There is a talk by Kenya Hara, art director of MUJI, in which he explains why he thinks that Japanese culture (!) should be thought of as valuing “emptiness,” rather than “simplicity.” This distinction can be traced all the way back to the construction of a Shinto shrine, which at its center is always an empty space enclosed by four pillars, bound at the top with straw. The building around this space is not all that important. The empty space is more valuable, because it offers the possibility of being filled.
To cite Hara’s more modern example, we can look at the design of knives from America and Japan. The handle of an American knife might have a molded grip, which means it can be held in only one way. That’s simple. A Japanese knife, though, will have a cylindrical handle, which can accommodate whatever style the cook may wish to use. Hara calls this knife empty.
The photographs in Yamashita Tsuneo’s “Another time on the Ryuku Islands” made me think of that talk. I wanted to call his photographs “simple,” but maybe I should say that they’re empty. What does this mean? The photos are a vehicle for transmitting the experience of being on the islands. Like the building around a shrine, they’re not actually that important. You might forget that you are looking at photographs.
Walking around the exhibit, I felt connected to this place in Okinawa. It’s strange to say, but a close up photograph of a large, still-wet squid lying on a wooden table gave me the impression of what the air on the Ryuku islands would feel like.
I can’t guarantee that you will have a similar experience, but perhaps if you go to the gallery without thinking very much, you’ll feel the same way.
All of these photos are from a different series, “Daily
.” They are also all © Yamashita Tsuneo
The exhibit is at the Tosei-sha gallery in Nakano-ku, and will be up until the end of June. Here’s a map to the gallery. The staff at Tosei-sha is by far the friendliest I have met in Tokyo, and there are a number of good books out front, some of which they have also published.