In BOOMOON Skogar & Sansu, Flowers Gallery, London, 2016
Falling, Ceaselessly Falling
Here and Now
A waterfall is a river flowing over a precipice. A casual but informed observer, standing at a distance from the object, might think this. The waterfall, formed by water traversing over layers of rock that have different rates of erosion, is certainly a special kind of river.1 From this standpoint, a waterfall can also be metaphor for life, suggesting the past and future like a river. Through its dramatic discontinuities and plunges, or through its thunderous roar and violent surge, a waterfall tells us about the mercy and tragedy of our fate, and the passage of time. The waterfall thus becomes a perfect medium.
Yet as we stand before a waterfall, the chain of thought connecting the past and future in our imagination almost certainly dissolves. A waterfall never gives us a still moment to observe it. The best way to see it would be to face it straight on. When we look at the surface of a river flowing horizontally, we can imagine both ends of the flow. When we look at a waterfall, our imagination is gripped by its vertical force and transformed into something that repeatedly plunges further and further down. What we see in the waterfall is gravity, the water falling continuously and relentlessly. A waterfall seems to hold neither past nor future, but only the âhere and now.â We cannot help but think so. The water falls incessantly here and now, absorbing all of our attention. It doesnât necessarily follow the same course but simply maintains the same motion of falling. Such is a waterfall.
At Skogafoss in Iceland, Boomoon confronts the innumerable variations in a waterfallâs seemingly invariable movement. Any descriptive backdrop is cut out of the frame. We might call this a âminimalâ waterfall. Water splashes and cascades. That is all. Only the simplest process of the waterfall is recorded. It is noteworthy that the spectacle created by the vertical drop, the basis of a waterfallâs sublime nature, is carefully eliminated. There is no wildlife; only the waterfallâs myriad vigorous motions prevail.
Needless to say, photography cannot show motion directly. In fact, it uses still imagery, the very opposite of motion, to show any kind of movement, thus providing only a negative representation of motion. So, for example, when still photography is used to represent motion, multiple shots are displayed in chronological order to show the segments of movement. Thanks to an optical illusion, cinematography was invented out of still imagery to solve the dilemma. Without the human eyeâs ability to mistake the jumps from frame to frame for a seamless sequence, photography could not have led to cinematography. Among the earliest examples of the representation of motion in still photographs is Animal Locomotion, a photography collection by Eadweard Muybridge published in 1887. 2 The eleven-volume set compiles exquisite photogravures of human beings and animals in motion, such as walking and running. A total of 781 movements are represented through frame-by-frame pictures. While dozens of consecutive shots are printed on each page of Muybridgeâs book, Boomoonâs Skogar series does not seek to chart the continuity of the waterfallâs motion. Allocating one image per page in his oversized book, Boomoon dares to entrust the 300 images representing the waterfallâs cascading motion to the viewerâs repeated action of turning the pages. As the bookâs format is so large that viewers cannot easily turn the pages without feeling resistance from the weight of the paper, the waterfallâs motion is only negatively represented here as a chain of sequential images inevitably broken up by long intervals. The gaze of viewers expecting a smooth representation of its movement is often interrupted, and the still waterfall on each page is suspended as water âabout to fall.â In Boomoonâs book, unlike Muybridgeâs, access to the simulacrum of a waterfall in motion is cut off from the start by the effective arrangement of the images. The book thus examines an incomplete history and the convention of equating photography with cinematography in how they have shown motion through consecutive frames ever since they were invented. Of course, the continual motion is created through an optical illusion that convinces us to perceive consecutive still images as a moving picture. Boomoonâs photographs portray the unpredictable, formal ambiguity of natureâs violence through variations between the images, as well as in natureâs arbitrary time, wildly flowing without beginning or end. Time becomes the essential object of gaze in the Skogar book.
