Miyako Ishiuchi (b. 1947) has long used photography as a medium for expressing Japan’s memory and mourning. This was particularly evident in her “Mother’s” series (2000-05), exhibited in the Japanese Pavilion of the 2005 Venice Biennale: a group of photographs of personal articles, from lipstick to lingerie, once belonging to the artist’s late mother, whose life of wartime hardship and postwar motherhood resembled a 1940s melodrama. The point was driven home more recently in “Hiroshima/Yokosuka,” a partial retrospective of Ishiuchi’s work held at the Meguro Museum of Art in Tokyo.
The exhibition began with the series “Yokosuka” (1976-77), named after Ishiuchi’s hometown, the site of a major American naval base. “Apartment” (1977-78) followed, showing the interiors and sometimes the residents of Yokosuka tenements. Post-occupation base towns have been a popular subject for Japanese photographers since the late 1950s, beginning with Shomei Tomatsu, whose influence on Ishiuchi is pervasive. But rather than focusing on the seediness of American G.I. life, Ishiuchi favors sparsely populated streets and worn architectural surfaces. Her occasional images of people show not Americans but Japanese, engaged in uneventful activities like waiting for a taxi. By 1976, Yokosuka, like other base towns, had ceased to be a symbol of serious political contention and cultural collision.
Ishiuchi is best known for her close-up, black-and-white images of rough and cracked hands and feet (1988-91) and bodily scars (1994-2007). While addressing the vulnerability of the human body, these photographs, shown in variously titled groupings at the Meguro, also partake in the larger “postwar” thematics of Ishiuchi’s oeuvre. Another suite, “Hiroshima” (2008), consists of large C-prints of clothing worn at the time of the atomic blasts and now held in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Shot on lightboxes, the tattered articles read as forensic specimens. The “Mother’s” series juxtaposes undergarments with aged and scarred skin, making explicit an analogy latent in Ishiuchi’s work since the late ’80s. If “Hiroshima” affirms the cliché that clothing is a second skin, then the scar works invert it, figuring skin as a second clothing, an underwear of flesh equally subject to crumples and tears and often in need of mending.
Photo above: #05, from the series “Hiroshima,” 2007, C-print, 605⁄8 by 39 inches; at the Meguro Museum of Art.