New York

Toshio Shibata

Lawrence Miller

Toshio Shibata’s landscape photographs are perhaps most extraordinary for their startling sense of scale, their meticulous, indeed excruciating detail. After immersing ourselves in them, we realize that the man-made structure—usually a dam, or something designed to bring a stream, and sometimes land, under control—is at odds with nature, not just technically, but spatially. Indeed, geometrical structure and nature inhabit their own spaces, but the vastness of the overall space Shibata photographs makes clear how irreconcilable they are. Shibata turns the traditional nature/culture duality into a nature/technology duality. In Japan, every bit of nature is fitted into society, from the bonsai tree, to the rock “planted” in a garden in mystical or occult relationship to other rocks. This adaptation of nature to human use without an obvious imposition of the human will—one that, in fact, completely masters nature—is carried out in the countryside that Shibata photographs to uncanny, almost horrific effect: ecological disaster seems just around the corner. Though Shibata carries the contemplative tranquillity of traditional Japanese landscape painting into the photograph, and nature is not conspicuously marred—the constructions he photographs are in fact designed to preserve it—these constructions, in contrast to the lush earth, have an extraterrestrial and thus subliminally monstrous appearance. They don’t really belong in the scene, but there is no escape from them—they are an evil necessity.

Even when Shibata seems to be aiming for a strictly esthetic effect, as in his juxtaposition of a cluster of rocks with water flowing over a concrete shelf and the geometry of cube-shaped blocks placed seemingly randomly, but no doubt with specific purpose, in the water around it (Shimogo Town, Fukushima Prefecture, 1990), he makes a point about the ecological reality of Japan and, more profoundly and unconsciously, about its psychological reality. Ile takes us far from the conventional tourist trail, showing us the “backwaters” of Japan, and the extraordinary Japanese respect for and worship of nature, but he also suggests the peculiarly ritualized—almost rigid—character of Japanese life. He implies that for them life oscillates between organized idiosyncracy (nature mastered) and imposed order (technology reigning). Thus, after unexpectedly opening up to seemingly cosmic scale, Shibata’s space slowly but surely closes down again, this time not into an analytic matrix of details, but into a claustrophobic prison. Indeed, the solitude is as much that of solitary confinement as of contemplation. Shibata’s photographs are peculiarly critical of the Japanese character—in all its insularity and hermeticism—even as they admire and articulate it.

Donald Kuspit