Review by Douglas Stockdale •
What might occur when one decides to investigate something very foreign that is additionally complicated by the fact it is also an unseen entity? The Polish photographer Lukasz Rusznica took on this slightly impossible task when he ventured to Japan with the hope of revealing the spirit of kami, the Japanese word for god, deity, divinity, or spirit. Kami is venerated in the Japanese religion of Shinto, which literally means, “the way of kami.”
Rusznica’s book title, Subterranean Rivers, is a wonderful metaphor for something that flows out of sight through a region like that of kami, the spiritual undercurrent for the Japanese people. The unseen ‘river’ mimics the magnitude the spiritualty of kami has for the Japanese; it is not like a creek, eddy, or stream, but something as broad, powerful and mighty as the Mississippi River.
Understanding Rusznica’s investigation of an unfamiliar aspect of Japanese culture took me a bit longer than expected. Perhaps I was waiting for the arrival of the photobook-kami to awaken me? I first became familiar with kami in my review of Hiroshi Wantanbe’s illustrations of Lafcario Herarn’s Kwaidan, Stories and Studies of Strange Things. This book presented an aspect of kami that possesses both good and evil characteristics. My second encounter was the review of Yukari Chikura’s Zaido, which investigates an essence of kami based on Danburi-choja, the legend of the Dragonfly Millionaire.
For the Shinto, kami is not separate from nature, but the many spirits are nature. Thus, photographing the natural and the urban landscape, especially if the urban landscape incorporates something living, is also to reveal an aspect of kami. The layering of the smaller pages that creates an overlapping image represents how the kami spirit is omnipresent and a component of everyday life. For those in Japan, it seems that everything is colored in some inexplicable way by the presence of this spirit.
There is also a sense of mystery in Rusznica’s photographs, as we are left disoriented as to what the actual subject is. Visual perspective shifts, as do the colors with images when printed as negatives, hinting at something unseen. Perhaps it is better that his subject is indirectly sensed, as it may be likewise for kami.
The book design reflects a shift in the photographer’s perspective created by printing the mid-section of the book on a very different paper, with the interesting name of ‘Curious Matter Desire Red’ (weight of 135 gm/m3). This section shifts to graphic, high contrast red and dark purple images, with the dark purple printed as a reverse negative. What would be white is printed as a red, similar to the graphic treatment for the book’s covers. It is startling, if not a shock, to encounter this change-up, but I found it to be an interesting way to try to describe something that is foreign in concept. It is a complete visual departure and is both unsettling and disorienting.
Shortly after returning to white paper, a design switch changes the location of the images and smaller papers. Now the images are printed on the left side of the spread, a subtle nod to the design of Japanese books and how these books are read from right to left, a reversal of the Western convention. These design change-ups reflect the implications of a photobook-kami, in that a spirit may have been watching over Rusznica during the development of this body of work and had a desire to help guide a Western train of thought. The subtlety of the book’s design verge on brilliant.
Perhaps if the essence of kami is not easily understood by Western thinking and experiences, it is difficult to say if this book’s narrative hits the mark. Nevertheless, I feel that Subterranean River has opened me to the possibilities of what kami could be, providing an insight into the Japanese culture. I am not sure if you can ask for more than that.
Subterranean River, Lukasz Rusznica
Photographer: Lukasz Rusznica, born and resides in Wroclaw, Poland
Publisher: Fundacja Sztuk Wizualnych & Palm Studios, copyright 2018
Essay: Olga Drenda
Stiff covers, sewn and litho printing by Argraf, Warsaw, Poland, ISBN 978-83-62978-35-9
Photobook Designer: Grupa Projektor – Joanna Jopkiewicz
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