MINNEAPOLIS — In Naoya Hatakeyama’s immense Lime Hills (Quarries Series)(1986–91), the Japanese photographer captures the grandiosity of natural landforms blemished by the excavation of limestone. These images at once offer a sense of the astonishing beauty of Japan’s landscape, while illustrating the reality of an industry digging into these natural wonders as it draws on a key material for producing concrete.
In “22916,” taken in 1988, two green-covered hills anchor what would be a breathtaking image — if it were not for the fact that we see one of the hills sliced as if it were several layers of cake, its rocky insides revealed. Along with the rubble, roads and trucks served as omens of the excavation to come. Other photographs show different stages of the quarrying process — from a picturesque pool of blue-green water sitting at the base of a cliff, a single truck resting by its edge — to a long shot of the intricate swirling pathways of construction imbedded in a hill being thoroughly torn apart.
The Lime Hills series is one of several bodies of work in Excavating the Future City: Photographs by Naoya Hatakeyama, currently on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA). The show tracks Hatakeyama’s exploration of the relationship between the natural world and urbanization, shot over the course of three decades. With nearly 100 works in 12 series represented in the exhibition, the exhibition, organized by MIA’s curator and head of the Department of Photography & New Media, Yasufumi Nakamori, is, according to their press release, the first survey of the artist’s work by a US museum.
Naoya Hatakeyama’s documentation of the trajectory of the earth’s resources from raw materials to commodities — specifically the journey of limestone from rock to concrete — is a piercing indictment of industrialization. But his method is more omniscient eye than the activist bullhorn. Whether he’s capturing the explosion of limestone into little pieces in his Blast (1998–2005) series of close-up photographs, or mapping the textures of dense urban life, Hatakeyama’s photographs keep an emotional distance.
At the same time, his work reveals much about our current moment. Like photographer Edward Burtynsky’s explorations of human intervention in the natural world, Hatakeyama’s work comments on the costs of our Anthropocene era. In Hatakeyama’s River Series (1993–94), the photographer frames the Shibuya River flowing through Tokyo through a concrete chute. The photographs are taken over time, at different points of day throughout the seasons, but each image contains a symmetry between the city above and the river below. The water reflects back the city hovering over it, reminding the viewer that both nature and civilization must coexist somehow.
In Hatakeyama’s photographs of the city, there’s a cramped feeling of loneliness. Often, there are no human figures to be seen. Instead, street signs, empty stairwells, painted pavement, and towering high bridges take the focus. Sometimes, Hatakeyama offers just a glimpse of his own place in the scene when the shadow of his camera appears. One particularly eerie series, Underground (1999), features a lone tripod in a desolate culvert underneath the Shubuya river. Beneath the hum of the city, the damp scene represents an isolation that prevails throughout Hatakeyama’s depiction of urban landscapes. This palpable detachment is born out of his practice of viewing the world from a distance — framed and separate from the self.
Hatakeyama’s meditation on solitude reads as both personal and general — a reflection on the human condition in our current age. The sense of solitude also reverberates universally, because the work speaks to the ways in which human beings have removed themselves from nature, secluded themselves in concrete trappings of roads, bridges, and buildings, far from mountains and the endless sky.
And yet, nature has a way of laying its own claim, as evidenced by Hatakeyama’s documentation of the earthquake and tsunami that hit the Pacific coast of Japan in March of 2011, a tragedy that took the life of the artist’s mother in addition to destroying his home town, Rikuzentakata. Hatakeyama documented the aftermath of the terrible natural event, photographing piles and piles of cars smashed to smithereens, buildings reduced to rubble, homes flooded in water, and construction equipment, (as seen in his early Lime Hill photographs) at the ready for cleanup efforts.
Profoundly, these post-earthquake photographs bring the exhibition round full-circle. The limestone-turned cement has returned back to dust — nature has laid claim to civilization, reminding humans of their ultimate vulnerability to it. Poignantly, these images show many more human figures than any of Hatakeyama’s earlier photographs. After devastation, it appears, humans cannot act in isolation but must find community in order to rebuild.
Excavating the Future City: Photographs by Naoya Hatakeyama runs through July 22 at the Harrison Photography Gallery at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 3rd Avenue South, Minneapolis).