current exhibition

Birds and Bones - Yoshihiko Ueda

Weekday 11:00 - 20:00

Saturdays and Holidays 11:00 - 18:30

Mondays Closed


Photos that cleanse the soul
by Toshiharu Ito (art historian)

Birds fall from the sky, land on the ground and lie shrouded in darkness, in poses suggesting they have only just this moment met their demise.

Or, are they in fact still alive, barely – frozen in some semi-dead state, ever on the brink of revival?

A Papuan hornbill curled fetus-like; a purple-crested turaco proudly displaying its noble crown-like head; an Amami jay with its resplendent, translucent azure sheen; a quetzal whose special feather structure allows it to swiftly alter the color and luster of its plumage; a chestnut-fronted macaw concealing feathers of a vibrant moss green... all hover in the gap between life and death, as if dozing. Then there are the skulls of creatures such as deer and elephants echoing of vanitas or memento mori; and huge, filled eggs serving as cosmic eggs, perhaps, or incubators.

Studying Yoshihiko Ueda's photographs of these birds and bones lying in pitch blackness, cloaked in sacred moisture, with hints of life that suggest movement at any moment, one feels a surreptitious thrill of the unknown. Ueda seems to be trying to catch the last breaths and fading pulses of the birds. His photos restore them from death to a kind of asphyxia, a semi-dead state, thus making death segue into the foundations of life. As if to witness the moments of the birds' deaths, Ueda attempts to summon up in images the latent power of the space between life and death, inherent in death's instant.

By hiding their breathing and adopting fixed stares for so long amid singular silence, these birds endow their tiny deaths with a whiff of life. Harboring powerful impulses toward destruction and decay, confined in an invisible, unstable structure, they remained astoundingly graceful, right down to the most intricate detail. There is something strangely alluring in gazing on their shimmering, pulsing deaths. They have been captured on film out of the photographer's urge to understand what such a death might be. Can bestowing dignity on that which was alive and on its death, endowing the form of that death with meaning; can a gaze that takes in life and death simultaneously, a gaze that views death as the foundation of life, be described as a natural history-oriented gaze? Natural history is a composite realm of images that seeks to compile all knowledge of the natural universe and identify within it common points and heterogeneities, and a place of questing that bears the swollen current of the history of the natural world.

Thinking about it, the act of perceiving beauty is deeply entwined with the generation of forms in nature. We find things beautiful because our own minds and bodies, also part of nature's generative process, resonate mutually with the external generative processes of nature. French anthropologist and archeologist André Leroi-Gourhan once turned his attention to a cluster of unusual objects found in the remains of a dwelling inhabited 50,000 years ago: a collection of mysterious items from nature assembled by our paleolithic ancestors and including a lump of pyrite with various protrusions, the shell of a fossilized gastropod, a cluster of spherical polyps from the Mesozoic era, fragments of bird and cattle bone, tusks, and teeth. Thus these ancient humans brought home forms of special note from the natural world, the realm of life, and groups of objects created by the power of nature; and proceeded to study, handle, and cherish them. As well as being emblems of the forms and movement of nature, they resembled ideas and words spun by nature over an extraordinary length of time. Evidently our ancestors perceived relics of such a variety of shapes, colors and textures as wonders, and attempted to find special significance in them as objects linked directly to their own profound memories. No doubt they intuitively felt such things to be connected to the very origins of life.

Human beings continued to search for objects created by the concentration of nature's infinite powers over eons, and in order to engage with such objects as an essential experience, endeavored to collect and appreciate them. Human beings harbor deep within them emotions directed toward the inherent sacredness and mystery of such strange forms; this “nest of emotions” acting as the wellspring of human imagination and behavior. And through the diversity of human experience, such symbols of the intersection of nature and human emotion were passed down as examples of living beauty, eventually spawning the format that would become the prototype for collecting, and the cabinet of curiosities. In other words, en route from medieval to modern, a conscious enjoyment of unusual forms in nature led to a fashion for collecting, and based on such collections the likes of natural magic, alchemy, and astrology made their appearance, followed by genres such as medicine, chemistry, pharmacology and biology, which took the knowledge systems of these earlier arts to even more specialized heights. Meanwhile, the format of the museum, legacy of the cabinet of curiosities, developed in leaps and bounds alongside progress in preservation technologies as a setting for the collection of special and unusual objects.

