Eternal Idol

Text by Mrs.Kazuko Morohashi 

The Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures


Tsunaki Kuwashima has been chasing the ephemeral shadows of eternity. Does eternity exist? Is it tangible? Can the lens capture it?

Kuwashima’s work is highly acclaimed for its unconventional, mesmerizing and at times haunting style. For over a decade Kuwashima has pushed boundaries to visually define, in exquisite lyrical display, the opposing forces between mortality and eternity. He captures how we humans have tried to negotiate life and death throughout history and culture by casting our hopes on the existence of eternity.

Kuwashima explores the notion of ‘eternity’ through Japanese prehistoric clay figurines and pots from the Jômon period (14,000-300BC). By making references to these curious archaeological objects that often represent the human form, he attempts to show the link between the Neolithic society, who mediated their life circumstances by idolizing these objects in search of health and prosperity, and the contemporary Japanese. The Jômon people who had no script relied instead on making elaborate clay objects to communicate their worldviews. These objects, and in particular the enigmatic figurines or dogû, for example, were believed to have spiritual properties.

According to Professor Tatsuo Kobayashi, figurines acted as surrogates of those suffering from ailments and their clay body broken in the belief that the act will restore health. In fact, archaeological excavations produced most of the decorative figurines with what appear to be deliberate breakages of body parts. Kuwashima was perplexed by the damage as wasteful. But perhaps destroying such ornate objects is what makes us humans—to create something beautiful with the intent to harm it in order to solicit greater power than what man possesses, even if that wish is not granted, is what separates us from other species. In this light, Kuwashima sees the clay shards as fragment of the human heart, and that the will to pray for the wellbeing of loved ones is an eternal human emotion. Professor Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere, Research Director at the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, observes that his photographic style strives to seek the very essence of his subject matter: ‘his images are compelling as they suggest an unspoken narrative. He creates an emotive world without words’.

While Kuwashima captures these objects’ ‘eternal’ existence, he simultaneously reminds the viewers of the paradox of the eternal: the decay. Can ‘eternity’ really be eternal? His fascination with decay is articulated most clearly in the materials he chose to use. For instance his prints range from platinum palladium prints on paper that is out of production and can be regarded ‘extinct’, to collotype prints, known for their exceptional archival stability, and inkjet prints, the most widely available print type but with the shortest colorfastness. The image of ‘eternal’ depending on the medium it is printed on can dictate the life of eternity.

The ‘CUBE’ installation he presents investigates the way in which we try to encapsulate, protect and preserve ‘eternity’. By literally encasing images of ‘eternity’ in untreated steel framed boxes he calls the CUBE, Kuwashima challenges us to consider whether ‘eternity’ ought to be wrestled into a box for safekeeping. Given time, these steel cases will eventually rust and take on their own natural decaying process. He asks whether it is possible to conserve ‘eternity’.

The CUBE-headed manikins explore the narrative of how we embody ‘eternity’. These CUBEs contain double-sided images including one that is a mirror. On one side is an image of a prehistoric figurine, illustrating Japan’s ancient culture, or Japan’s ‘memory’, while  the other is a mirror to reflect the viewer’s face. In Kuwashima’s mind our personal self-awareness is a manifestation of our own individual experiences and our ancient ‘eternal’ memories.  Mami Mizutori, Executive Director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, comments that ‘Kuwashima is an exceptional artist who explores our universal existential desires. His work speaks to us in a profound way that transcends geo-historical-cultural boundaries. We had the pleasure of working with Kuwashimain 2010 when  an exhibition entitled unearthed curated by our Institute staff was shown at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich.   His photographs of Jomon figurines exhibited at a gallery in the city centre complimented our exhibition in a way that captured the imagination and connected with many regardless of their age, gender, culture or history.’

Tsunaki Kuwashima is an award winning Japanese photographer.

He studied fine arts and photography at Central St Martin College and London College of Printing in 1994. He lived in London producing a body of photographic work before returning to Japan in 1998. He lives and works in Tokyo and Yamanashi Prefecture. Kuwashima has exhibited widely both nationally and internationally in both group and solo exhibitions, including the recent unearthed exhibition held at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and Foil Gallery vs. Zenkyoan contemporary art exhibition with Yoshitomo Nara and other prominent Japanese artists in Kyoto.

There will be a special evening lecture held at the Sainsbury Institute (64 The Close, Norwich, NR1 4DH) on Wednesday[,] 21 August. A separate viewing session at the Union Gallery in London is open to participants on Thursday[,] 22 August.