《 Shitamichi Motoyuki: Geological, Historical, and Human Times 》 Doryun Chong


– TCAA 2019 essay-

In autumn 2016, the morning edition of the Sanyo Shimbun newspaper ran a series of columns under the title “14 Years Old & the World & Borders.” Each of the ten articles published weekly featured short reflections by two young respondents on the meaning of ‘border’ in their lives. As the title suggests, they were all fourteen years old–to be specific, students at Tomiyama Junior High School in Okayama City–and were participating in artist Shitamichi Motoyuki’s project. The students’ varied responses alternately bring smiles to readers with their endearing simplicity and purity, make them scratch their heads with at times bizarre logical short circuits, and even startle them with dark, moody tones that reflect the uncertainty experienced by awkward young teens, who have just exited carefree childhood and embarking on a treacherous journey of discovery for selfhood, autonomy, and responsibility.

One contribution to this particular series stands out for being precocious, humorous, and ominous all at once. The young teen’s name is Toratani Yuki. He writes:  “I am currently an isolated nation [sakoku-chu]. Once I come home, I rarely go out again. When I go from home to school, I do it while thinking I don’t want to leave home. I feel like I go to school on semi-hostage confinement in the capital [sankin-kotai]. One day, the ‘black ships’ of Commodore Perry [kurobune] will come and demand that I open up. When they come, things will become busy. That’s why I’m enjoying the peace and quiet of isolation for now.” Next to the byline at the end of the short text is a piece of biographical information about the author: the farthest place Yuki has ever been to is Osaka, just about 200 kilometers away from Okayama. This rather childlike confession of how narrow his world is starkly contrasts with the grand scale of the metaphors he borrowed from Japanese history to describe his quotidian life. Nonetheless, ‘things will become busy’ is a fair as well as prescient description of the turbulence inevitable as much for  the adulthood of any individual being as for the modernisation of a nation. Yuki would be 18 or 19 years old now and perhaps has now entered college. Perhaps he is intending to be a historian, philosopher, or writer. Whatever his plans for the future are, he would be transitioning into this new stage of his life during one of the most difficult moments in living memory.

In this workshop-based project begun in 2013, clearly what interested Shitamichi is the notion of liminal–etymologically derived from the Latin word limen, ‘threshold’–and meaning: 1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process; 2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold. That Shitamichi’s “14 Years Old & the World & Borders” is likely and essentially about psychological as well as social liminality is implied by how the artist himself describes the project. “Earlier on, I felt as if the other side of the ‘river,’ which was the border of my junior high school district, were a foreign country. Once I became a high school student, the river was definitely no longer a border.” [かつて中学校区の境だった「川」の向こう側を異国のように感じていた。高校生になるとすっかりその川は境界線ではなくなった. ] The river, of course, is the ur-metaphor for liminality suspended between the realms of the living and the dead, and possibility and reality, among other binaries. Think of the river Styx in Greek mythology; Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon on his way back to Rome from Gaul, and Sanzu no kawa (The River of Three Crossings) in Japanese Buddhist tradition. Once he has crossed the threshold into his own teenage years and then into adulthood, Shitamichi seems to have really opened his eye to the here and now, or where he is from and where he lives, and the recent past that has shaped the present.  

In the decade prior to “14 Years Old & the World & Borders,” Shitamichi was engrossed in two projects of research and investigation–Remnants (whose Japanese title, ‘the Shape of War’ is much more evocative) and Torii series. In the former, Shitamichi conducted urban archaeology discovering the remains of World War II-era wartime structures such as bunkers and artillery forts that are now hidden in the fabrics of cities or in agricultural fields and have sometimes been adapted for non-belligerent purposes such as residence or flowerbed. Shitamichi states that the series was instigated by him coming across one such remnant in his neighborhood in Tokyo, where he attended university. Could there have been any correlations between the young artist’s project, launched in 2001, of examining the physical legacy of a historic war and the beginning of a new global war–that is, the event of September 11, 2001?

