Metaphysical views of the city

Toshiaki Minemura

In order to create certain scenes that represented a vision of a futuristic city in his films, the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky once used images of the tangled overhead expressways that ran through central Tokyo. This gnarled mess of expressways was the face of Tokyo around 1970, while Japan was still at the height of its economic boom.

Today, however, Tokyo has become utterly saturated with this network of highways, and one no longer gets much of a chance to stumble across the dynamic activity of construction sites erected to build them. The momentum of the construction has abated, and this particular face of the city has matured, coming to rest in a state of equilibrium. There are even creeping signs of stagnation and decay – an indication, perhaps, that our own momentum and energy has started to flag.

As Hegel wrote, “the owl of Minerva spreads its wings to fly only when the dusk starts to fall.” Human wisdom and sensitivity begin to take on a heightened level of consciousness only when we become aware that the era to which we were previously oblivious has passed away – in this case, the decline and ebb of our material or bodily energies. We give ourselves over to introspection, shunning the noise and clamor of reality and opening our ears instead to the vibrations of another music – that of poetry and art.

Hiroyuki Suzuki first began documenting Tokyo’s overhead expressway construction sites with his camera after the city had suffered economic bankruptcy for the umpteenth time due to the vagaries of the Bubble economy, and entered a period of stagnation. These were scenes that he must have had witnessed countless times before. One fine day, however, casting his eye on the awe-inspiring prospect of these construction sites situated close to the newly emerging city center of Shinjuku, Suzuki was shaken for the first time. Perhaps he was overcome by the memory of a certain desire running through Japanese society as a whole – a desire to recover the vitality of a younger, more energetic Japan. Previously, at a fashion show in Cuba organized by his wife, the fashion designer Junko Koshino – an elaborate affair that involved a troupe of professional dancers – Suzuki discovered what it meant to be a photographer while training his lens on the riotous display of flesh, costumes, lights and sounds. One can easily imagine how the startling realization that Tokyo still contained pockets of restless, seething activity reignited his passion for the city and presented him with a new theme to tackle. A producer who works in a variety of fields, Suzuki is essentially a positive, upbeat personality with a natural talent for bringing people and groups together in order to open up new possibilities. Standing in front of these construction sites, perhaps he was secretly hoping to become a sort of “image producer” – an impresario who could galvanize people and arouse fervor and emotion through his photographs.

There is something else about Suzuki’s artistic sensibility, however, that cannot be explained only in terms of his positive, forward-looking material or social orientation. The huge masses of steel and concrete, especially in his earlier works, seem like giant fists thrusting violently forward, while the closely interlocked expressways carve out huge swathes of space, trembling in expectation of a collision. Cranes pierce the sky, cutting off sunlight. Although these are images of construction sites, the physical dynamism and urgency that permeates Suzuki’s photos is quite extraordinary. There is, to my mind, something else at work here – something that simply refuses to allow us to avert our gaze from these massive accumulations of building materials.

Suzuki’s camera, however, does more than just document the physical and material presence of things. It captures something more delicate and subtle – perhaps even metaphysical. Is he really just showing us masses of concrete and steel? Seamlessly interlinked expressways and completed trajectories? Quite the opposite, in fact. Suzuki’s photos document interruptions, suspended cross-sections, floating clumps and masses stripped of their weight: a hollow, gaping space of emptiness rather than a world of substantial objects. What is captured here is a vision of a world that has frozen over; time suspended in midair. Despite the fact that these are construction sites that play a part in concrete real-world processes responsible for giving shape and form to the society we live in, Suzuki’s camera frequently homes in on a series of mysterious numbers, or an obscure dial or piece of machinery whose function has been long forgotten. Just like a visiting child who soon goes missing, the camera itself sometimes behaves like a kid that has wandered astray, captivated by the inverted image of buildings and the sky reflected in a puddle.

The images captured by Suzuki’s roving eye, then, are a violent reaction to the harsh reality of construction sites and an attempt to document this truth. At the same time, however, these photos also represent his attempt to coax out shadows of a non-existence that has inadvertently been forced out of the well-ordered time and space of the real world. The 20th century master painter Giorgio de Chirico shunned New York for a long time, believing that it was a materialistic city geared towards the future. When he actually visited, however, he discovered a “metaphysical view of the city” made possible by its legions of skyscrapers – something that Suzuki’s photographs remind me of. (March 30, 2010)