"zk" as an AlephDaniel Abbe
In one of the photographs from Ryuichi Ishikawa’s photobook zk, a map showing the various islands collectively known as “Japan” appears on a wood-paneled wall. This map is one element of a thoroughly domestic scene. It is partially obscured by some yellow curtains, and a small cord that dangles from an exhaust fan above. A small oil painting hangs on the wall perpendicular to the map. The painting is a bit drab, but a white cloud in the distance enlivens its landscape, with a road winding through a seaside town. A blue, green and white checkered sofa occupies the entire bottom third of the photograph. The handle and hose of a vacuum cleaner, which seems to have been haphazardly tossed into a back corner, holds together the composition at its center.
There is a sense in which zk is a simple object, available to simple description. For example, all of the photographs are taken in color. Their format and orientation varies: some are square, some are 35mm format, some are in portrait orientation, others are in landscape. Each photograph sits on its own page, and except for the first and last photographs, they are laid out across from another image. There are 198 photographs in total. The captions at the back of the book show that every photograph was taken within Japan. Easy. A neat system. Everything in its right place, mapped.
But maps do not necessarily produce order. Look again at the map in the photograph: a rounded cutout that shears off the entire top left quadrant shows most of the islands that make up the area known as “Okinawa Prefecture.” That cutout is itself subjected to another cutout, a rectangular view that shows this geographical area within a much wider view that includes some of the continent known as “Asia.” What do these proper names signify? Why not zoom out even further? Where should the map end? The oil painting represents the world in a different mode. No proper names, no coordinates, just clouds, ocean, road, lighthouse. The painting sits across from the map, in a slightly elevated position. This pride of place hints at one of zk’s wider operations.
Taking the map of the nation down a peg is just one way that this work pushes forward questions like: what makes a nation a nation? What makes Japan Japan? What does it mean to “be Japanese”? Actually attempting to answer such questions easily provokes a raft of clichés. And if you happen to learn that Ishikawa is from Okinawa, then perhaps you would be tempted to draw an easy division between a nominally “Japanese” and “Okinawan” cultural identities. Ishikawa does not shy away from including such clichés, like a photograph of young kimono-clad women in the snow, or an old woman dancing to a shamisen. But these photographs are just the endpoints of a fluid continuum. Throughout the book, Ishikawa’s photographs defamiliarize well-worn national or cultural symbols. A woman wearing a headscarf poses with cherry blossoms, while the American flag appears on printed on swimwear or underwear that hugs right up against the bodies of the people wearing them.
These photographs often ask the viewer—especially, I think, a “mainland Japanese” viewer—to grapple with questions of identity and race. In one photograph, a man places his right arm on the shoulder of a child, presumably his daughter. Compared to the women in the snow, whose makeup has whitened their faces, his skin is noticeably darker. His left arm bears a tattoo that reads, in Japanese: “We are all the same.” On the facing photograph, a woman makes the same gesture, placing her right arm around the girl in front of her. Is this child, whose skin tone marks her as Black, also her daughter? How about the other two Black girls to the right? The photograph does not offer an easy answer to such questions, and frustrates the viewer who would ask them. If the viewer eager to find easy splits along cultural and racial lines might wish to comfort themselves in the knowledge that this photograph is from Okinawa—that place within the borders of the nation where one might “expect” to encounter mixed-race people—a car license plate in the background shows that this photograph was taken just outside of Tokyo.
zk060. 神奈川 横須賀 2018
zk060. 神奈川 横須賀 2018
zk is after something more complex than assigning its subjects to strict categories. Still, the idea that “we are all the same” surely does not represent the secret vocalization of Ishikawa’s personal rallying cry for a harmonious liberal multiculturalism. In the first place, the book is far too punk for that: see the crumpled-up and vandalized countenance of the late Shinzo Abe, carefully arranged next to a photograph of a stripper’s garter stuffed with dollar bills and yen notes alike. Is this a mocking detournement of Abe’s obsequious relationship to the United States? The photographs make no appeal for inclusion within existing structures of power, a hallmark of liberal multiculturalism. Where a more classically minded photographer—especially a photographer working within the long tradition of socially engaged realism in Japan—might attempt to tell a coherent and didactic story, Ishikawa offers no message at all, let alone a heartwarming one. Instead, different orders of language and culture just get mixed up together, lose their boundaries. The representational space of the map, with its order, clear lines, and above all its names, has to give way to space of the oil painting, with its blurriness and lack of clear labels.
