Fields of fire: Rinko Kawauchi's photographs
For her latest project the Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi observed the 1,300-year-old tradition of burning farmland, an idea that came to her in a dream
Untitled, from Ametsuchi by Rinko Kawauchi
In a relatively short space of time Rinko Kawauchi has achieved a level of global recognition few other Japanese photographers have managed.
Despite the subtlety and simplicity of her images, she secured in 2001, as a complete unknown, an almost unprecedented book deal. Publishing three photobooks at once, she spewed out hundreds of strange, disorienting, kaleidoscopic snapshots of stickily suggestive shapes and textures captured over the course of more than a decade, mostly around Tokyo, where she lives.
A shot that sums up this period of frenzied output is of gelatinous white fish eggs generously heaped on a teaspoon, photographed from below, a child’s perspective; it is at once innocent and knowing.
Like fields of colour in a Rothko painting, or the sparse language of a Cormac McCarthy novel, Kawauchi’s camera seeks out forms with elementary simplicity, but reframes them with an elegance that is entirely her own. The best of the three early books, Utatane (meaning siesta), was listed among the 10 most influential photobooks of the decade by the photography historian Gerry Badger in the British Journal of Photography, and Kawauchi went on to be shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize last year.
In many ways her new project is a bold departure from the insta-snapping, compulsive style of her earlier work. For her latest photobook she adopted a larger format (now working in 4x5in), and a slower pace. The project itself has its roots in a dream. In an afterword to the book, Ametsuchi (meaning heaven and earth), she explains that while watching TV footage of farmers standing in a green meadow in the mountainous region of Japan’s largest volcano, Aso, she knew instantly that she had seen the image before – it had popped into her head while she slept, six or seven years earlier.
A Google search revealed that Aso was one of the few communities that continued a 1,300-year-old tradition of sustaining farming land by burning it on an annual basis, instead of using chemicals, before new crops are planted. 'I had long wanted to observe this ritual. I decided I had to go,’ Kawauchi wrote.
She has been visiting the region to watch the yakihata ritual since 2008. But she has retained vivid memories of that first visit.
'The force of the flames burning up the vast grassland was far stronger than I had imagined,’ she wrote. 'Witnessing the landscape completely burnt, I was seized by the illusion that I myself had burnt up. It was a refreshing sensation, as if the self that I had been up until then was no longer – that I had been reborn.’
Text courtesy of The Telegraph.