The bird specimens photographed by Yoshihiko Ueda were carefully chosen from one of the world's largest avian collections, numbering an incredible 70,000 specimens, at the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology, inheritor of the aforementioned collections and cabinets of curiosities. These are more than just specimens of birds. The birds looming in vivid contrast out of the blackness have been clothed in garments and gauze possessing an elegant, sacred quality. The figures of the specimens themselves are of course graceful, even sensuous, but the glass cases, the shelves, the drawers, the little boxes, washi paper, labels with the name of the maker, cords binding legs, bandages, white cotton sheets and red tags all used in their containment...all these garments and gauzes exemplify a neat, refined aesthetic. Moreover, various ingenious means have been found with these specimens to swing death back to life, and life to death. In particular, these birds are not complete examples of the taxidermist's art, but have merely been partly stuffed by removing the decay-prone entrails and bones of the torso, and inserting cotton in place of the eyeballs before filing on shelves with their wings folded and wrapped in bandages. That the birds have not lost their plump freshness or suppleness is due to this method of partial taxidermy. Ueda captures with infinite precision this immediate post-mortem ambience or quality, and it with this precision that death slowly shimmers back into life, and life to death.

Once again, our perception of beauty is connected to the accumulated memories of human and nature. Individual feelings of beauty are not those of the individual, but linked to those passed down over generations from the experiences of countless individuals. One might venture that our perceiving of beauty is the transmission of noise from the memories of countless people lying within each of us. Aesthetic perception is the recrystallizing in the individual of a great current of memory, an action woven into nature's generative processes.

If this is the case, it means the taker of the photo must be closely connected to the condition of the taken. Things that have lost their lives can only become beautiful through the instinctive understanding and lifelike perception of something possessing life. The photos of Yoshihiko Ueda are predicated on this relationship, purifying death and life, and silently restoring to life that which has lost it. This power to change death to life and life to death is precisely what underpins the gaze of natural history. Scientific observation and artistic insight form a well-rounded whole, a gaze in which profound experience induced by the working of each on the other gives rise to translucent, purified imagery.

One may study the forms of nature in intimate detail, and find that as one watches, the shapes of things change. As one continues to watch, their structure and fibers begin to unravel. There is nothing immutable in this world, nor anything not connected to something else. All is in a state of constant transformation. That forms become fixed amid this swirling flux is due to a rigorous mechanical interplay between materials and space, the story of this process told by the forms themselves.

The forms of nature may, for all we know, emerge from just a single set of plans. A natural history-oriented gaze is none other than the intuitive grasp of that invisible design. Over a long period, in the process of photographing people and forests, animals and minerals, bones and flowers, vessels, landscapes and more, Yoshihiko Ueda has honed that gaze, every fiber of his being becoming alert to it. “Birds and Bones” is the stunning outcome of this rare perspective, and no doubt from it we will continue to hear, like distant birdsong, the exquisite teachings of the natural world brought to us through the camera's enquiries, messages from that invisible network to which we ourselves are connected.

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Yoshihiko Ueda

Photographer. Born 1957. Among his most noted series/monographs are Quinault (Kyoto Shoin, 1993), a brooding meditation on the eponymous sacred Native American rainforest; Amagatsu (Korinsha, 1995), a backstage study of Sankai Juku dancer-choreographer Ushio Amagatsu; Portrait (Littlemore, 2003), singular impressions of 39 leading Japanese figures the likes of Takaaki Yoshimoto and Shotaro Yasuoka; At Home (Littlemore, 2006), intimate snapshots of the artist's family; Yume (Seigensha, 2010), timeless, dreamlike images from a Buddhist monastery in Mandalay; and Frank Lloyd Wright (X-Knowledge, 2003), a portfolio of the architect's buildings documented with a Leica. Since 2008, his work has been exhibited at Paris Photo, and in 2010, his Quinault photographs were featured in solo exhibitions at Michael Hoppen Gallery (London) and TAI Gallery (Santa Fe). His works are in the collections of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art (Kansas City), New Mexico Arts (Santa Fe), Hermès International (Paris), and Stichting Art & Theatre (Amsterdam). Materia, his most recent series of primeval forest photographs taken on the island of Yakushima, was published in February 2012 and featured in an eponymous solo exhibition from 10 February to 10 April. JOMONESE, his photographic renditions of the ancient Japanese Jomon people, will be published to coincide with an eponymous exhibition held at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo.


Birds and Bones
Yoshihiko Ueda

Date : 25 May, 2012 - 10 July, 2012
Time : Weekday 11:00 - 20:00 / Weekends and Holidays 11:00 - 18:30
Closed : Mondays

Birds and Bones, the photographs For enquiries regarding
the purchase of the photographs, please contact the gallery.
TEL: +81-(3)-5403-9161 / FAX: +81-(3)-5403-9162
MAIL: mail[a]