Toshio Shibata

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through January 4

By Stephen Longmire

Most of the photographs Toshio Shibata has just made on a commission from the Museum of Contemporary Art are of dams and other public waterworks in the arid American west, where control of water is and always will be a pressing political issue. So it comes as a surprise–perhaps a calculated surprise–that these pictures have little or nothing to do with politics. Viewing Shibata’s immense (40-by-50-inch), elegant black-and-white prints just a few months after Richard Misrach’s equally large and impressive–but entirely different–color photographs of the west (including a series on the Salton Sea, a result of damming) can only remind museumgoers of the recent American tradition of politicized landscape photography, to which this Japanese artist refers but does not belong. It would be unthinkable for a serious photographer today to take on the subject of America’s western waterworks without some awareness of photographers like Misrach, who is only the most popular and polemical of a group who have approached land use in the west with an eye to environmental concerns. The celebratory photographs of the western dams made when they and the New Deal were new are perhaps the more germane comparison with Shibata, however.

Given an open-ended commission from the MCA to create a body of work in America, why did Shibata select this charged subject? Quite simply, he explained at his show’s recent opening, dams were familiar from his work in Japan. The photographer both sidestepped and invited a political reading by explaining that he prefers not to “narrow” the significance of the images. And certainly some leeway should be given for translation from one culture to another. In Japan–where the word “nature” cannot be confused with its American synonym, “wilderness”–intervening in natural processes is not necessarily seen as a violation. Hence Japanese gardeners’ elaborate efforts to improve upon nature using nature’s own principles. Dams represent yet another opportunity to exercise the brilliance of Japanese design. But in America such projects tend to vacillate between the attitudes of triumph and apology. Shibata wrote in a letter to MCA curator Staci Boris that, “in Japan, these constructions are exposed to the public proudly….

American engineering of public works seems to be more simple and functional.”

Shibata’s new photographs are elaborately designed in a manner consistent with his photos of waterworks in Japan. He frames the places that frame water with consummate care, cropping and twisting his eight-by-ten camera until the dams are as strange as artworks. “I feel like water makes…the land,” Shibata wrote in another letter. In geological time, of course, this is quite true. In photographic time, with its instantaneous exposures, Shibata’s observation creates a double vision, a world in which water is solid while land flows. This is the world Shibata photographs. His expert maneuvering of the frame not only balances but also supports his often skewed compositions, which remain delicate despite their massive subjects. Shibata’s camera makes the dams into frames for a visceral experience of nature–most often falling or flying, which come to feel much alike.

Staring down the side of a waterfall is one of Shibata’s favorite activities. He does so in 5 of the 25 images on display, including three stunning ones that open the series, in which he stares down Washington’s Grand Coulee Dam. Bright patterns of foam in the black water far below look like clouds; pelicans in the churning water below Montana’s Holter Dam appear to be flying. In these vertiginous views, the line between vertically and horizontally flowing water functions as a horizon, frequently splitting the frame into two evenly balanced halves. Of course it’s the principle of the dams themselves that two equal and opposing forces, no matter how great, result in stillness. For a time.

A dam is a staged encounter between the forces of nature and engineering. At the western sites Shibata visited, nature and culture square off–the designers’ bold goal was to re-create an agriculturally ravaged nation’s irrigation and drainage system and so pull the country out of the Depression. Dams produce power by suppressing power–an important lesson for an artist working in a medium as compressed as still photography. If time is a river, dams have a special significance for photographers: the photograph stills time as the dam stills water. The constant tension in both reveals at what cost. Our expectation that the action in a photograph could proceed at any moment–that, in fact, it was proceeding–is a bit like our awareness of just how close dams are to becoming floods.

Seen in this light, Shibata’s subject is politics of a metaphysical sort. In his ongoing obsession with dams, he photographs an encounter with the most elemental and least controllable force at work in our lives: time. His model for our encounter with time is a struggle between the forces of nature and human objects. John Szarkowski has observed that “whatever else a photograph may be about, it is inevitably about photography.” Certainly in this case he’s perfectly right.

A newcomer to the tradition of western American landscape photography, Shibata creates images that are as much about earlier photographs made on the same ground as they are about the time-stilling photographic process itself. Originally the MCA asked him to work in the midwest (the exhibited prints will become part of the museum’s collection). Choosing subjects farther west (and occasionally to the south) engages him in Misrach’s tradition. And like Misrach in his recent studies of the stars, Shibata takes the long view on the political questions of the day, preferring to see encounters between nature and culture as emblems of a long-term dialectic of human mortality. For a suspended moment, the fate of the earth flows free of this dance of death.

It’s a boon that Shibata’s work can be seen side by side with the recent photography of his countryman Hiroshi Sugimoto, a roomful of whose seascapes remain on view at the MCA as part of its permanent collection through mid-November at least. The horizon line is everything in Sugimoto’s minimalist landscapes, which show no land at all nor any particularity (except the weather) of the far-flung spots his titles (place names) claim he’s visited. Geography is collapsed along with time in Sugimoto’s ironic commentary on suspending the flow of experience through photography. The “Hall of Mirrors” show downstairs includes some of Sugimoto’s images of drive-ins and movie palaces, which might be thought of as companion pieces to his seascapes: the featureless water is almost visible through movie screens bleached out by the flickering of the film over a long exposure. Shibata’s photographs are more direct than Sugimoto’s in their response to the natural world, but no less thoughtful in their figuring of the passage of time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Grand Coulee Dam.