At eight years old, Carine Thévenau was already stepping into her passion, photography, by developing her black and white pictures in the darkroom. The first photograph she remembers taking was overexposed but filled with emotion, and this has followed her practice till today. Her most recent project, Seasonal Abandonment Of Imaginary Worlds, is a collection of aging Japanese playgrounds, which are abandoned due to the seasonal snowfall.
Through the conceptual exploration of some Japanese society’s values and philosophy it’s visible how respectful and intimate is the population’s relationship with nature and their proactive approach towards sustainable living. The project is about to become a book published by Éditions Publishing, and will be first presented at the Melbourne Art Book Fair from March 16. And for those who are also in Australia, where Carine is from, you can see some of the images exhibited at Koskela Gallery as part of the Sydney Design Festival until April 18.
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When did you first get into photography?
I started shooting and developing black and white film and pictures in the darkroom when I was eight years old. I was involved in an extended learning program after school hours and took two classes. One was to make a book and the other one was to learn analogue photography. There was no digital photography back then so I was learning how to use an enlarger to make prints and using black bags to develop film.
Do you remember the first photograph you took? How has your practice developed since then till today?
I remember the first interesting photo I took was of a very overexposed forest. It was shot in black and white. My photography teachers and the other students thought it was not technically correct. It did not have a true black, but I think it worked on an emotional level. This was when I was eight years old, so my practice has significantly evolved since then! However, I do feel I am still guided emotionally more than technically.
I’m enchanted with your most recent project, Seasonal Abandonment Of Imaginary Worlds. It not only looks incredible but it also perfectly portrays some Japanese society values and philosophy – for example, there is no graffiti and the playgrounds aren't vandalised. Can you tell us about the concept behind those pictures?
The playgrounds are either completely abandoned or temporarily abandoned due to the seasonal snowfall. They are all aging, rusted and the paint is peeling, but they are not damaged, have no graffiti and some have been repaired or repainted a few times, often with a different material than the original, to extend the life of the play equipment. Upcycling, recycling and repair give many objects in Japan a longer life cycle.
The abandoned playgrounds within Seasonal Abandonment of Imaginary Worlds, surrounded by trees and peacefully paused in a state of decline, lend to the respectful and intimate relationship Japan has with nature and proactive approach towards sustainable living. I found that learning about a few Japanese cultural philosophies and terminologies, I was able to understand the photographs of the playspaces as portraits of place.
In Japan, they use the term ‘mottainai’ in reference to the concept of waste. It means “don’t be wasteful”. The playgrounds are objects of a longer life cycle than those of Australia. Here (in Australia), the playgrounds are often made of synthetic materials and they are demolished and renewed at any sign of degradation. This is probably due to rigid safety restrictions.
However, the Japanese playgrounds I have shot for Seasonal Abandonment Of Imaginary Worlds have been kept or preserved and can be used again for play or other activities. I noticed one of the playgrounds was being used as a meeting place for teenagers, thus enabling a place of social interaction for a different demographic within the local community.
The Japanese word ‘kei-i’, which translates to “respect for others and other people’s property”, is also relevant to this series. The playgrounds, which often have no fence or are easily accessible, are not vandalised. I believe this reflects the Japanese philosophy of ‘kei-i’. This respecting of others property also means that the playgrounds may be kept intact for a longer period of time.
Another term to which the fading playgrounds could be associated with is ‘wabi sabi’. Marieluise Jonas and Heike Rahmann, authors of Tokyo Void, Possibilities in Absence, describe ‘wabi-sabi' as “a transient ideal of imperfection that remains a principle aesthetic in contemporary Japan”. In this, the idea of the imperfect instils the thought that nothing is finished, all is ephemeral and in fading, the most beautiful.
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This series explores as well the concept of ‘Ma’, a Japanese word and concept that has no translation in English, but that refers to the space (or negative space) between physical matter, where life and emotion can exist. How did you discover this concept and in which way is it related to the project? How did you translate or evoke ‘Ma’ through images?
In my effort to understand our fascination with the abandoned, I looked at the empty playgrounds as a void space. This void creates a pause or silence similar to a fermata within a music score. The fermata (pause) is the silence between one note and the next. I see the playgrounds as a visual pause in the landscape. They present a time of non-productivity, whereby the original purpose of the landscape has become obsolete, even temporarily.
This idleness gives those who experience the abandoned, through pictures or in real time, the opportunity to reflect, project and imagine. Silence allows room for curiosity and critical thought. I decided to research this concept in English but also from a Japanese perspective. There are so many words in Japanese that can’t be translated into English! So through researching and asking my Japanese partner, Yoshi, I learned about the word and concept of ‘Ma’.
To understand ‘Ma’ further, I read a great quote from the iconic designer Alan Fletcher proclaiming that “Space is substance. Cezanne painted and modelled space. Giacometti sculpted by taking the fat off space. Mallarme conceived poems with absences as well as words. Ralph Richardson asserted that acting lays in pauses. Isaac Stern described music as ‘that little bit in-between each note - silences which give the form’. The Japanese have a word (‘ma’) for this interval, which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission.”
These photos are going to be published as a book and they’re being exhibited as part of the Sydney Design Festival. How do you approach the same project/series depending on the format? How is the creative process behind the exhibition, and how is it for the book? What are the main coincidences and differences?
