Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.
In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.
Extract from The End and the Beginning by Wislawa Szymborska, 1993.
Tomoko Yoneda’s work deals in history, remembrance, beauty, and the possibility of hope. For some twenty-five years, Yoneda has sought out sites of historical significance, picturing them in a state of tranquillity which belies the nature of their past. At first glance, her images seem simply to be attractively composed landscapes and interiors, but on closer inspection, more troubling pictures emerge: a clifftop path bathed in sunshine is revealed to be the site of Japanese suicides after the American Landing of World War II; planes fly through blue skies, returning from a bombing raid in Iraq; the waters in which Josef Mengele drowned appear as a rich, painterly seascape.
Yoneda’s photographs might broadly be defined as aftermath photography. This is a well-trodden path but Yoneda navigates it with grace, avoiding sentiment and bombast. Born in Japan, Yoneda studied photography at the University of Illinois and Royal College of Art, but was initially interested in journalism. Though she does not consider her work to be journalistic, she retains an interest in objectivity and historical fact, exploring the image as a means of communicating the past:
I intended to study journalism in America, but during the course I changed to study photography instead; I was intrigued by its instantaneous character of expressing thoughts and openness of imagery more than I was by the written word. I do not see my work as journalistic. I try to minimise sentiment and subjectivity in my photographs. I like to keep the subject as real as possible, to be accessible for the viewers. I am interested in individuals’ reactions to the subject, based upon their own background and history.
In 2007, Yoneda exhibited at the Venice Biennale and contributed to Pages in the wind: a reader – texts chosen by the artists of the 52nd International Art Exhibition. Yoneda selected Wislawa Szymborska’s 1993 poem ‘The End and the Beginning’ which describes the cleaning and healing of a landscape after war. She later explained the significance of Szymborska’s work to her photographs, stating:
I think the poem describes the core notion of my work, which is a question about our ‘existence’ created with memories and ‘traces’ of past beneath the invisible. I also sympathize with her anti-war view, which is not aggressively vocal, but subtly weaved into her text.
Like Szymborska, Yoneda addresses sites which bear witness to past trauma and the ways in which that trauma is revealed or concealed in the present day. Yoneda’s images are a meeting of past and future, memory and anticipation. The juxtaposition of distressing events and visual beauty is disturbing, but the tranquillity of these scenes – the calm after the storm – promises renewal and recovery.
Beyond Memory: Tomoko Yoneda is at Grimaldi Gavin, London, until 7th August 2015.