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Alone in the Quiet River: Naoya Hatakeyama

He is interested in things that are constructive and of substance: the photographer Naoya Hatakeyama is the systematic antithesis of "Desire and Emptiness" – an empiricist, but also an enchanting colorist. The artist has been part of the Deutsche Bank Collection for a number of years: his nine-part River Series is hanging in the board room of the Deutsche Bank in Tokyo. By Ulf Erdmann Ziegler .

All influential Japanese photographers following 1945, from Shomei Tomatsu ( pictures) to Nobuyoshi Araki, came to terms one way or another with the Empire's loss of power and the tremendous influence Western culture exerted on Japanese society. At the same time, this created a visual and intellectual bridge to a Western public, which had found itself the subject of Japanese photography over the previous thirty years in a distorted and alienating form.

Naoya Hatakeyama was born in 1958 and hence does not count among the photographers and artists who grew up with this set of conflicts. While his work may very well be about what is "Japanese," it contains an element of the universal, as well. His work groups are highly individual in form and operate with a minimum of images, while their visual quietude and firmness lure the viewer into the illusion that he or she is pondering immutable matters.

Naoya Hatakeyama: River-Series, 1993-96, Deutsche Bank Collection
©Naoya Hatakeyama, Courtesey L.A. Galerie - Lothar Albrecht, Frankfurt

The nine-part River Series made him famous overnight. Today, they are hanging in the board room of the Deutsche Bank in Tokyo, on the walls between the windows. The works do not actually portray rivers, but cement canals that Hatakeyama slipped under Tokyo's cityscape like dark mirrors. The city seems solid and festive in the evening light – is it Milan, Stockholm, Amsterdam? – while its urban suggestiveness is heightened by the broken reflection in the lightly moving water of the canal. Yet the series does not depict an idyll, as one might as first suppose. The reflection, gentle and sparkling, stands for the highly organized, violent, reeking metropolis. With a sharp cut, the photographer demonstrates just how concrete the opposition is between the usable and used halves, severing the night scene and its mirror image so perfectly that the viewer initially reads the image as two square photographs and the vertical format for a montage of two elements. As soon as the deception is recognized, it leads the viewer to Hatakeyama's real ideas and concerns.

The fact that Hatakeyama's works have enjoyed such easy acceptance in Germany might have something to do with the influence exerted through the systematic work of the Bechers and the bombastic pictorial photography of their students. Hatakeyama is both an empiricist and an enchanting colorist; a third element of his work consists in a certain curiosity concerning the role of the photographer in imparting knowledge.

Naoya Hatakeyama: Underground / River (Tunnel-Series), 1999
©Naoya Hatakeyama, Courtesey L.A. Galerie - Lothar Albrecht, Frankfurt

In a consistent continuation of his investigation into Tokyo's cement canals, Hatakeyama pressed on into the completely hidden, pitch-black underworld of the sewage system. The photographer brought along a halogen spotlight to illuminate the crumbling cement ceilings. The lamp is positioned such that it lights up the arches in melodramatic manner and reflects them in the sewage water.

Consumed by dark areas of disturbance reminiscent of the scratches and retouched sections of old glass negatives, the mirror reflections are by no means dream images as in the photographs of the River Series. As a vignette, and pushed into the distance by the dark area surrounding it, the doubled field of light resembles the stage of some cruel spectacle with an orchestra pit in which rats are about to begin playing at any moment.

Indeed, the following images from the series are visually closer to film than theater: fleeing rats, flying bats, dazed fish, buzzing insects. Dissatisfied with the trophies of his hunt, and in a third mutation of his motif, the photographer makes himself at home in the slimy, blubbering, crystalline underworld, where red clouds of partially decayed refuse are carefully presented as a prairie seen from an airplane. The proximity to "natural wonder" photography is doubtlessly and with all evil intent entirely deliberate.

Naoya Hatakeyama: Lime Works (Factory-Series), 1991-94
©Naoya Hatakeyama, Courtesey L.A. Galerie - Lothar Albrecht, Frankfurt

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