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Photobook Review: Day for Night by Toshio Shibata
Published19 Sep 2023
How do you control a landscape? How to you make a mountainous country with raging rivers, rockfalls, and impassable ravines fit into your idea of a managed land? And how do you do it in a way that keeps political and business interests happy?
These are the questions Toshio Shibata visually answers in his work as a whole and in his latest book, Day for Night.
It’s a book that shows what happens when infrastructure projects in a nation run wild. He shows landscapes that have been concreted over, hillsides that are tied up in a grid of concrete beams, webs that contain the scree of a mountainside, once free-flowing rivers that have been blocked by dams.
The images in the book where made in the 1980s at the height of Japan’s economic asset bubble, the time when Japanese economic power was so great that Japanese characters began to feature in Hollywood movies (think Die Hard and Back to the Future II).
Fast forward to the 1990s and the asset bubble burst, Japan was in an economic hole, and its main solution was to bankroll economically unviable businesses and launch massive white elephant infrastructure projects. The Japanese equivalent of white elephant project is ‘hakomono’ with the poster babies of that era being bridges that went nowhere, dams that didn’t need to be built, and airports nobody flew from.
The result is that today the Japanese landscape is so controlled that there are only two major rivers in the entire nation that are not dammed.
So there’s a bit of background.
The book begins with the night part. It begins with the infrastructure of the road; the toll booths, the motels, the alloy salesroom, the petrol stations, before it moves on to variety stores, phone booths, and truck stops.
All photographed at night, these are images of consumption, images of a world of tarmac, convenience and light pollution. Then you head into a tunnel, night turns into day, and you are into the daytime world of rural infrastructure.
Things only get worse.
The pictures of this endless construction, this destructive ‘development’ are fabulous. There are bricked up tunnel banks and gouged out cliffsides. Texture is everything here as trees are felled and concrete is poured (a killer fact is that every year enough concrete is used to build a wall around the equator 27 metres high and 27 metres wide), the landscape is held in, constrained.
One image shows a road winding around a mountainside, the rockface held in by sheer netting, like some kind of undergarment fetishising the earth that we live in.
Others show terrain stripped of its flora to become a lifeless rockface where the only texture comes from the millions of tons of concrete that have been poured onto its surface.
The most mind-boggling images are the ones where Shibata shows cliffsides covered in a concrete grid. The grid waves over the landscape, a hostile armour over the land.
It’s all in vain though. This is building for building’s sake, this is a pork-barrel project that is a symbol of human vanity. Because however much we may wish it, we cannot control the landscape. We can destroy it temporarily, we can cover it up, but geological time, botanical time, will outlast human time.
So when you look at the web of concrete, you see where trees have fallen, where vegetation has taken a hold, where the cracks are beginning to show. In ten years time, that concrete wall will still be there, in a hundred years time, it will still be visible, but in a thousand? I don’t think so. The trees will be there, but the concrete won’t, and nor perhaps will be the creatures that built them.
Toshio Shibata - Day For Night
B&W Duotone Offset
10.25” x 11.25”
All photos © Toshio Shibata
Toshio Shibata (Tokyo b. 1949) is best known for his large-scale photographs of civil engineering set in the landscapes of rural Japan. Shibata studied at the Tokyo University of Fine Arts where he received an MFA in 1974. The artist lives and works in Kamakura, Japan. His works are held in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.Photography, and hiswork is held in collections at institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.