Over the past twenty-five years Naoya Hatakeyama has examined the structures industrialized societies create to claim and process natural resources. Natural Stories, his first solo U.S. exhibition, follows these systems of production from their point of departure — beginning, for instance, at a limestone quarry and tracing the mineral’s path through factories where it is processed into cement — to the urban fabric of cities and to the moment of destruction. A BIRD/Blast #130 offers the viewer a unique, close-up perspective on dynamite explosions. Many elements contribute to the resonance and complexity of this work. A peaceful scene is disrupted; quickly at first, as the ground charges are detonated, and then slowly the clouds of debris encompass the frame and settle. It is irresistibly cinematic: the narrative progresses evenly across the pictures in a climactic arc. Although the nature of what we see is eruptive the mood is quiet – almost silent. A bird passes through frame-by-frame and this chance intersection of nature and industry suggests metaphors on many levels.
Hatakeyama grew up on the northeast coast of Japan, an area rich in limestone, and the quarries and factories associated with its processing played a key role in the artist’s understanding of the world. His father worked for a time in a cement factory, and would often take him fishing at a port where quarried limestone was loaded onto ships. In high school he began to draw and paint and his favorite subject was the cement factory he could see from the school’s windows. After his graduate studies Hatakeyama began photographing these quarries and factories and has explained that “it was through these activities involving limestone that the concept of nature became important for me.” Intrigued by the daily blasts to free limestone from cliffs, he set out to capture these dramatic explosions in Blast, a series he began in 1995 and which continues today. Distilling his study to a series of moments frozen and intensely scrutinized, Hatakeyama emphasizes the volatile character of the blast, offering a unique perspective that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Simultaneously, he transforms a scene of ferocious blasts into a silent, meditative series of photographs.
In many of the sequences from Blast Hatakeyama offers his viewer a close encounter with the force and power of rock explosions. Instead of using a telephoto lens (which would have offered a remote perspective at a safe distance from the epicenter) he chose a motor-driven Nikon 5 and worked with engineers to situate his camera as close as possible to the explosion without it getting hit by a flying shard of rock. He has said, “I was moved by their ability to imagine in their brains how 2,000 tons of rock would break apart and then give me accurate advice. From having worked with the rock for so many years, they had gained a vision that I could never imagine. One could say that they were in dialogue with nature in the form of the rocks.” Standing in front of this work is a simultaneously abstract and frighteningly overwhelming experience – a visceral hit of the sublime in a way we’ve never seen it before.
A BIRD/Blast #130 is distinct among Hatakeyama’s Blast series. Although the sequences vary — sometimes cutting off the beginning or end of the blast — this work captures the entire narrative as it develops across 17 pictures. First published in 2006 as an over-size flip-book by Taka Ishii Gallery, the series was not originally conceptualized by Hatakeyama for exhibition. Later, printing it at a small scale (each work measures just 8 x 10 in. framed) in order to show it on the gallery wall he creates a near-perfect feat of cinematic exposition. (In this linear and serial fashion the work mimics the form of traditional Japanese screen painting). Not the first artist to be interested in the cinematic quality of motion expressed in single instances of time, Hatakeyama draws on the experience of Eadweard Muybridge, whose innovative technology captured a horse as it galloped around Leland Stanford’s track in Palo Alto, and Harold Edgerton, whose electronic stroboscope and high-speed motion-picture camera froze a bullet piercing fruit. Like these pioneering experimenters before him, Hatakeyama wanted to find a new photographic perspective – a novel way of seeing and perceiving the world. He likens this spot close to the blast to “a secluded area,” one too hazardous for humans to experience firsthand. Where Muybridge used multiple cameras to capture movement, Hatakeyama utilizes just one lens, a motor-driven Nikon that makes 5 exposures per second, and which captured these 17 pictures in little over 3.4 seconds.
In these works, the seaside Okinawa setting offers a picturesque view of the ocean and mountains in the distance; the ominous clouds foretell a coming storm. As the cinematic series unfolds, this pristine landscape is increasingly disrupted by charged ground explosions, and slowly becomes obscured by the clouds of dust kicked up by the detonations. The real surprise however, is the bird, which enters the scene by chance and flies (unharmed) through the chaos. As it encounters the flying rock it swerves and re-emerges as the billowing plumes of dust settle. This fortuitous accident, what Hatakeyama called “a gift from the natural world,” captures the collision of industry and nature. Writing about this moment in its aftermath Hatakeyama said “It felt to me as if ‘nature’ was fleeing. From what? Perhaps from something human…The enormous power of humans obscures ‘nature’ for an instant, but when the exercise of that power settles down, ‘nature’ reappears as if nothing had happened and goes off to another location.” One might also view bird and blast as parallel elements in nature, their collision here further emphasizing Hatakeyama’s perception that our understanding of nature should include human developments.
The clash of nature and industry captured by Hatakeyama, reveals the more contemporary concerns of industry and technology that bind America and Japan today. The shores of Okinawa, where the pictures were taken, are fraught with a complicated history. In the past, violent blasts in that area suggested war and its systems of power, especially between Japan and its American occupiers in the postwar period. While Americans are probably most familiar with this place as the site of intense fighting during World War II, for the Japanese the island chain is symbolic, both as a site representative of pre-western Japan, and for its role in the American occupation during the Vietnam War. In 1969 Shomei Tomatsu photographed a different type of bird in the skies over Okinawa: needle-nosed American B-52 bombers, which terrorized the airspace around the U.S. military bases. That series, Chewing Gum and Chocolate, was particularly critical of the American occupation of the islands, and this viewpoint is emphasized by the harsh angles and exaggerated movement of these machines across the sky. This gritty, black-and-white, even accusatory style – one of personal expression – contrasts with Hatakeyama’s cool and removed, yet careful and close observation of human industry.
Like the engineers whose knowledge of limestone he admired at the start of this project, Hatakeyama seeks to develop a deep understanding, on the granular level, of the nature of the materials and systems he photographs and of the concept of nature itself. In contrast, for Blast he transforms their instable moment of destruction into something firm and enduring. His web of interconnected series, made over nearly three decades of close observation from diverse perspectives, examine the myriad ways in which human industry transforms and is shaped by nature. Taken together his body of work reveals an insatiable curiosity and calm persistence that is the heart of his practice. Not interested in beauty alone, Hatakeyama’s work is in dialogue with the historical sublime. According to the artist, “Only the belief that there is still something beyond the existence of oneself brings me a hope towards life.” The pictures from Blast implode the tradition of Romanticism, which historically highlighted the awesome terror of nature, and instead overwhelm us through man-made forces. His consistent drive to push beyond our conventional perceptions of nature and to offer extraordinary ways of seeing has reimagined the ways in which our culture defines the natural world.
Lisa Sutcliffe is SFMOMA assistant curator of photography, and will give a short gallery talk on A BIRD/Blast #130 this Thursday evening. Naoya Hatakeyama: Natural Stories is on view through November 4 only, definitely don’t miss it. Two fantastic interviews with the artist: here, and here.
Our One on One series features artists, writers, poets, curators, and others from around the country, responding to works in SFMOMA’s collection.