Miho Kajioka’s Lightness of Being

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The Japanese photographer searches for beauty in the everyday, a philosophy conversely inspired by tragic disasters. 

The Japanese artist, Miho Kajioka, has flown from Kyoto to Athens to conduct a photography workshop on the rugged Greek island of Santorini. For a period of time, due to the Covid-19 situation, it seemed that this workshop was unlikely to take place at all, and yet, with tenacity, goodwill and some luck, here we are. 

In a short period of time, Kajioka has achieved considerable success, most recently with a solo exhibition of her work, Tanzaku at The Photographers’ Gallery in London. This November, Kajioka exhibits again, alongside Marc Riboud (who also has an exhibition at Musee Guimet at the same time) with her own show entitled Do you open your eyes in the sea? at the Polka Galerie and during Paris Photo until 09 January.

Image © Miho Kajioka.
Image © Miho Kajioka.

Kajioka’s photographs first caught my attention at Paris Photo in 2019, when she won the prestigious Prix Nadar for her book, So it goes, published by the(M) Editions and the Ibasho Gallery, based in Antwerp. The project is a delicate-yet-ingenious selection of photographs, which are bound together and printed on transparent paper. The spatial arrangement of the images allows each transparent page to reveal a juxtaposition of, at times, three images in various degrees of obscurity, carefully sequenced and layered with a harmony so as not to intrude with each other. Concepts of time, memory and place are explored. “I wanted to playfully confuse people with a sense of time, in a fun and poetic way,” Kajioka explains. “I always had a strange feeling about how we order time into the past, present and future, as I never really felt that way. Sometimes, for example, one week can seem shorter than five minutes. When I started to photograph, when I was 19 years old, I felt then that I was playing with time. I was not sure what to do with this idea until much later in life, when I read the science-fiction novel, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.” The anti-war novel was published in 1969 and is described as a postmodern masterpiece. With a non-linear narrative, events are recounted through flashbacks and time travel, while the protagonist is held in an alien zoo on the fictional planet of Tralfamadore. The use of repetition, as with the phrase ‘so it goes’, is notable throughout the story. Kajioka cites a quote from the book: “I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All moments past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist.”

From the series Tanzaku © Miho Kajioka.
From the series Tanzaku © Miho Kajioka.

Kajioka’s photographs capture moments intuitively from fragments in her everyday experience. The book ran 500 regular editions and 40 editions in a deluxe version, which all sold out. Now, it will be published again, retitled So it goes, so it goes, and launched at the Polka exhibition, mainly because the artist wanted the work to be seen in light of winning the Prix Nadar, plus the fact that she felt uncomfortable about her books being sold online at vastly inflated prices. “Of course, it is important to respect those who have already purchased the limited-edition book,” she says, “so we want to keep the main concept of the book and yet we want to make a different version.” 

Kajioka was born in Okayama, Japan, in 1973. She went to the San Francisco Art Institute in 1992 to study painting, but moved towards photography soon after. After finishing her studies at Concordia University in Montreal, she recognised that to make meaningful work, an artist needs life experience. “I needed to learn more about myself and the world,” she says. So she moved to Tokyo to produce news and documentary programmes for Brazilian TV, but missed the arts. “Reporting about the tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, these experiences changed and reinforced my view of life,” she says. “I thought how tomorrow might never come, how life can end suddenly, and I realised that this was the time to return to art.”

While reporting in the disaster zone, Kajioka found some roses blooming amongst the carnage. That mixture of grace and ruin led her to create art that celebrates beauty in daily life. After some time in Spain, she returned to Japan and the darkroom, and spent several months producing her project, As it is. The work was inspired by Kajioka’s experience covering the 2011 tsunami. “It was a natural disaster that killed people, but I felt that our point of view is always to call it a disaster,” she explains. “But from nature’s point of view it was part of the natural flow and in a sense this is As it is. I used my archive, and wanted to show the work ‘as it is’, so people could see it from their own perspective and hopefully with no filters.”

Back in Santorini, this is the first workshop (here organised by Art Foto Mode, and hosted by The Palm Tree Workshops Space) that Kajioka has ever taught, yet her quiet and thoughtful responses fuel everyone with inspiration. On the first day, she hosts an informal traditional Japanese tea ceremony, and talks through her method and process. She explains how she gathers what she calls her “ingredients” to capture the whole scene, but is always attracted to a single detail; a child on a swing, a bird, or a shadow. Then her process of “cooking” creates a space by removing unnecessary information in the photograph to reveal that detail. After making a small silver gelatin print, she then stains the print with tea – a common technique in Japan. She prefers the more organic feel of these stained prints rather than the hard, white sheen of photographic paper. Kajioka’s use of space marks her difference as a photographic artist, away from the conventional form of photography that fills the frame. She recalls a story of a former art teacher, who dressed “like a cowboy, and did big colourful paintings. He did not like my minimal work with lots of empty space and he would say, ‘Miho, you always have unfinished spaces and you should fill them out with paint.’ I would reply with, ‘No, it is finished!’”. Kajioka describes her use of space simply as something that is part of her Japanese nature, and is reluctant to explain further, allowing the audience to make their own interpretations.

During another workshop, Kajioka presents a maquette version of a book, also due to be published and launched at the Polka exhibition. It is titled Tanzaku, after the vertical type of Japanese print, or cards, originating from the 14th century, though traditionally the cards are inscribed with poetry. Kajioka explains how the idea came from an architect friend. “In Japan, there are certain dimensional standards for many things, such as kimono, tatami mat, kakejiku [hanging scrolls] and many things in Japanese architecture. It will not work if they  are a bit bigger or smaller. Those dimensions make things perfectly beautiful and that is why they have stayed for hundreds of years. The tanzaku size is one of them, and I think it is because this size has some kind of magical effect to make things look perfectly beautiful. So the architect explained, and told me that my picture would look best in this size. I tried and he was right.” Tanzaku will be a handmade artist book printed by Kajioka, with the bindings and boxes made in collaboration with artisans based in Kyoto. An initial 100 copies will be published.

After the workshop, Kajioka flies to Paris to embark on a residency programme at the Cite Internationale des Arts. Kajioka will be ‘cooking’ her newly acquired ‘ingredients’ from Greece, with a view to exhibit new work, including the red fish, made during the lockdown in Kyoto. In a cynical world, Kajioka’s view is refreshing. Her ideas are born out of difficult situations – tsunami, nuclear accident, pandemic – yet they are communicated through positive reverberations. This is not a naive or whimsical attitude but rather an intelligent and spiritual symbiosis of a greater awareness, of seeing the bigger picture. There is beauty in life, sometimes we just need to be reminded.

Michael Grieve

Michael Grieve has been a contributing writer and photographer for the British Journal of Photography since 2011. He has an MA in Photographic Studies from the University of Westminster, graduating in 1997, and then began working on assignments as a reportage and portrait photographer for publications. In 2008 he began writing about photography and was the deputy editor of 1000 Words Contemporary Photography Magazine. In 2011 he began teaching and was a senior lecturer in photography at Nottingham Trent University and now teaches documentary photography at Ostkreuzschule fur Fotografie in Berlin. He is the founder/director of Art Foto Mode, a project that organises photography workshops internationally. Currently based in Athens and Berlin.