Beyond Memory is a photography exhibition by Japanese born, London based artist Tomoko Yoneda. Co-curated by Paul Wombell, the works on display embody the core concern of her artistic output; the intrusion of past historical traumas and political turmoil into the present day.
On first encountering her work it appears that there is nothing more to the image than the image itself. The exhibition contains numerous pictures of lush landscapes and desolate spaces. Despite the attractive scenes, there is a lingering sense of absence in the places on display, something ghostly beneath the surface gleam. The pictures seem abstracted, as if their context existed beyond the edges of the frame.
It turns out that this is quite literally the case. The key to accessing the greater significance and meaning in these images is found in their captions. A photo from Yoneda’s series Scene 01 taken at face value appears to be one of the most abstract in the exhibit; an experiment in colour and composition. A still sky disturbed by white amorphous lines across the picture’s centre. Consisting of different hues of blue almost blending into one another it seems to resist interpretation, reveling in the purely aesthetic.
However, its caption and those in the exhibition encourage the viewer to uncover multiple layers of meaning, and provides the depth that initially seems absent, the socio-historical context. On reading the caption Seascape – location where Dr Mengele Drowned, Bertigo, Brazil, 2001 our perception of the picture changes. A little research into the historical background indicates that Dr Josef Mengele was a German SS Officer and physician at Auschwitz Concentration Camp during World War II. He experimented on inmates, especially twins, and carried out genetic research on his subjects with utter indifference to their health and safety. In addition to this, he helped the SS pick between the infirm, whose fate was the gas chamber, and those fit enough for work, who were sent to the labour camps. When the war ended and the reality of the Holocaust was revealed, Dr Mengele fled Germany, managing to evade capture for the rest of his life. He died in 1979 when he suffered a stroke while swimming with friends off the coast of Brazil.
This socio-historical understanding is like raising the dead. The interplay of context and image changes our attitude and approach to what we initially perceived as an inoffensive and tranquil scene. Traces of trauma and violence from the past leave their mark and reverberate in the present, there to see if only we look close enough. With a more informed eye, we might even consider the rising waves in the middle ground of this picture as suggestive of some secret history that isn’t quite at rest.
Yoneda’s work simultaneously expresses the notion that, despite catastrophic events in human history, nature remains indifferent to our own upheavals. While humanity and its fate are inextricably intertwined with our environment, the artist’s photos underscore our relative insignificance in contrast to nature’s powerful empire.
In fact, the majority of the displayed works are largely Biocentric – they minimise humanity’s (self) importance. In her shots people are either obscured, implied, or viewed at a distance. Another image in the collection, ostensibly of a tranquil landscape with a path leading through some foliage, hides its own grisly history. The caption is quite self-explanatory: Path – path to the cliff where Japanese committed suicide after the American landing of WWII, Saipan, Japan, 2003 (below). The nature of the photo, and nature itself, seem to conceal human suffering and political strife, essentially denying it in the image. It is for the viewer to exhume the mark left by history.
The exhibition runs at Grimaldi Gavin Gallery until 7 August. More info
Daniel Pateman studied Humanities and Media at Birkbeck University for his degree and continues to have an abiding interest in the arts. He has also enjoyed creative writing since a young age and currently keeps a blog of his poetry and prose entitled The End of Fiction. He is now looking to forge a new career in the creative industries, preferably as a writer or a film maker.
Seascape – location where Dr Mengele Drowned, Bertigo, Brazil, 2001 ©Tomoko Yoneda
Path – path to the cliff where Japanese committed suicide after the American landing of WWII, Saipan, Japan, 2003 ©Tomoko Yoneda