Ken Matsubara: Recording With Light

In his art practice, Ken Matsubara applies moving images to small, still, ubiquitous found objects. His mixed media artworks have appeared on items such as a nameless book, a wooden scale, an industrially manufactured water glass, a mass-produced singing bowl, a broken mobile phone and an outdated TV. Explaining his choice of scale, Matsubara says, “small or miniature objects hold a special place in the hearts of many Japanese people. They feel as if they can link to a small universe or their perfect society in them. Like in the finely crafted tools and cups for the Japanese tea ceremony, there is a great universe to be found by looking at and pondering them.” The cluster of associations accompanying an object is his canvas. “Even televisions, with the notion of attempting to… create a new miniature universe, the Japanese could produce the world’s smallest television.” As an industrialized country, Japan has always been one at the forefront of technological advances and many Japanese artists were drawn to the potentials of scientific, engineering and media knowledge.

The advent of photography in Japan during the mid-nineteenth century coincided with the invention of the Daguerreotype in France. From the early twentieth century to the present, Japanese photographers have debated the function and the role of their medium, variously emphasizing its social role or its expressive capabilities. Perhaps more than any other artistic medium, photography has played an essential role in exploring, representing and constructing images of what is meant to be Japanese identity. “Japanese beauty is based on everything that is impermanent, the time disappears, it doesn’t stay. For example, ‘Hojoki,’ the oldest book in Japan by Kamo no Chomei, who wrote his very first page that the flowing river never stops and yet the water never stays the same. Foam floats upon the pools, scattering, re-forming, never lingering long. So, it is with man and all his dwelling places here on earth.” [Mara Sartore: Repetition: An Interview with Ken Matsubara]

Ken Matsubara’s Repetition Series [2014] derives from utilizing various old snapshots found by chance and shooting images from the same location in comparison to where the snapshots were actually taken. The aged photographs are shown as prints in a book form, and the photographs of the revisited sites are projected onto empty pages. The juxtaposition results in a still-life that leads to a mediation of present and past, presence and absence, life and death. Understanding history as a process of development along the flow of time is a reoccurring subject of artistic photographic exploration. The artist and architect Hiroshi Sugimoto, among others, dedicates his work to the transience of life and has described his photographs as an expression of exposed time.

Time-flow and the passing of the present are key to understand Matsubara’s conceptual approach. “We are fluctuating between the past and the future in a state of repetition, ceaselessly inquiring its means without an end.” His works are rooted in personal observations and memories. For the work Tide [2011], he talks explicitly about a formative experience, “this work comes from my memory of the first time I went to the ocean at the age of three. My mother was laughing and calling me into the water. As I cautiously entered the ocean, I could feel the great force under my feet pulling me into the waves. To avoid being swept away to inevitable death, I firmly braced my legs wide apart. But, little by little, I began to sink. I tried to endure the weird anxiety at my feet, but before long I took a big gulp of seawater. Finally, my mother, laughing, came to scoop me up as I cried and held me in her arms.” Tide is a kaleidoscope of human legs and moving sea waters in a repeated and mirrored flow, projected on a rough, dark wooden block. For the work Letters [2011], Matsubara refers to the moment when he and his wife decided to throw away letters they had received from family and friends, letters they had been keeping for close to forty years. The video shows an empty room in which sheets of paper float to the floor. Projected onto a non-functional mobile phone, Letters creates reflectiveness about the collective experience in the age of digitization as the written letter rapidly fades from existence.

Among the interplay of analog objects and digital films, Matsubara creates subtle and intriguing mixed realities. His series Moon Bowl is one example, the movement of water is seen by projecting an image of moving water onto still water in a singing bowl. Aiming to capture dynamic and interdependent qualities are key to his artistic concepts. He explores visuality through the known and unknown, the visual and non-visual, with a unique sense of spirituality. “I recognized that the base of my ideas are ‘Mono no aware,’ which means the sadness of the passing time. It’s like when you see the cherry blossoms falling, you feel sad… The Japanese beauty can be described with the cherry blossoms or even with the samurai warriors that are going to die when they see the cherry blossoms they have the same feelings, that they are all going to die one day.” [Mara Sartore: Repetition: An Interview with Ken Matsubara]

Matsubara’s artistic research is dedicated to memories that understand not only collective but universal principles. “My works attempt to explore the possibility of melting memories that reside deep within one’s consciousness. These works are composed of recollective imagery that contains archetypes embodying memories. Recollections… are genetically inherent in our DNA which contains a vast knowledge from the past since antiquity. Furthermore, they share a collective memory that extends beyond individual self and interpenetrates between the past and the present. If we can recollect and share them, then, I believe there is a potential for our future to ascend past the boundaries of cultural, historical, and social notions of individuality.”

[Statements from the artists’ website, March 15, 2018. Text: Bettina Pelz.]

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