Tomoko Yoneda greets me at the door of her house off London's Columbia Road. She is clutching two extremely friendly and inquisitive brown Burmese cats named Lucky and Leon—the latter after Leon Trotsky. "We did have a third, called Godot," she explains, "but she went missing." You can't help feeling that the fact that she's still waiting for her is unfortunate, but apt—as is the connection to the resonances of the major events and personalities of twentieth-century political and cultural history running through the Japanese photographer's work.
At the time of writing, a major survey of Yoneda's work is set to open in three weeks at Tokyo's Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. An End Is a Beginning will include images from the past twelve years: a body of work for which the artist has traveled to locations throughout eastern and western Europe, China, and Japan, recording locations in the present that still bear the marks—some visible, some more psychological—of events in their past. In an image from the color series titled Scene, the generic qualities of a photograph of families relaxing on a sandy beach, taken in 2002, completely disappear when the title reveals it to be the location of the D-Day landings in Normandy. Likewise an aerial view from 2004 of a city flanked by mountains is viewed through different eyes once one realises that it is the same vantage point of a Serbian sniper—and that the city is Sarajevo.
This notion of looking at history through different eyes is given a more literal meaning in Between Visible and Invisible. For this ongoing series the artist has photographed images and texts through the eyeglasses of some of the twentieth century's greatest writers and thinkers. A text by Jung is viewed through Freud's spectacles; a note by Gandhi, written on a day of silence shortly before his death, is viewed through one of his own glasses. In each it is only the text beneath the lens that is in focus, like a spotlight on a fragment of history, with the rest fading back into the past. And while the conceptual idea may be a simple one, the effect is a complex layering of perceptions. As viewers we are looking at an image in the present, framed in the artist's eye, through her camera lens and through the lens of a historical figure's personal artefact onto a document from that person's past.
The strong element of research and investigation behind all of Yoneda's work is significant. "I had thought that I would be a journalist," she explains, "but my father was an amateur photographer and although I initially felt that photography would be too technical, I realized that I could communicate just as much through images as through words." Yoneda's personal connections to recent history have also exerted a strong influence on her creation of images investigating the idea of different viewpoints. "I was born in Japan in 1965, and so the stories that my parents told me of their experiences of the Second World War, such as being evacuated to the countryside as children, would be similar to those told by parents of my generation growing up in the West," she says. "And seeing an exhibition in Japan about Anne Frank when I was around the same age she was when she wrote her diary also had a great impact on me and my perception of the recent past."
Yoneda studied photography in Chicago and then at the RCA in London; she graduated in 1991. And in 1996 it was in East London where she made her first series of images that explored layers of history and memory, titled Topographical Analogy. Photographing rooms in empty tower blocks that were awaiting demolition, Yoneda focused on the patches of peeling paper and stains made on the walls over the years by emissions rising from the rooms' heaters—abstract traces of the lives of past occupants. "When I initially began photographing these spaces, I introduced other objects into the images, like a crumpled carpet or a painting on an easel, but then I realized that they weren't needed and that what I really wanted to investigate were bigger memories or moments."
The Parallel Lives of Others, Yoneda's latest series of images, focuses on one specific moment in history: the activities of the spy ring led by Richard Sorge, a German working from China, Germany, and Japan in the build-up to the Second World War who passed important information to the Soviets. Yoneda's photographs, taken quickly in black and white using an old Box Brownie camera, document the locations in Japan and China where the spy ring met: the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo, Kobe Port, the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. Here, in a near reversal of the effect of bringing clarity to the documents seen under the lenses in Between Visible and Invisible, the Box Brownie's dirty lens gives these photographs an eerie, misty feel, once again bringing the past into the present and taking the present back into the past.
An End Is a Beginning
Hara Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo
sponsored by Deutsche Bank
on show through November 30