JTF (just the facts): A total of 219 color photographs, either framed in white and unmatted or unframed, and hung against white walls in the small, single room gallery space. 5 of the works are inkjet prints on watercolor paper, made between 2007 and 2011. These prints are sized roughly 38×25 (or reverse), and are available in editions of 2+1AP. The other 214 prints come from a dissembled copy of the monograph of this body of work that was recently published by PPP Editions (here, and available from the gallery for $500); all are on view in a wide grid that covers three walls. Ishiuchi is the 2014 winner of the Hasselblad Award (here). (Installation and detail shots below.)
Content/Context: In the aftermath of tragedy, we often turn to the personal effects of the victims as a way of taking something potentially abstract and hard to understand (like war or genocide or natural disaster) and making it intimately human once again. Regardless of the specific terrible circumstances, these left over, everyday things seem to have been infused with a fragile kind of resonant energy, the scars and memories of the trauma permanently inhabiting these particular objects. Looking at them helps us to connect and remember, to identify with the person who wore a pair of shoes or treasured a fancy dress, and thereby give context to horrors that we otherwise would have trouble engaging with.
But Miyako Ishiuchi’s images of the artifacts from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum are much more than just a workmanlike taxonomy of objects on white backgrounds or a coldly rigorous visual list of recovered items. Her photographs exude patience and care, the broken things like delicate flowers about to blossom and only with her quiet support will they be willing to reveal their secrets. She circles and probes, often coming at the same object from multiple angles, moving in closer to draw our attention to textures and residue, moving back to give us a sense of completeness or despairing destruction. Many have been placed on light boxes, giving them an ethereal underneath/inside glow, the warm light beaming through translucent linen or jagged tears and holes. Each image is an indirect portrait of its prior owner, each one a fragment of a narrative that we can now try to recreate or at least imagine.
Given the devastating effects of the atomic bomb, these objects have endured certain particular trials. Normal aging would give us wrinkles, dirt, and stains, but it’s the intensity of the heat that comes through most powerfully in these pictures. Clothing has been burned and scorched, flash faded, torn and frayed in frantic action. Other items of metal or plastic have been seared and melted, turned into globular hunks and distorted flows. Nearly every item bears some kind of visual remnant of the extreme irradiation, each one permanently transformed by the process.
Part of the reason that these object deliver such an emotional punch is that they are so personal; they are objects that seem to carry the very personalities of their owners. There are family heirloom dishes, favorite watches, broken eyeglasses, jewelry, formal uniforms and kimonos, and everyday socks and worn sandals. There are heart tugging little girls dresses and school uniforms covered in burns, translucent underwear, nightgowns, and stockings turned to silhouetted shreds, and patterned housedresses and aprons blown to charred bits. A melted comb seems somehow too much, the years of gestures and caresses piled up and now twisted into something caked and crusted. This is the real strength to be found in Ishiuchi’s photographs – her ability to capture both the beauty and ugliness in a single object, to give us the echo or the shadow of a personal story that had love, and laughter, and happiness, and then ultimately, an end far more scary and painful.
For those that want to look closely, there is plenty of compositional sophistication at work in Ishiuchi’s still lifes; it is not by accident that these ordinary objects have consistently come to life her hands. But while the single frames are often elegant and touching as stand alone works, it’s the relentless piling up of the larger installation (and book) that I found most moving; it expands the intimately and tragically personal into something with powerful dimensional scale, delivering a broader sense of just how many people were indiscriminately affected. Seen together, the images are an aggregation of small moments that then coalesce into an emblem of the larger public whole. These items are no longer dusty relics buried in a museum cabinet somewhere, but a living, breathing tribute to the lives of those caught in the crossfire of history.
Collector’s POV: The large 38×25 prints in this show are priced at $12000 each. Ishiuchi’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.