Burying Mountain and Worshipping isle
Last year, Ali Uchida held a solo exhibition titled "Mountain of the Dead and the Holy island" at the Kamakura Drawing Gallery. The year before that, Uchida had a solo exhibition titled "On an Isolated Island" at Musee F Omotesando. Both shows were based on Uchida's coverage of the landscape of Tsushima, an area she has been intensively working on for the past 10 years. These are not mere landscape photographs. In each photograph, an invisible presence sealed in the land looms in the air, tinged with complex shadows. Such presence is also unsettling. It is akin to the memory of the land, or the presence of earthly things, Geocities, and earthly spirits.
What led Uchida to Tsushima was Jeju Island, South Korea. She visited Jeju Island in 2008 for a photo shoot for a book titled "Kim Sok-pom: The World of 'Volcano Island'" (Yubun Shoin). "Volcano Island" is based on the Jeju uprising, a massacre of Jeju Islanders by the South Korean military, police, and other forces. Sixty years have passed since the massacre, and the island's people and landscape have completely sealed off the memory of the past. However, Uchida must have felt a dense presence that was hard to erase in the solid silence. In each of the photographs she shot there, something unusual was shimmering in the air. Later, she learned those who had fled from Jeju Island had crossed over to Tsushima Island.
Tsushima has an ancient history, as described in Kojiki and Nihonshoki mythology. It is the nexus between the continent and Japan, and at the same time, it is a boundary. Memories from the past are deeply ingrained and accumulated. There seemed to be a solid internal driving force behind the trip to Tsushima. As if possessed, she has been to Tsushima more than 20 times over the past 10 years.
Uchida first photographed urban cultures. She took snapshots of people in crowded places such as Shinjuku and Ikebukuro. Her eyes were focused on the daily life of today's world, which is filled with obscenity. The mundane everyday life in which she lived. Gradually, however, her interest shifted to landscapes. She began traveling in search of "landscapes somewhere between the ordinary and the extraordinary". She stayed in Chichibu for two months, and wrote the following about what she shot there.
"Each village had formed its unique worldview, and even an empty, vacant lot had the power of awe, like a sacred place."
From then on, "the decision to photograph became a matter of finding in the landscape an everyday life in which both hare and kegare (sacred and profane) exist simultaneously".
In "Burying Mountain and Worshipping Isle" the faded sepia-toned photographs make the captured landscapes lose their presentness, leading to landscapes in memory. This is due to a classical photographic technique called the gum bichromate process. Uchida learned this technique during her overseas training in India in 2012. In addition, each photograph is made up of four separate parts that are combined. The time lag between the development of each image results in subtle shading. There is also a slight misalignment at the joints of the four sections. As a result, a single landscape has four different time axes. Uchida says that she manipulates photographs in this way to "deepen the invisible realm in my mind as an expression". In other words, it is an inevitable act of expression to emphasize the presence that Uchida senses. As a result, familiar mountains and seas are transformed from the known to the unknown, strongly shaking the viewer's senses. The photographed locations include mountains shrouded in fog, sheer cliffs, and promontories overlooking the sea. All are uninhabitable, desolate landscapes.
Needless to say, "Hafuri" means burying the dead. "Itsuku" means to purify oneself and serve the gods by removing impurities. It also means to serve the gods by purifying oneself, or to worship them with great reverence. Uchida says that the exhibition's title is related to a place called "Kisaka," which she was attracted to in Tsushima.
"In Kisaka, there is a sacred mountain called "Izuyama," which is a symbol of the world of the gods, and a mountain called "Horiyama," which is a place of burial after death, and between these two mountains, there exists the present world of people before their death. It is described that Kisaka was once composed of these three worlds. "Izu" means "itsuku," or "to appease the gods," and "hori" means "hafuri". Both Mount Izu and Mount Horiyama are "worlds" that must not be entered uninvited."
"The fact that this "world" exists as a perfect story in a tiny village, where people are born, live, beg the gods of Mount Izu for salvation, and are buried in Mount Hori after death, must have tied in with my intuition that led me so far to Kisaka."