The exhibition, held at Koskela Gallery in Sydney, includes seven large-scale, limited edition prints. I have printed to fine art bamboo paper, as it is a traditional Japanese material, its eco-friendly and a stunning paper stock. I have also asked paper artist Benja Harvey of Paperform to create some ground standing, large origami animals to be exhibited alongside the photographs.
They mimic the animals you may find in many playgrounds, such as a rocking horse or elephant slide. However, they also explore the folding of space and time and can be related to the in-between space of the abandoned playgrounds, as they fold from one landscape to another new landscape.
The book is published through Editions Publishing and is a collaborative project. There are many more playgrounds shown in the book than in the exhibition. Editions Publishing is also releasing special edition books, which include a small playground print folded into an origami object. The prints are made from washi paper and can be unfolded and framed as a tessellated print, creases and all. The book will be presented at the Melbourne Art Book Fair from March 16 to 18.
You’re from Australia. How did you end up doing a project in Japan? What was it that caught your attention to go there on the first place, and then to stay and complete this series?
About ten years ago, I became a bit obsessed with some images of an abandoned theme park in Japan called Koga Family Land. I have since been very interested in Japanese playgrounds, theme parks and also abandoned schools, but had only been looking at these places as digital pixels on a screen. However, my husband is Japanese and my daughter is half Japanese. Her name is Yuki, which actually means snow.
We took Yuki to see her ‘Oba-chan’ (grandma in Japanese), who lives in rural Japan during the winter snow season. I had previously shot a few playgrounds near the family home (in the snow) a few years earlier, but this trip we decided to see how many different playgrounds and abandoned kindergartens we could find. ‘Haikyo’ is the term in Japanese that means “ruin” but also “urban exploring”, and this is exactly what we were doing.
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I imagine that having travelled through abandoned places in freezing Japan must have been a challenging adventure. Did you take it as a personal journey, more than as a professional project? Any interesting story or anecdote from when you were there that you’d like to share with us?
Driving around rural Japan while shooting and discovering each playground was extremely fun. This was definitely a personal project. My partner is from Shiga and was holding my one-year-old daughter in a snowsuit inside his jacket next to me in almost every shot. My camera also occasionally became so cold that the shutter became slower than normal. When we drove up into the mountains, we saw a family of snow monkeys. When we walked through the frozen rice fields to get to a very isolated playground; the silence of the snow was only disrupted by the sound of a mountain eagle.
And where would you like to go next? What other countries and issues would you like to explore in your photographic work?
I am going to Mauritius this year, which is where my father was born and is also the place of origin of the extinct Dodo bird. I hope to shoot and discover something whilst I am there.
You also like to explore the relationship between man and nature. Why does this theme interest you? What messages do you want to evoke through it?
Most of the world’s population now resides in cities. In urban environments, we become very disconnected from nature. I feel we are yearning to reconnect, back to a more natural state. I am interested in how we can live with more plants, work and live under more natural lighting conditions, be guided by the seasons and the circadian rhythms, waste less and consume much less in contemporary societies.
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You sell prints of your work made of degradable materials. They are printed using vegetable ink on 100% recycled paper. We love it when artists are environmentally conscious, but sadly, those are still a minor percentage in the industry. Would you like to leave a message related to this issue to fellow artists as well as to our readers?
After several years of working from an artist space, occupied by many artists and photographers, I noticed the huge amount of waste being consumed during the process of creating final artworks. This included noticing artists using toxic paints, throwing away abundance of plastic objects, and also me using significant amounts of paper to test print and make things.
I started researching what materials I was using and have since been very mindful of trying to maintain sustainable practices. I have also found that the use of ethically produced materials compliments my work, as they produce beautiful, organic textures. I believe sustainable practices within the arts and beyond will become mainstream and permeate our existence on earth. The sooner, the better!
Who are your favourite photographers? And your biggest inspirations outside the field?
I love the work of the late Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri. His retrospective body of work includes abandoned playgrounds, amongst other urban landscapes as his subject matter. His beautiful photographs of the seemingly mundane allow us to reconsider what we are looking at. I have enjoyed reading his own notations written alongside his photography in the book Luigi Ghirri, The Complete Essays (1973-1991).
Recently, I have enjoyed the series Island Of The Color Blind by Sanne De Wilde, where she took pictures using infrared film on the island of Pingelap, where most of the population is colourblind. I also listen to a lot of ambient experimental, sometimes meditative, music. I am finding artists such as Mileece, who creates music from the electro-magnetic emissions from plants, to be highly pleasurable.
What projects are you currently working on that we should know of?
I am currently experimenting with prints of the playground series being folded and unfolded origami objects. Through this experimental process I am relating the special circumstances of the playground collection to visible creases in an origami-like structure of space-time folding, unfolding and refolding as part of the life cycle of the landscape.
Philosopher Giles Deleuze and psychiatrist Felix Guattari’s space-time theory is mentioned in the academic paper World City Topologies by Richard G Smith. The paper explains, “Deleuze can help us conceptualise world city topologies because he gave much thought to the idea of space-time as folded. For Deleuze and Guattari, this philosophy is akin to the Japanese art of origami – folding, unfolding and refolding”.
I am using this same philosophy of space-time to understand the abandoned, temporal space of the playgrounds. The book release of Seasonal Abandonment Of Imaginary Worlds is a limited edition of five hundred books. There will be twenty-five special editions and they will include an origami playground print inside the cover. The origami object may be kept folded or unfolded to reveal the print, embracing the creases and folds.
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