The photographer himself occupies little space, a slight Japanese man with graying hair. Amid the excited chatter of viewers and patrons and museum staff, Toshio Shibata maintains a mystery, an even expression that betrays neither aloof egotism nor art-world sycophancy. His words from the podium were few and heavily colored by his accent. Memorably, he told the audience that only the magic of photography and art could have kept him swept up in this work for decades.
The photographs occupy a much more demanding space, large images surrounding the second floor of the Hillborn Gallery at the Peabody Essex Museum. They seem to escape the limits of their two dimensions; when the viewer approaches one of these, the frame becomes the edge of a gaping passage, an unnerving open window peering over quarries, dams, retaining walls, and a variety of other landscapes that have been shaped by humans.
It is clear at first glance that Shibata wields his lens with a keen sense of scale and framing. Tiny networks of ladder crawl across a cliff wall, leading from nowhere to nothing. The track of a dry dam curls over the edge of a verdant hillside like a massive unspooling conveyor belt. The concrete grid of a retaining wall melts down the dips and rises of a forest-edge. The perspective we’re given is neither human nor god-like. Our view is widened enough to reveal the wholeness of a moment in the landscape, but close enough to conceal any orienting context, any neighboring familiarities that might set us at dull ease.
Shibata holds this power over his viewer: he leaves us balancing a thin line between aesthetic appreciation and utilitarian curiosity. Step back, and the work yields pleasures of line and texture, light and color. At this distance, he presents serene balances and imbalances, realisms paired with abstractions. But no viewer can help but lean in, almost fall into the intricacies of each “real” environment, and argue with their fellow viewers about what it is they are looking at. Is that a stone texture or some plastic covering? Is that a sky or a bright blue wall? Are those pins meant for retaining the wall, or are they drilled holes meant for inserting explosives? Like the artist himself, neither the images nor their titles (that follow the same formula: name of town, name of prefecture, year) elucidate on these subjects.
Where the practical implications of these photos are obscured, there emerges a broader philosophical storehouse. What does it mean for man to alter the landscape so drastically, especially when the alterations are so thoroughly pragmatic, so lacking in expressive intent or principles of design? Of course, the initial reaction is usually to turn away from such scenes. Let the hillside be quarried, but don’t make me look at the remains. These are the scenes of artistic crime, places where utility and industry have utterly trumped beauty.
Not so fast. Shibata not only invites us to confront these scenes, but reveals a surprising harmony in them, an unknowing creativity. Ugliness is elevated in the artist’s eye, anointed with vision. Though his Japanese predecessors only found inspiration in the serenity of the untouched Mt. Fuji or the fine simplicity of a Buddhist Temple, Shibata finds equal power in the cresting of a retaining wall accented by the sharp and zagging lines of a chain-link fence.
Constructed Landscapes on view at PEM through October 6, 2013