ORGANIC MEMENTO MORI
Madrid Complutense University, Spain
Shomei Tomatsu, “Ruinous Garden Tokyo”, 1964 (published in 1987). CLICK TO SEE ORIGINAL IMAGE
At the beginning of the 90s, while reading a publication that contained a scrambled set of still-life images, I discovered a photograph of Shomei Tomatsu from his series “Ruinous Garden” (1964). Since then, this image kept appearing in my mind every time I have reflected on the well-known genres of object photography.
Many times I have wondered if it was a still-life and have come to the conclusion that it is not. In it there were some elements such as fish and prawns, but it was not a representation of abundance. Everything that appeared in it was nature, and it was also dead. However, it was neither as a botanical illustration, nor as a scientific image, nor even a documentary photograph. It was clear that this image did not resemble in style Western representations of still lives. To begin with, it did not present an ocularcentric perspective, and furthermore, the objects scattered throughout the composition without apparent order were more like prints than photographs.
Over time, I managed to find similarities with the asarôtos oikos, Hellenistic images of unswept floors. In them, food scraps such as rasps, berries, nuts, bones, pieces of shellfish and even shells were realistically represented, like mosaics, as if they had just been thrown on the pavement. Food that, in Greek culture, as I discovered, could not be collected when falling to the ground, because they became part of the world of the dead and would become an offering for their ancestors. Thus, I began to see “Ruinous Garden” as a vanitas made up of remains and waste. Even knowing that in nature there is no garbage, nothing organic is lost, everything is used and everything is transformed.
I recently found out that Tomatsu Shomei was working in Nagasaki during the years that he created this image. In those images, he clearly expressed the terrible consequences of the atomic bombs. I also observed how all of his work insisted on highlighting how traditional Japanese culture was being devastated by American popular culture.
Then, and only then, did I realize that the problem in understanding that image was in my Western gaze. In their culture, the environment is part of a meditative process and personal knowledge. Within his philosophy one cannot exist without being nature; body and mind, matter and spirit are part of the whole. At that moment I began to think that this image located in a border space between the finite and the ephemeral, the imperishable and the biodegradable, was not humanist but naturalist, it was not a story but poetry. A memento mori that tells us about the environment torn apart by the impact of Western culture, while turning the small remains of nature that are left in it, the abode of innocent souls.