Folklorist Tsunekazu Miyamoto has visited Tsushima many times and recorded his fieldwork in such books as "The Forgotten Japanese". In "Journey of Folklore," he notes that Tsushima has several old houses that have preserved ancient documents since the Kamakura period (1185-1333). He writes that "the medieval period has remained so intact" because the people have continued their unchanged customs in the same place for 600 years.
In the Middle Ages, every region of Japan had other worlds, sacred and profane, surrounding mundane everyday life. The lands of Tsushima and Kisaka retained a sign of such a place that is still thickly present today. It can be said that Uchida sensed the presence of this other world and was attracted to it.
Those who live in modern society have lost their awe and fear of the world. For those who live in the mundane realm, it is rare to find a place where they can experience the existence of light and darkness that revitalizes their lives. On the island of Kutaka in Okinawa, Taro Okamoto intuitively realized that human life and the soul are revitalized when the sacred Utaki, where the gods descend, and Guso, the world of dirt where the dead sleep, both exist. That is, he was convinced that by living in the three-dimensional world of the sacred, the mundane, and the profane, human beings could fulfill their true lives. Uchida's trip to Tsushima may have been a journey to restore her shriveled life and soul. The artist looked at everyday life, a secular space filled and overflowing with obscene life, and sought a world where the sacred and the profane, light and darkness existed together.
Uchida's photographs shake the viewer's consciousness and senses because they awaken a feeling of awe and fear toward the world that lies deep in the viewer's consciousness.
Director, Taro Okamoto Museum of Art, Kawasaki City
The architectural term genius loci (spirit of the land) does not seem to have fallen out of use. For we feel the winds and smells unique to a place or land all over our bodies and bring them back with us.
Up-and-coming photographer Ali Uchida has walked and photographed the southernmost island of Korea, Jeju Island, where primitive beliefs remain, Iki and Tsushima, which have lived through a mysterious history of being both Korea and Japan, and the remote islands of Nagasaki, where there were Christian martyrdom sites all over the region.
Diaspora (loss of home) is not only about human beings, but also about the land and its creatures.
Uchida's recent work also traces back to the origins of photography, questioning its origins while printing on Japanese gampi paper.
"What was it in the beginning?", "What the original landscape was?"
In these questions, I feel a thrill, as if our wanderings into today's landscapes intersect with the origins of each land and photograph in Uchida's photographs.
Professor, Musashino Art University
Uchida is interested in Tsushima as a place where Korean and Japanese cultures, animistic beliefs that have continued from the past, and modern life intersect, making it the subject of her work. The complicated process of printing and processing in her work may also be derived from the complexity and intersections of Tsushima.
The first thing that catches the eye of Uchida's work is the tearing of a single image. The materiality of the photographic surface of the platinum print, which boasts a durability of 500 years, and the foil applied to the back of the tear in the gampi paper make tearing this image appear even more intense.
What are these rips tearing? The landscape photographs used as images in the work seem to have been taken on film at the same moment. However, the rupture adds a speculative quality to the images, as if each of the divided images is capturing a different event or time. Speculative nature means "if it were to be…." That is, Uchida's work asks the question. If the landscape or photograph we see now were not as we see it, what would be layered on top of it?
What Uchida is tearing through her works is the reality of how people look at landscapes. Tsushima's cultural and temporal intersections probably demand this landscape's multi-layered nature.
The name of the work, "Mountain of the Dead and the Holy island," which Uchida has used for many of her works since 2020, is derived from the legend of Kisaka, a village on Tsushima Island. Uchida remarks in her Statement (p. 7) as follows. "In Kisaka, there is a sacred mountain called "Izuyama," which is a symbol of the world of the gods, and a mountain called "Horiyama," which is a place of burial after death, and between these two mountains, there exists the present world of people before their death."
As can be seen from the process of deciding on the title of this work, the people of Tsushima still live in coexistence with things invisible. Through Uchida's work, which expresses this scene of Tsushima, we, the viewers, will reacquire an appreciation of the connection with "invisible things" with which we have little to do in today's society, and of the landscapes in which these things are overlapped.
Curator, Fujisawa City Art Space