, March 11–June 12, 2016, Japan Society, New York.