Age or Beauty? – 1: Modern Art Painted by Nature
When I first went to Hokkaido I was taken to Shinzo Maeda’s gallery in Biei. I was impressed by his style and images and, like many other landscape photographers, I later went to live in Biei, opened a gallery and took some poor imitations of Maeda’s style. I was young and immature, in my 40’s. I soon realised there were 100 other galleries nearby, most containing imitations of Maeda’s style but (with a couple of notable exceptions) two or more ranks down. I had to do something different.
Traveling around I saw many objects typical of the Hokkaido landscape which struck a chord in me rather than landscapes itself. Objects I recognised as beautiful, telling a story through their presence and decay. In particular, I noticed the farm buildings. Many were covered on the walls as well as roofs by steel panels with a variety of makers’ marks on the panels. I later learned these panels were intended as roofing panels, but farmers are generally income poor so as the panels deteriorated and needed replacing the old panels were reused, then attached to the sides of the buildings to help protects the simple wooden structures from the harsh Siberian winters. The maker’s mark was intended to be on the inner side of the panel but, both sides being zinc coated and the inner side in better condition, the farmer often attached the panel so the inner side was now outside. As these panels deteriorated further the farmer would use any available scraps of paint to roughly paint the now outer sides. As a consequence the panel developed combinations of original surface, rust, and a variety of colours and patterns as the various painted areas themselves faded or were worn off. Many of these panels reminded me of modern art, Pollock, Rothko and others. “Modern Art painted by Nature” I thought and started to photograph them.
Images were taken mostly with a 4×5 camera, negatives developed commercially and initially printed on Fuji Crystal paper, but as time went on and material became unavailable I also printed on an ink-jet printer using pigment inks. I displayed the prints in my gallery. One of the marks appearing often was the “Moon Star” logo belonging to Nisshin Steel. The company heard that I was displaying photographs of their rusting and disintegrating panels so sent a team round to investigate! They immediately understood that what I was displaying were 40 to 60 year old panels, whereas the intended life was under 20 years, so they became interested, supportive, and invited me to hold exhibitions (three over the years) in their head office gallery in Marunouchi, Tokyo.
One barn in particular yielded many interesting individual panels as well as an impressive frontage. I regularly visited and became friends with the farmer, Nagakawa-san. He told me the history of the barn. Built many years ago (some panels were over 60 years old) the original farm track in front of the barn was to become a tarmac road and widened. This entailed moving the barn back from its original position and reassembling. The reeds visible in the right hand window were collected by his wife and dried. She intended to use them to make some form of decoration but never got round to it – the reeds remain.
Further images can be seen on my website www.geoffgallery.net.
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