Miyako Ishiuchi
2010, Feb 03
About a review of Ishiuchi Miyako’s “Hiroshima”

Conscientious wrote an internet blog post about Ishiuchi Miyako’s Hiroshima and had the chutzpah to call it a “review.” Let’s think about whether this is deserved. Here’s the first sentence of the post:

“The 20th Century was filled to the brim with atrocities, war, and genocide.”

O rly? It would make just as much sense to write a sentence beginning with “Since time immemorial,” or “Throughout history.” Either way, this is a cliche. First sentence of second paragraph:

“Photographers have a long tradition of trying to deal with suffering, to try to convey what it might have meant for those who perished.”

Again, this doesn’t really mean anything, and it could be equally true of painting or sculpture or literature. We still haven’t heard about the work at all, but that’s coming in the next paragraph:

“Miyako Ishiuchi’s Hiroshima, which I first heard about through Marc and which I just found in a Japanese book shop, is another example. Hiroshima shows clothing and personal items worn by victims of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. There are about 19,000 such items in the collection of the city’s Peace Memorial Museum, and the book presents a tiny fraction of these. At the very end of the book, there is a list of the presented items, along with the names of the victims (where they are known).”

So now we know what’s in the book. And the photos themselves, pray tell? Maybe the next and final paragraph will tell us:

“It is left to the viewer to deal with the images, there is no further text (apart from a short statement by the photographer), no explanations, no descriptions. Where words must fail, can images tell us something? I think they can, once we realize that what they might tell us is what we are able to tell ourselves.”

Oh. Actually, as you now understand, it’s left for someone other than the writer to “deal” with the images.

So, where’s the beef here? Why is there no engagement with the work? What makes these muddled thoughts a “review”? At some minimal level, shouldn’t a review communicate the writer’s impressions of the thing they are claiming to tell us about? “Once we realize that what they might tell us is what we are able to tell ourselves”—what does this even mean? Can anyone parse that sentence? (In all fairness it could just contain a typo)

Beyond this one review, why do so many people continually reaffirm the authority of this writing? Online, any blogger can say “this is a review” (”I am a curator“), and the responsibility of deciding whether to take this statement at face value falls on the audience. How will this audience lose its sheep-like qualities, when acting in bad faith—saying nothing means saying “yes”—is so much easier?

This post was a missed opportunity, because it’s worth saying something (anything!) about Ishiuchi’s photographs. She manages the difficult task of conveying the scale of the atomic bomb’s effect without beating the viewer over the head. The entire book is photographs of clothing and mundane objects recovered from Hiroshima (yo this is a link to a site where you can see a number of these images), and I have to admit that when it was described to me verbally I imagined that the work might have been cold, if not even boring. But this isn’t the case at all.

Ishiuchi’s presentation of these objects makes a quiet but clear statement about the magnitude of the atomic bomb. Each thing is recognizable, but has some visible sign of destruction. Ishiuchi photographed these objects against a plain background, and by removing any kind of identifying context, the viewer has to imagine how their particular kind of damage came about. In some cases, it’s possible to make out obvious burn marks, but others are less clear: the fabric of one garment has an eerie lightness to it which certainly did not come from overuse. A schoolgirl’s uniform with alien-looking holes ripped clear through it doesn’t need an explanation.

It’s not easy viewing, but Hiroshima is a carefully considered portrait of August 6 which is well worth seeking out.

NB: Marc Feustel’s post about photographic responses to Hiroshima is a good read for more on this subject. Also, August 6 falls around Japan’s obon week, a festival to remember the dead. I rarely have extended conversations about World War II here in Japan, but I was struck by how often the topic came up during that time, and I saw Hiroshima in that context.


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Miyako Ishiuchi

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