My review of Ametsuchi by Rinko Kawauchi (Aperture, 2013) is now available on photo-eye. You can get the book here.
In 2007, Rinko Kawauchi travelled to the city of Aso to witness the ritual crop burning (or yakihata) of the region’s farm and grasslands. Largely replaced with chemical means of fertilization, the almost 1300 year old tradition of crop burning have a unique place in local culture. Mesmerized and haunted by the dramatic flames and rituals, Kawauchi returned over the years to capture the transformed landscape. Channeling smoke, flames, earth and the cosmos, Ametsuchi captures this annual ritual, connecting earth, fire and sky and powerfully evoking the cycle of life and death in a beautifully designed book.
Kawauchi has received wide acclaim within the art and photo world for her poetic images and beautiful books. This new book feels like a departure, not necessarily in tone, but in structure and focus. Unlike Utatane, Aila, or even the recent Illuminance, which wove together disparate poetic images to magical effect, Ametsuchi uses the crop burns as a way to deal with larger metaphoric and spiritual concerns that have always been present within her work, but less explicitly stated. Dispensing with her signature square-format images, Kawauchi also began using a 4x5 camera, which slowed her process considerably and works well giving the images extra detail, but also panoramic scope.
The book begins dramatically with flames. The sky is dark with smoke and flames dance upwards, engulfing the dry pale grass. Slowly, figures emerge in the distant landscape moving through the waves of desiccated grass. The images progress steadily and have the same rhythm as the flames they depict – undulating and threatening. Initially, the flames are fierce and unyielding – surrounding the frame or moving quickly along controlled lines in the landscape. Just as quickly, they subsided, leaving only a delicate tarp of ash on the distant hills and tree branches. People appear throughout, but are largely absent or wander through the burnt or newly verdant landscape.
The title Ametsuchi is comprised of two Japanese characters meaning heaven and earth, or top and bottom. It is also the title of a traditional Japanese pangram often chanted, which translates as “Song of the Universe.” This sense of cosmic completeness is also present in the work as Kawauchi moves from images of flames, to stars, to the sun, to the scorched earth and back to green fields. In addition to the crop burns, the book’s central subject and unifying thread, the book also includes images from the Shiromi Shrine, planetariums, the Tokyo sky and the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Cyclically arranged, the work eventually loops back to scenes of the newly fertile fields replenished by the violent burns. The middle of the book is dominated by images of religious ceremonies – primarily Shinto, but also Judeo-Christian. While Kawauchi’s inclusion of blurred images of individuals praying at the Western Wall feels slightly out of place, it fits the holistic, spiritual feel of the work.
The book is beautifully printed and designed by Hans Gremmen, one the Netherlands’ most interesting and talented designers working with photobooks. In a variation of Japanese binding, the pages are cut along the side and bottom leaving only the top uncut. Color negative versions of the images on the outside pages hide in the folds. Paging through the book, you catch glimpses of the parallel, negative world, which reinforces the conceptual thread of heaven and earth without feeling heavy-handed. Notably, the book’s dust jacket also turns into a double-sided poster with a negative image of the cover on the back. The book is largely free of text save a concluding statement by Kawauchi and the aforementioned pangram.
Ametsuchi will no doubt appeal to admirers of Kawauchi’s work, but many may also miss her looser, signature snapshot style. While the book does not represent a huge departure for Kawauchi, it is an admirable risk. Too often artists settle into a familiar mode of working and need to risk failure more often. Kawauchi does that in her new book powerfully melding thoughtful design and evocative work.
Please note: This review originally appeared July 29th, 2013 on photo-eye. You can get the book here.