Muga Miyahara: Invisible layers
A woman. Sleeping. Dreaming?
Fish. Many fish. Even more fish. Wet, cold, slick.
Shuddering feelings of revulsion.
A woman. Sleeping. Dreaming. A nightmare?
“When I was a child”, writes Muga Miyahara, “I hated eating fish. But my father always insisted by shouting? ‘Eat a fish! Eat a fish!’ That only made me feel mental agony…”
This childhood memory was the inspiration for “A Memory of a Fish is there…” one of the artist’s most famous photo cycles. There, in numerous variations, he shows a naked woman and fish, thus dealing with the trauma of his youth. The viewer may share the feelings of disgust Miyahara associates with fish or he may interpret the photographs in his own way. Regardless, they remain both surreal and disturbing.
Contrary to tradition in Japanese photography, where reflections of individual experiences do not play an important role, the works of Miyahara are expressions of his very personal feelings. The artist wants to visualise what is invisible to the human eye. His photographs show the things behind the things, and open invisible layers for the viewer. Apart from his personal experiences, he is inspired by Japanese mythology or particular aspects of Japanese culture.
A good example is the cycle “Shinatsuhiko”, named after the ancient Japanese wind deity. Miyahara shows a young woman throwing leaves in the air and blowing them away. The artist interprets the forces of nature very traditionally as a person, in the same way as his ancestors did, or in the way that the Greek god Zephyr is known to Europeans, for instance. But this perception is – not only in Japan – fairly lost. An invisible layer.
Miyahara’s interpretation of tradition is most noteworthy in his works titled “Tokonoma”. The term refers to a built-in recessed space in a typical Japanese house, usually decorated with a calligraphic or pictorial scroll and an Ikebana flower arrangement. In Miyahara’s vision the Tokonoma becomes a stage presenting a cornucopia of different objects, inviting the viewer to explore a variety of ideas and thoughts. Although the arrangements are zen-like, very pure and simple, they have the effect of disturbing the viewer rather than expressing serenity and tranquillity. A lonely artificial leg, an empty shirt on strings, or knives hanging from the ceiling. Everyone can discover the invisible layers behind the objects for himself. The picture of three bombers and an ascending explosion cloud can – apart from obvious associations with war, air raids and nuclear attacks – be the starting point for various reflections about violence.
Another invisible layer reveals Miyahara’s cycle “Sakura”, about the cherry blossom, one of the most important symbols of Japanese culture. The unusual and mysterious style of these photographs derives from the camera the artist used, a “Hermagis” from the late 19th century. It gives the pictures – otherwise probably rather unspectacular – their sepia brown colour, and the camera obscura perspective provides a certain archaic quality. Here the cherry blossom is less a symbol of spring and beauty, but a reminder of life’s transience.
Finally , we return to Muga Miyahara’s understanding of human nature and the human body. The cycle “MIMI” illustrates his belief that the human body can also reflect a person’s character. He translates this theory into aesthetically graphic compositions of naked bodies clad with fresh edible items. A surreal (and again, sometimes disturbing) invisible layer is revealed to the viewer, in particular in the strangely beautiful photograph of an octopus tentacle lying on the torso of a naked woman. There is a close connection between beauty and the beast., and Miyahara’s work explores this fine line, lurking somewhere in life’s invisble layers.