And yet, to spend so much time on just a few photographs of the 198 that are here, and to pursue a somewhat limited set of questions around race and national belonging, is also to ignore huge swathes of zk’s subject matter. The book cannot be reduced to a statement about politics or geography—not when it also deals with sexuality, aging, disability, desire, form, science, the history of photography, and so on. It is as if Ishikawa has tried to fit everything into this work, even knowing that is impossible. Some of the issues that the photographs raise may not register to every viewer; for example, one of the photographs depicts an extremely charged landscape from the Battle of Okinawa, but I would not have recognized it unless the photographer had pointed it out to me. The book is working against the reduction of photographs to language—and especially to words like “Okinawa” or “Japan.” (Recall here the title of Ishikawa’s book A Grand Polyphony, to which zk is a sequel of sorts.) When looking through a photobook laid out in a sequence, it is tempting to unravel the code that structures the work as a whole. But the more that one tries to find the key to zk, the more that it shows some other, hidden face, just around a blind corner.
So, it is not constructed like a pyramid or a cube, with a set of surfaces that can be explored in rational space and related back to an overall structure. Instead, it is more like an Aleph, that object which the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges once discovered in the dusty basement of a hack poet and described in the following three sentences:
The Aleph’s diameter was probably little more than an inch, but all space was there, actual and undiminished. Each thing (a mirror’s face, let us say) was infinite things, since I distinctly saw it from every angle of the universe. I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of a black pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me; I saw in a backyard of Soler Street the same tiles that thirty years before I’d seen in the entrance of a house in Fray Bentos; I saw bunches of grapes, snow, tobacco, lodes of metal, steam; I saw convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand; I saw a woman in Inverness whom I shall never forget; I saw her tangled hair, her tall figure, I saw the cancer in her breast; I saw a ring of baked mud in a sidewalk, where before there had been a tree; I saw a summer house in Adrogué and a copy of the first English translation of Pliny—Philemon Holland’s—and all at the same time saw each letter on each page (as a boy, I used to marvel that the letters in a closed book did not get scrambled and lost overnight); I saw a sunset in Querétaro that seemed to reflect the color of a rose in Bengal; I saw my empty bedroom; I saw in a closet in Alkmaar a terrestrial globe between two mirrors that multiplied it endlessly; I saw horses with flowing manes on a shore of the Caspian Sea at dawn; I saw the delicate bone structure of a hand; I saw the survivors of a battle sending out picture postcards; I saw in a showcase in Mirzapur a pack of Spanish playing cards; I saw the slanting shadows of ferns on a greenhouse floor; I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies; I saw all the ants on the planet; I saw a Persian astrolabe; I saw in the drawer of a writing table (and the handwriting made me tremble) unbelievable, obscene, detailed letters, which Beatriz had written to Carlos Argentino; I saw a monument I worshipped in the Chacarita cemetery; I saw the rotted dust and bones that had once deliciously been Beatriz Viterbo; I saw the circulation of my own dark blood; I saw the coupling of love and the modification of death; I saw the Aleph from every point and angle, and in the Aleph I saw the earth and in the earth the Aleph and in the Aleph the earth; I saw my own face and my own bowels; I saw your face; and I felt dizzy and wept, for my eyes had seen that secret and conjectured object whose name is common to all men but which no man has looked upon—the unimaginable universe.
The grammar of Borges’ language is typically plain. However, this last sentence distends as it tries to capture the array of phenomena that spills out from the Aleph, and even running over a page long, it can only capture a fragment of what is there. In its own way, zk tries to carry out such an impossible operation, through the simple form of the photobook. Each page of zk enumerates one thing, just as each clause of Borges’ sentence. (Borges also includes a fractal-like structure within one clause: “I saw tigers, pistons, bison, tides, and armies.”) If there is anything in zk that is “all the same,” then, it is the way that the book treats photographs themselves, which are placed in the same representational space, just as the Aleph was meant to make “convex equatorial deserts and each one of their grains of sand” and “your face” simultaneously present. No geographical order holds here.
Of course, neither language nor photography can actually represent such space. The experience of time—eyes moving across words, hands turning pages—means that all of the phenomena are inevitably cut off from each other, whether by commas or by page breaks. This attempt to grasp something so evidently ungraspable sounds like a purely philosophical problem, but it also returns back to questions of nation and identity. At this practically cosmic scale, the boundaries of these categories lose their solidity, such that “a sunset in Querétaro” seems to “reflect the color of a rose in Bengal,” and the iconographies of Even through a mode of photography that is tied to things in the world, and even in a book where every photograph is taken within the national boundaries of Japan, zk still effects a similar kind of categorical blurriness, which does not allow for any simple regionalism or nationalism. The book does not ask, “what do you see?” This question already leads on to stable names. Instead, it seems to ask: “where is your face?”