10 July 2011

Nirai, Manabu Someya

Photographs by Manabu Someya. Published by Tosei-Sha, Japan, 2010.

In one, strangely absorbing, image from Manabu Someya's Nirai, a small selection of clothes hang from the long, makeshift washing line strung across an urban rooftop. These T-shirts, a single sheet and several smaller pieces of laundry - gathered, inexplicably, on a still smaller laundry rack - cluster together in the centre of the large-format photograph, dwarfed by the neglected space around them and the wider context of a dense residential neighbourhood. A neat metaphor for urban anonymity, the photo is also representative of a sub-section of the book where the photographer focuses on small urban spaces, usually devoid of human presence, where the signs of decay or disuse point to ... well, they point to decay and disuse.

The question is, what does any of this have to do with death, or the co-existence of life and death in the minds of these place's inhabitants? The project of this book, as the artist describes it, is to explore the notion of 'Nirai Kanai' - a mythical locale to which the spirits of the dead are said to travel in the culture of the southern Japanese prefecture Okinawa. In the 74 colour images featured here, Someya sets out to visualize this place as it 'co-exists' with the lives lived by real people in the Okinawa region and further south, in Taiwan, Indonesia and the Philippines.

As Antone Dolezal pointed out in his post about Nirai on the photo-eye blog, this kind of spiritual, or at least non-physical, subject matter sits at the limits of what photography can easily communicate, and Someya seems to struggle to find a coherent form for this work. There are images that do successfully hint at the presence of a parallel reality - be it truly mythical or simply psychological. The numinous light that characterizes many of the street scenes included here flattens buildings and objects so that even familiar or mundane sights can seem threatening or unreal.

Someya is also good at juxtaposing the artificial with the organic, and playing with scale, so that the immediacy of life lived in the modern world is played off against a sense of the scale and rhythms of the natural. A photograph early in the book for example, apparently taken from the back of a passenger boat, measures the distance to the horizon in ever more sparse manmade objects, emphasizing the indifference of the natural world to human life at the same time as referencing the myth of 'Nirai Kanai', often conceived as an island to which spirits fly.

However, the images often shift gear both visually and conceptually, leaving this viewer at somewhat of a loss as to how to read the work as a whole. A lyrical image showing a water bottle strung high above market stalls is followed by a bright, documentary-style shot of busy city streets, which is followed in turn by blank-eyed portraits of city inhabitants, and then a claustrophobic portrait of a woman sprawled naked on the edge of what seems to be a hotel bed. It is difficult to know how these works are connected, either to each other or the photographer's stated theme; the book can feel 'personal' in the worst way, in that it is almost impossible to penetrate for anyone not familiar with Someya's personal symbolism and preoccupations.

Of course not every photobook has to make a statement or set out a coherent 'project' - many work simply as collections of beautiful or absorbing images. Someya has set out, however, to document a very particular strand within the cultures of the countries featured here, and we might expect to finish the work sharing something of his connection with the subject. Unable to literally follow his journey (the photos are not arranged geographically or chronologically), it is disappointing that the book doesn't have a more pronounced visual logic. Simply juxtaposing panoramic shots of a city with images of skulls at an undefined burial ground does not automatically give an insight into this region's relation to mortality.

This review was originally published in photo-eye Magazine, 26th October 2010, and can be viewed in its original form here. All photographs are copyright Manabu Someya, published by Tosei-Sha, 2010.