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Cold War had felt like it was a story that had concluded long ago and became forgottten in the West at large and certainly in the United States, a chief architect of that long war. In contrast, “postwar” had been–and arguably continues to be–omnipresent in Japan, as a term, notion, and awareness. This no doubt has to do with the scales of devastation and trauma that World War II left in Japan. One outflow of that historical experience is the rich postapocalyptic imaginary long thriving in Japanese popular culture, which seems to have sustained and supported the continuation of postwar as a dominant, persistent framework for the Japanese worldview. Shitamichi’s tracing of ‘shape of war’ in his and his compatriots’ everyday environs, almost half a century after the end of the war, can then be seen as a response to the enduring exertion of war in Japanese society as well as psyche, on the one hand. On the other hand, within the field of contemporary art, it can be seen as an example of very much au courant research-based, interdisciplinary practice traverses the fields of anthropology, history, and sociology, as well as visual art. In Japan, Shitamichi’s methodology can be placed along a particular lineage, which can be traced back to early 20th-century ‘modernology’ developed by Kon Wajiro and his followers, and the ‘Rojo kansatsu’ (‘on-the-street observations’) launched by artist Akasegawa Genpei, architect Fujimori Terunobu, and their associates in the 1970s. Like these historical precedents, Shitamichi’s apparently passionless and meticulous fieldwork approach can render the past into a magical realist landscape reminiscent of narrative spaces of Murakami Haruki, full of wells and wormholes. 

It is perhaps natural that having crossed the metaphorical ‘river’ into adulthood and also into an artistic practice as well, Shitamichi looked further out toward and beyond the seas surrounding his island nation. Sea is another crucial trope in Japanese imaginary  as the primary bulwark protecting its cultural purity (of course, a myth) and against civilizational incursions. The often told story of divine wind protecting Japanese islands against the Mongol invasions is very much like the classical western narrative about Xerxes crossing Hellespont to punish and subdue the Greeks during the second Persian invasion, only to be thwarted by the much smaller forces; they both espouse civilizational exceptionalism. The animistic powers of winds and waters and other natural elements constitute the core of Shintoism and at the crux of Japanese identity,  and anchored the imperial ideology at the basis of Japanese colonial projects. 

Shitamichi’s investigation of the architectural and cultural leitmotif of Shintoism–torii–the marker of transition between the secular and the divine, and also a predominant symbol of colonial authority brings together his interest in liminality, nation-state, and remains of history. The presentation of the project, which took the artist to distant corners of Japan’s former colonies of Korea, Taiwan, and Pacific islands is far from didactic. The matter-of-fact photographs of what he found left of the toriis are at times hilarious, other times melancholy, and always pathetic. Shitamichi’s Idiosyncratic documentation of history’s persistence trenchantly reminds viewers of how memory can so heartlessly switch its alliance and association with new victors, narratives, and ideologies.

If these two projects are about historical and geopolitical time, they rather unexpectedly transitioned to and overlapped with the geological time frame of the series Tsunami Stone begun in 2015. Casting the Remnants and Torii projects as the “inside” and “outside” of the border of what he calls the “ambiguous framework of a modern nation,” Shitamichi finds on the border of that nation, composed of distant little islands, enormous boulders that could only have been placed there by seismic forces. He captures and presents these impressive rocks in black-and-white films shot from fixed points so that the moving images of the unmoving objects become still images. Birds and people occasionally coming in and out of the frames squarely focused on the rocks only remind viewers how insignificant and momentary their existences are in the framework of the time and physics that produced and moved such geological elements. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami must have affected Shitamichi as it did many of his fellow artists and obviously played a role in the artist’s decision to investigate the rocks.

Perhaps this project provided Shitamichi with an alternative, or antidote to the historical timeline that can be so overdetermined in Japan. Arguably more than most countries, Japan marks its timeline with such diligence and clarity, especially periodizing its modern history as a history of rises, falls, resurgences, and repetitions. The arc of modern Japan thus goes through the narrative milestones of the ‘opening’ of the country by American ‘black ships’ in 1853; the beginning of modernization with the restoration of imperial authority in 1868; victories over foreign superpowers in 1894 and 1904 that announced its emergence onto the world stage; and of course the catastrophic defeat of 1945. The most often cited turning points in the “postwar” era are 1964 and 1970, the years of the Tokyo Olympics and the Osaka Expo. Given the importance accorded to the international events that validated Japan’s (continued) global influence, 2020 was understandably an anxiously anticipated milestone following others that signified downturn or disaster, such as 1989 and 2011. The unforeseen epidemiological crisis claiming the year 2020 thus naturally posed a crisis in the nation’s ability to control its own narrative of history. 