Another effective way of representing motion in photography, besides displaying consecutive shots in chronological order as Muybridge did, is to fix the moving subject in a blurred or out of focus image. However, since this method can come across as a technical mistake, it did not become popular until the amateur aesthetic of snapshots was adopted as a âtechniqueâ of professional photography. Early examples of the deliberate use of this âtechniqueâ include Ballet (1945), a stunning photography book by Alexey Brodovitchâan art director and photographer who successfully promoted the industry of American fashion magazinesâand the work of Robert Frankâa groundbreaking pioneer in photography who expressed personal spontaneity in his work.3 Under the influence of Frank and his contemporaries, the âtechniqueâ became more popular among photographers taking lyrical snapshots, not only in the United States but also around the world.
The spray and splashes captured in Boomoonâs waterfall photographs are unfocused and altogether form an irregular space within the images. However, his blurry portrayal of a waterfall has almost nothing to do with the form-destroying aesthetic of traditional snapshots. The out-of-focus areas of his photographs contend with the focused, or seemingly focused, parts. For example, in the surface texture of the tumbling water coming forward, the ripples have a stunningly delicate density. Across the 300 images in the series, the vertically falling water and the horizontally flowing water prove to be different from each other in terms of focus. Within each image and throughout the series, the focus varies in highly complex ways. Thanks to the photographerâs adept skills in digital photography, there is an impressive range of focus, from full focus to out of focus. Yet the varied image resolution within a photograph is due to the nature of the subject of continuously falling water. In this regard, we could say that photography technology has just caught up with what a waterfall is, and this kind of expression shows that Boomoonâs work is situated exactly at the crossroads between the history of photography technology and an exploration of photographic expression.
Boomoonâs photographs thoroughly demonstrate faithfulness to the true nature of a waterfall as always falling. One of the principles of modern art is a defiance of the religious and mythological dogma that told people to seek hope for a future after death (through resurrection and immortality) by learning the lessons of history. If artists have more or less strived, since modernism, for a limitless expansion of the âhere and nowâ through the obliteration of memory, Boomoonâs Skogar series may seem to be a late blooming flower. However, while modernist painting foregrounds the unrepeatability and uniqueness of the artist and artwork, Boomoon focuses on repetition with slight differences or shifts, using the waterfall as the only subject of his series. Here, the time of one thing, supported by other things, or rather, a kind of timelessness suffuses the work. The objective or end of time is permanently postponed. The waterfall keeps cascading repeatedly, aimlessly, senselessly, carrying an undetermined present along with it. The waterfall descends, resisting any association with another place and time. Standing as an observer before Boomoonâs minimalist waterfall, I am liberated from the bondage of the identities of the âartistâ and the âwork,â as well as the identity of âanother selfâ chained to the system of appreciation. The cascading waterfall announces my freedom. Facing the waterfall, âIâ am free. Therefore I am here, not going or having to go anywhere.
Into the Abyss
With all its recurrent self-devotion, a waterfall falls in another manner as well. At times, it conveys forceful implications. It is not that a waterfall cannot be free from any meaning or symbols, but rather that it sometimes actively constructs a field of symbolic signification. As the waterfall captured by Boomoon is free from any context, it can easily play with symbols. It remains multivalent.
Before the symbol of the waterfall comes the symbol of water. While water ceaselessly flows, it does not seem to remain the same to those who observe it closely. Kamo no Chomei, a prominent essayist of medieval Japan, once wrote: âThe flowing river never stops and yet the water never stays the same.â4 This is the first sentence of his well-known essay Hojoki that has references to water and is familiar to many Japanese people. Chomei adds that âfoam floats upon the pools, scattering, re-forming, never lingering long,â thus depicting a sense of transience by comparing the flowing water with the passage of time. This section describes exactly how water flows, but here water is also viewed as a meaningful and accurate figure of time. From time immemorial to contemporary popular songs, water has flowed down rivers, just as time and life have. One can see in moving water both a trace of what has already passed and an expectation of what is to come. This characteristic of flowing water is particularly visible in waterfalls.
The particular circumstances of Chomeiâs time underscore his account of flowing water ânever lingering long.â A series of natural disasters and human-caused calamities occurred in the late Heian Period (late 12th Century) in which Chomei actually lived, which made him feel transience ever more acutely. Natureâs furious power destroyed many things and people, rich or poor, young or old. After the preliminary water metaphor, the main narrative of Hojoki describes a great fire, a tornado, the failed transfer of the capital (from Kyoto to Fukuhara), drought and famine, and a major earthquake.
Boomoonâs series of 300 photographs of Skogafoss depicts the waterâs destructive force rather than its suppleness and gentleness, reminding one of the disasters and landscapes described in the Book of Genesis or Revelation. Of course, the images also have a highly purified and pristine presence. They portray the essence of a waterfall: the omnipotent force of nature that goes far beyond human reach or our definitions of good and evil. Boomoon manages to portray this essence because he had to physically struggle to capture this power in the photographs as he stood at the mercy of the downward force and current in the pool. To shoot the photographs, he entered the freezing water of the pool below the falls and stood in their charge. His act was frantic and dangerous; there was no question of playing in the water. Soaking wet, he could not move easily or control his fingers, which went numb with cold. The photographs thus also hold a trace of the photographerâs movements. Yet the main purpose of this difficult struggle below the falls was to attain a position where the waterâs horizon would be situated at the lower third of the cameraâs viewfinder. In other words, a tension is created between his efforts to stabilize his composition in a particular way and his struggle to maintain his physical position. Furthermore, as all contextual details are deliberately eliminated from the images, the viewerâs gaze never deviates from the friction created between the vertical drapes of falling water and the horizontal movement of water flowing forwards. The waterâs horizon marks this place of friction. Although the images have a uniform composition due to the horizon always being in the same position, the photographs vary a great deal in the Skogar series.
The formal uniformity that Boomoon sought have inversely produced a wide range of images with slight variations, which evoke the power of nature and various kinds of disasters it can cause. A waterfall can transform into a rainstorm, a flash flood, a major flood, or a tsunami. The black and white composition of the series also suggests many associations.
Boomoonâs waterfall images can be analogically linked to various calamities and forms of destruction. For example, they appear to resonate more with the following lines in Hojoki, which evoke the physical violence of major earthquakes, than with the beautiful, elegiac description of flowing water cited earlier. This may also attest to the fact that I am still in the aftershock of the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011.
Mountains fell and filled the rivers.
The seas heaved and flooded the land.
The earth itself split and water gushed out.
Giant rocks cracked and rolled down into the valleys.
Boats along the shore were helpless in the waves.
Horses on the streets stumbled as they walked.
Around the capital not one temple or pagoda remained intact.
Some collapsed and some fell over.
Dust and ashes rose like billows of smoke.
Earth shaking, houses breaking sounded like the crash of falling thunderbolts.
Caught inside a house might crush you.
Outside, the ground was torn apart.
Without wings you could not fly away.
Only a dragon may ride the clouds!
Surely such an earthquake is the most terrifying of events.5
When I look at Boomoonâs photographs, their firm intensity never fails to remind me of accounts of primordial violence. I cannot help but think that this series has something in common with the apocalyptic landscapes that appear when angels blow their trumpets.
The first angel blew his trumpet. Hail and fire, mixed with blood, came pouring down on the earth.
A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees, and every blade of green grass.
Then the second angel blew his trumpet. Something that looked like a huge mountain on fire was thrown into the sea.
A third of the sea was turned into blood, a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.
Then the third angel blew his trumpet. A large star, burning like a torch, dropped from the sky and fell on a third of the rivers
and on the springs of water. (The name of the star is âBitterness.â) A third of the water turned bitter, and many people died
from drinking the water, because it had turned bitter.6
The angels did not stop blowing their trumpets for some time. As if tuned to the clamorous din, the world collapsed. In this moment, the differences between water, fire, rock, and earth blurred and were merged into fire. Boomoonâs waterfall can be akin to white fire. The water sprays a cold flame. A waterfall is fire. The Greek philosopher Heraclitus considered fire to be the basic element, fire which flows like a river, flies like a shooting star, and lands in an unknown place. John Burnet explains Heraclitusâ philosophy of fire:
Fire burns continuously and without interruption. It is always consuming fuel and always liberating smoke.
Everything is either mounting upwards to serve as fuel, or sinking downwards after having nourished the flame.
It follows that the whole of reality is like an ever-flowing stream, and that nothing is ever at rest for a moment.
The substance of the things we see is in constant change. