Ludwig Seyfarth: Like Leaves in the Wind. Ruins in the works of Naho Kawabe


As is generally known, the latest major natural disaster that took place in Japan was a tsunami, which even a nuclear power plant was unable to withstand. In March of 2012, Naho Kawabe photographed many damaged or extensively demolished single-unit houses in the prefecture Miyagi, which had been affected by the tsunami. Contrary to the classical viewer of ruins, without knowing how the buildings had fallen into this state, one would immediately ask for the reason for the destruction. Followed by the question regarding their fate: will these houses be repaired or torn down and replaced by new ones? The photos served for the preparation of a video film in which the camera positioned in a moving car slowly and steadily captures the remains of an almost totally destroyed small harbor town. Only a few solitary houses remain standing. The remnants of other houses have already been completely cleared away. Here, on the abandoned areas located between these, where beforehand the photographs had only depicted dust, sand, and litter lying around, a few months later numerous sprouting plants are visible. Water penetrates from the depths to the surface of the ground. Nature is retrieving the terrain that has become available again.

Naho Kawabe is interested in the partially subtle processes, the gradual changes that both physically and also temporally pose a contrast to the massive force of the catastrophe. And Kawabe captures that, which in only a few years might have entirely disappeared. Furthermore, with reference to the buildings, she does not place her focus upon representative, monumental constructions, but upon simple single-family houses and multi-dwelling units. For many architects, a vacant lot that can be newly cultivated has much fascination. (…)

But a new construction can also come across in such a manner that nothing remains recognizably visible of the past. In 2008, when celebrations of the 50th anniversary of its reconstruction were underway, Naho Kawabe visited the French beach resort Royan, which had been almost completely destroyed during the Second World War. The ambience of Royan, reminiscent of a kind of Disneyland, inspired Jacques Tati to create the movie Mon Oncle (1958), a satire on architectural Modernism and the absurdity of a technically totally engineered form of everyday life. The residential houses and hotels, which Naho Kawabe depicts in her photo series The Palms of Royan, indeed create the impression as if they were part of a gigantic film set. Furthermore, the absence of human beings creates the impression that the houses in question might not be true to size, but rather scaled-down models. This bears reference to the houses of Miyagi, which have also been photographed in such a manner that just from looking at them we are unable to discern whether they are showing authentic destruction or only the model of a simulation of tsunami damage.

Naho Kawabe shows us the world quasi in another aggregate state: not in its physical solidness, but rather in a transitory, ephemeral state, which also finds expression in her penchant for materials such as, for instance, coal dust. The ruin is not only an occasion to meditate about the past or transience as such, but rather an expression of transitoriness, of the transition from one state to another. It is not what remains in the eternal cycle of evanescence, but in itself something ephemeral that will disappear. Thus, Naho Kawabe continues to realize the motif of the house and the ruin time and again in ephemeral materials, such as, for example, in a panoramic coal drawing created in 2006 or in the short video Sugarhouse from 2004. Here, the house dissolves in a time span of four minutes. If the classical European ruin is a silhouette that stands out against the sky like a memorial, then the ruin, as it takes shape in the work of Naho Kawabe, is a fleeting trace, a calligraphic sign, which briefly appears and then disappears again, borne away like leaves in the wind.

in: Naho Kawabe. Observer Effect, Berlin 2013