For the artist who has spent the last two decades thinking about the enduring legacies and presences of many overlapping and intertwining times–be it individual, human, historial, and geological–this past year would have weighed down heavily in his mind, perhaps like a tsunami stone. Having reflected on and investigated the meaning of border over the same period of time, Shitamichi seems to have decided to cross again, or cross back his own border, returning to the Setouchi inland sea area, where he was born and raised, with his own family and taking up the position of “museum director” of the project called Setouchi “ “ Museum. That the main subject of the museum is blank and can be filled in with changing topics or titles indicates that this is an evolving organization, or better, organism. In the iterations that have already taken place, the museum highlighted the work of a photographer who spent much time and documented the area, and then old tour guide books on the region–a publication genre that is disappearing with time. 

Focusing on the regional, ephemeral, and consumable, the project may evoke questions, and even suspicions. Are they rather ‘light’ compared with the artist’s previous projects, which question the very definition–and legitimacy–of the modern nation-state per se. What Shitamichi is focusing on in this latest project may be characterized as a “microhistory.” History is always a composition of numerous microhistories and at the same time is built upon forgetting and erasing them. The true strangeness of history that refuses to be explained neatly and logically may only be illustrated and experienced by microhistory. As the well-known quote says, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” By crossing the river of his childhood again, what Shitamichi is finding is perhaps not a home but a foreign country, and a realization that they may be in the end one and the same. 

Doryun Chong (Deputy Director, Curatorial and Chief Curator, M+)

(TCAA 2019 エッセイ)



この連載は、大人びたさま、ユーモア、不穏といったさまざまな雰囲気を同時に醸し出している。10代の若者の名前は虎谷優輝。「現在僕は鎖国中である。自宅から外に出ることはめったにない。学校に行く時も自宅から出たくないと思いつつ学校に向かう。学校に参勤交代している気分である。いつか黒船がきて、開国をせまられるのだろう。黒船がきたら忙しくなる。だから、今は平和で静かな鎖国を楽しんでいるのである。」この文章を書いた中学生の紹介文が最後に載せられており、そこには「今まで行った一番遠い場所 大阪(岡山から200km程)」と書かれていた。身の回りの生活を表現するために日本史を用いた壮大なスケールの比喩とは対象的に、自分の世界の狭さを嘆く実に子供らしい言葉である。にも関わらず、「黒船がきたら忙しくなる」という言葉は、国家の近代化のように、大人なら誰しもが避けられない混乱における先見の明のようなもっともらしい表現だ。優輝は、おそらく現在18歳か19歳で、大学に入学したばかりだろう。もしかしたら、歴史学者や哲学者、作家を目指しているかもしれない。彼の将来の目標が何であれ、現代社会が最も大変な時期に直面する中で、彼は新しい人生のステージの変わり目にいるのだろう。








個人、人間、歴史的、地質学的なものなど、多くの時間が重なり合い、絡み合ってできた不朽の遺物や存在について、20年にわたり考えてきたアーティストにとって、この1年はおそらく津波石のように、彼の心に重くのしかかったのかもしれない。下道は、同じ時間をかけて「境界線」というものの意味を考え、それを振り返ることで、自分自身の境界線を再び越える、あるいは帰り着くことを決意したようだ。自身が生まれ育った瀬戸内海に家族とともに戻り、そこでは《瀬戸内「 」資料館》というプロジェクトの「資料館館長」を務めている。資料館のテーマは空白になっており、毎回話題やタイトルを変えて発表するという仕組みで、つまりは進化する展示、いや、むしろ生物とも言えるかもしれない。これまでの開催では、瀬戸内や各地を撮影し続けることに注力した写真家の展覧会から、時代とともに消えつつある出版物のジャンルの一つである古い旅行本の展覧会などへと姿を変えてきた。

地域特有なもの、儚いもの、消費されるものに焦点を当てたこの《瀬戸内「 」資料館》というプロジェクトは、人々に疑問を投げかけ、疑念を抱かせることさえあるかもしれない。現代における国家そのものの定義や正当性について問いかけてきた彼の今までのプロジェクトと比較すると、どちらかというと「軽い」ものなのだろうか。下道が今回のプロジェクトで力を注ぐのは、「ミクロストリア」と呼ばれるものだろう。歴史はいつだって無数の小さい歴史の積み重ねであり、同時にそれらを忘れ、消し去ることで成り立っている。整然と論理的に説明されることを拒む歴史の真の奇妙さは、ミクロストリアによってのみ表現したり理解することができるだろう。有名な名言にもあるように、「過去は外国である。そこでは作法が異なるのだ。」。子ども時代を過ごした川を再び渡ることで下道が見つけたものは、もしかしたら故郷ではなく外国であり、結局はどちらも同じものであるという気付きかもしれない。

Doryun Chong (M+ 副館長兼チーフキュレーター)

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