The Art of Living Nature


In Japan, not unlike the rest of the world, one finds an enormous amount of unoriginal and rather bland contemporary photography. Week after week exhibitions are held of generic, derivative work, and one can be hard-pressed to tell any of these photographers apart, or even remember any of the works minutes after walking out of the gallery.

The influence of a few of the more highly-regarded names in Japanese photography is clearly one factor at work. More often than not, exhibitions seem like disappointingly dull replicas of styles made popular by the likes of Moriyama Daido, Ninagawa Mika, Kawauchi Rinko, Sugimoto Hiroshi, Yanagi Miwa and a handful of other big names.

There is also a quite mystifying trend of “snapshot artists”, people whose work resembles a random collection of everyday subjects and unmemorable moments, thrown together with no apparent continuity, theme, intended idea, meaning or even technical quality.

Yet, among this vast ocean of mediocrity, some incredibly original and powerful work occasionally appears. In the coming months I will feature a number of such artists and photographers.

One name recently gaining more coverage and attention is that of Matsuhara Akitoshi, from Japan’s traditional capital, Kyoto. I first came across his work in 2011, at an exhibition of his (then) most recent work, and have followed his progress since, during which time he has exhibited in various solo and group exhibitions, nationally and internationally, and been presented numerous prizes and awards.

From a distance, the often large-scale works appear to have a simple form and calm tranquility which belie the remarkably vibrant intricacy and dynamic energy which they exude as one approaches closer. This apparent contradiction is intimately connected to the ideas which influence Matsuhara’s practice, and which he continues to pursue – a hybrid of science, spirituality and wonder.

I spoke to him recently to discuss aspects of his thinking and technique, and to share some insights into the process behind his work.

Matsuhara Akitoshi – On Nature and Beyond

What is the main idea you intend to express through your work?

To feel the mystery of life, which grows on Earth from the light of the cosmos, and to follow this inspiration beyond space and time.

During the day, natural light arrives from the sun. When we go home at night we can simply flick a switch to produce light. Light allows us to see the surface shape of things. But what exactly is light?

In the night sky, light will travel for light-years without ever slowing down. Is something of space itself being transmitted? Or, is some very small substance flying through space? In fact light simultaneously has the character of both a wave and a particle, but its true nature is not known.

In the universe, matter is spread throughout its infinite space, but not organic matter. Despite all of NASA’s exploration, organic matter has never been found.

Yet in this vast universe, for some reason when light hit this planet we call Earth, life was born.

Lotus Water Dome (click for large size)

“Light shines from between leaves. Within each drop of dew on the leaves we can see a glowing copy of the entire scene”

Looking around the universe, using all the instruments of modern science, only on Earth can we view such an amazing living world.

Mindful of such thoughts, I create my artwork.

Light, Flowing Out 『YOU-KOH 24』 (click for large size)

What is the reason (and meaning) for your use of reflections and repetition of elements of nature?

There are many living creatures on the Earth and, in appearance, lifeforms and organisms which consciously move have a left-right symmetrical form.

From this idea, I think if a natural landscape appears symmetrical, one can feel a sense of life there. In other words, nature can be animate.

(assuming that there may be lifeforms existing somewhere in the universe with no gravity, perhaps they don’t have this left-right symmetry)

Life has long existed within nature. In fact before about 800 AD, when Buddhism was first introduced to Japan from the continent, the Shinto worship of nature was practised. People honoured various elements of nature as gods, such as mountains, waterfalls, stones and large trees.

Departure in the Dark (click for large size)

Is there a specific idea you would like your work to evoke?

My work is trying to create an image beyond the ability of a camera to capture, and beyond the limits of the human eye to see.

An audience looking at the work should feel that it’s a scene they have never seen before.

Iris (click for super-full size)

Do you want viewers to feel a specific feeling?

I want them to feel free.

As humans (or organisms) we try to determine meaning from visual information. From things like texture and silhouette, we find an answer by searching for similarities within the data of our past experience.

For example, we see a kettle used in a tea ceremony – Japanese people associate it with the image of a teahouse and the fragrance of tea, and know it is a tool used to boil water. But if a foreigner who doesn’t know the tea ceremony sees it, they won’t understand that it’s a kettle.


Or a bronze bell excavated from an ancient tomb, it may not be clear how it was used, and one just has a sense of something strange and unfamiliar.

So people analyse things by the shape of what they remember from past experience, or even through memories they have forgotten. And, if you trace it back, even data stored in our DNA has the power to evoke something.

They say “Illness comes from the mind”, and life inevitably changes its form to be closer to what it wishes to be.

A frog living near water develops webbed feet, the arms of an animal which wished to fly became feathered, a butterfly’s wings transformed into the shape of dead leaves, part of the angler fish’s body changed to resemble bait to attract prey.

Can’t it be said that this, information visible to the eye or borne by experience, a changed form inscribed on the DNA, has been passed down to later generations?

Similarly, when looking at my artwork, I would like you to feel the sense of a world that is only yours, in which you can recognise your own experience. And perhaps which overlaps with images your ancient ancestors once saw.

Matsuhara-WarAndPeaceL Matsuhara-WarAndPeaceR

War and Peace (diptych) (click images for full size)

Are your images planned in detail before making them, and are the very “cinematic”, dramatic lighting effects part of this design?

I have an outline plan in mind before I begin, but for the most part I develop what is in my mind while looking at the photos I have taken.

I create the light direction as the final stage. I make it freely and intuitively, without worrying about common sense or stereotypes.



The locations in your work tend to look very inviting – is this an important quality to bring?

One of the themes I previously worked with was to create images in which you can sense the universe within familiar everyday places. I think it’s possible to make an “amazing work” in which you feel the magnificent universe in the light glittering in a puddle next to your house after rain!

Matsuhara-UT01 Matsuhara-UT02

untitled works (click for large size)

If you go all the way to Iguazu Falls in Argentina or the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia and take a shot, people will probably say “It’s an amazing photo!”. However when doing that, there is very little created by the artist’s imagination.

I’m trying to create a work more amazing than the cascades of Iguazu or the scenery of Uyuni.

『YOU-KOH HATOU』 (click for large size)

To sum up, what would be the overall message of your work?

An exploration of the mysteries of life and the universe.

I hope those things may lead the world in the direction of peace, and that my work may contribute in some way.

May love, peace and happiness prevail on Earth!




Matsuhara Akitoshi’s official website

Himeyuri 9 (click for large size)

installation views






~ by JapanGasm on 2 February, 2014.

Join the discussion. Share your thoughts.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: