When a Japanese architect designs a high-rise he will habitually consider space for contemplation. In reality, this means that most publicly accessible high-rises in a city such as Tokyo contain a designated viewing area solely for that purpose. These spaces in Japanese-English bear the misguiding title of Observatories.
Regardless of one’s cultural consciousness, it seems to be a natural human instinct to search for a view of the city and its immediate environment from a high vantage point. The countryside equivalent to landmark towers, office buildings and observatory decks is a mountain that begs to be climbed. The view from above is a discovery that is equally arousing as it is soothing. The excitement of spotting your own neighborhood or high school is immediately followed by an understanding of who you are and where you are from. The observatory is therefore also a place of self-discovery.
Confronted with the grand scale of one’s identity the observer cannot help but imagine how we might change – also how the landscape below might change in the future. Therefore, the visit to the observatory is a powerful experience that blends images from the tangible world and the imagined world. Particularly in Japan, the pilgrimage to the top floor of a high-rise can also be the confirmation of the imagined – a view that could have been stolen from the Brave New World.
In the photographs, this view however is abstracted into a washed out landscape. The center of attention is the observer and not the observed. It is therefore not entirely relevant that these images were mostly taken in Tokyo where the observatory enjoys a big popularity amongst its citizens. Consequently, spread throughout the city one comes across smaller crowds that immerse themselves in the surroundings. The concept of the observatory is thus expandable including smaller crowds gazing through the window of a train station.
Yet another aspect of this project is the relationship between the observers and the space they are looking at. Some of the observers point out a certain landmark with personal significance, others stare through a pair of binoculars for hours at a time. Though these actions might have different motivations, what the people from the city share is the inherit lack of space. Weeks and months could go by for an office worker until he has the chance to see the horizon in its full scale. The observatory is one of the very few places where he can do so.
Consequently, an unobstructed view or space in general is a rare delight in which one fondly indulges. In Japan, people from all walks of life make time to specifically visit the observatories on a regular basis. To an outsider, this phenomenon almost resembles a type of dating. Man’s romantic relationship with nature is a notion that has been widely explored by the German painter Casper David Friedrich whose sublime landscapes often incorporate back facing figures gazing at god’s creations. In the present day, this act could translate into gazing at man’s creations.
Curiously enough, the observation in this series of photographs is functioning on three planes: the people observing the landscape, the photographer observing the people and the gallery visitor observing the photograph. This is a pattern that can be seen in Thomas Struth`s Museum Photographs even if it is of an entirely different subject matter.
Despite all its connotations within our cultural and social identity, the photographs in Observatoriesare more than anything a reflection of ourselves. Time and again, images make us understand our surroundings and our condition, maybe even our foundation. Observatories is an exploration of these themes that inevitably leaves it up to the viewer to make his own conclusions. The undefined scenery and washed out highlights are as much an invitation to imagine the view of a landscape, as it is an invitation to define our self. Thus as Kevin Robins writes in Into the Image: “We now articulate our identity through coming to terms with the image rather than the reality.”
text by Marco Bohr, 2004