In Japanese, the word ametsuchi contains two characters, side by side. Together, they mean heaven and earth and make up the title of the oldest pangram in Japanese—a bare-bones chant that contains only six lines but, somehow, also includes every character in the Japanese syllabary. Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi borrows the title and theme of this ancient poem in her latest body of work, currently on display at Chelsea’s Aperture Gallery.
In translation, the poem’s words bleed together. The first line reads, “Heaven, earth, star, sky/Mountain, river, peak valley.” These evocative words point to the driving theme behind the exhibition: an understanding of the universe as a constant moving cycle that lacks a beginning and an end. Heaven melts into earth, which melts into the stars.
To depict this theme, Kawauchi chooses the ephemeral topic of fire. Most photographs in Ametsuchi portray the centuries-old tradition of “burned field” agriculture, or yakihata, in the Aso Mountains, located on the southern island of Kyushu. Although the fire itself often appears strikingly violent, the smoke lends a muted and ghost-like quality to the images. Using a language of muted grays, vibrant greens, and murky blues—a stark contrast to the fiery red flares—she successfully captures the coexistence of birth, life, and destruction at the hands of flames. As Kawauchi explained in a gallery talk before the exhibit opened, “Negativity is always hiding behind the positive.”
The fire at times acts as the sole actor in a one-man show. In one photograph, the fire leaps out at the viewer. A bright red arm snakes up into the sky, licking at a telephone pole. Black smoke seeps through the background. Another image is dominated by a large hill. At the foot, a burst of orange flames creeps slowly upward. One half of the hill is black and burned, while the other is light brown and untouched, not yet aware of it fate.
At other times, the fire shifts into the backdrop, disappearing into smoke. One image shows another hill, almost completely covered by a listless fog. The blackness of the field points to the former presence of fire, but there are no flames in sight. Another photograph zooms in on a lush, green field. Is this the antecedent or aftermath of yakihata?
With no way to answer these questions, we are shuffled between distinct moments within the cycle. Kawauchi gives us fire and then promptly takes it away, disrupting our sense of a progressing narrative. Clear moments of birth, life, and death become murky within the smoke. Time ceases to exist; instead, moments reverberate endlessly.
The show departs from Kawauchi’s usual portrayal of the beauty inherent in the quotidian. But, like a breath of fresh air, she brings us back to earth. Scenes of daily life, from the Western Wall in Israel to a smoky Buddhist ritual in Japan, are peppered throughout the show. These images return to overarching themes that much of her past work focuses on, relying on a Japanese aesthetic that emphasizes simplicity to show the awe-inspiring moments in the everyday. In pairing these images with yakihata, Ametsuchi reconciles the prosaic and the ethereal. Kawauchi gives us a literal ametsuchi—a fiery heaven and a temporal earth, at the same time.
Ametsuchi is on view at Aperture Gallery through November 21, 2013.