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ESSAYS Mousse 61

Gabriel Sierra on “Katsura Imperial Villa” by Ishimoto Yasuhiro

Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Katsura Imperial Villa 1981-1982. Collection of The Museum of Art, Kochi.
© Kochi Prefecture, Ishimoto Yasuhiro Photo Center

 

This image, one of the many interiors of the Katsura Imperial Villa taken by Ishimoto Yasuhiro in 1954, is a very significant photograph for me—even though it seems that nothing important or transcendental is really happening, or at least what is happening is invisible to the eye.

What we see, in theory, is a group of rooms with an infinite number of planes that can be opened or closed to separate or connect the space, which is constructed with rustic materials and much precision.

Many theories have been written about Katsura regarding how a building from the sixteenth century has influenced the modern occidental world in such radical ways. It is something like the before and after of the discovery of the Japanese epitome of traditional architecture. It influenced not only the architecture, but also the way we see the world and the modern culture of today.

How can an old building be so modern? In this image we can see how the power of photography can explain what we can’t say with words. It reflects an ancient modern spirit that occurred any number of times in many different places in the world, well before what we call our modern era came about.

What interests me about the traditional Japanese architecture is the primitive complexity, the system of proportions and materials that articulates the space and controls the boundaries between exterior and interior. In a certain way, a traditional Japanese home works as a domestic set that changes during the day to perform the needs of its dwellers, connecting and dividing the interiors and exteriors of the spaces.

What I find interesting about this picture in particular is how the black and white generates a kind of gloomy atmosphere even as the geometry of the clean lines neutralizes any attempt to disturb the place. I prefer black-and-white images of Katsura, maybe because color tends to distract from what is important to perceive as totality.

In my work I am interested in backgrounds, not in the concept of the movie or theater set per se, but in backdrop as character, so in this sense the empty background is in itself a main character. The problem with the figure-background thing is complementary. Pictures that document buildings tend to show empty spaces, whereas in movies the background is a complement to the characters and the script—sometimes itself a main character.

This image is not the building, or the patterns of its sliding doors, or how the place changes depending on the needs of the people or the hour, nor the textures of the wood, the earth, or the paper that filters the sunlight from the outside. The reason I am so excited about this is not about the building, or the idea of Katsura; I suppose it’s my will to select an image from thousands and observe what makes it significant.

If we see this same space populated with people, it would be perceived as a situation, not as a place. A place is not just a specific location, but a cultural construction related to the geography, the weather, and the human inhabitants. A photograph is about a moment in time; in it we contemplate the image of a moment that no longer exists.

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