Over the winter, the Guimet Museum, in Paris, is presenting the photographic project Hakanai Sonzai, which means in Japanese ‘I feel like an ephemeral creature myself’. Through the use of colour portraits, landscapes, and black and white still lifes resembling prints, Pierre-Elie de Pibrac (b 1983) recounts the feeling of impermanence that permeates Japanese culture. Continuing anthropological and social photographic work initiated in 2016 in Cuba, Pierre-Elie de Pibrac travelled across Japan between December 2019 and August 2020 to produce the Hakanai Sonzai series.
During this immersive investigation, the artist met individuals seeking to express the individuality of their personal story by participating in the project, from all levels of society: yakuza, survivors of Fukushima, hikikomori (people living cut off of the world and others, most often cloistered in their rooms) or those that had ‘evaporated’ having opted for a voluntary disappearance.
The photographer often initiates these intimate exchanges by sending blank notebooks and disposable cameras, maintaining a diligent correspondence with his models before working with them in natural settings and lighting. The human time necessary to create the relationship then corresponds to the length of time given to the photography. As a counterpoint to these large-format photographic paintings where the face of the other is omnipresent, a set of black and white photographs offers, without trace of human presence, sumptuous details of eternal Japan: waterfalls, ponds with unfathomable depths, oppressively dense canopies, abandoned architectures, making visible the violence hidden in the disturbing beauties of the Japanese landscape.
Pierre-Elie de Pibrac explains, ‘In a country where the inhabitants are not very open, I had to be particularly methodical and patient to break the ice and slowly enter into the lives of the Japanese whose story I wanted to tell’.
His portraits are a result of his meetings with his subjects during which, contrary to the furtive gesture of the reporter, men and women, adolescents and adults spoke about their story personal, their fragility, their existential concerns. These faces seem at first glance to all have the same impenetrability. But for those who take the time to examine them, they appear very singular and ultimately constitute a gallery of universal portraits.
As a counterpoint to these large-format photographic paintings where the face of the other is omnipresent, a set of black-and-white photographs offers, without trace of human presence, sumptuous details of eternal Japan: waterfalls, ponds with unfathomable depths, oppressively dense canopies, abandoned architectures, making visible the violence hidden in the disturbing beauties of the Japanese landscape.
Slowly, the viewer enters the lives of each of them, each has become a character who expresses the passage of time, the difficulty of being in the world, a certain melancholy. It is a country where social pressure and the need to appear strongly influence a person’s identity, but it is also a country where the random forces of nature and its recurring earthquakes and threat of tsunami, have made the population develop over centuries the concept of Mono no Aware, an acute perception of the vanity and impermanence of things. Inspired by the Japanese tradition of ukiyo-e, and the subtle art of ink and woodcuts, these black and white photograph were all taken in natural settings and lighting, allowing us to be immersed in Japanese culture.
Until 15 January, 2024, Guimet Museum, Paris, guimet.fr. A catalogue accompanies the exhibition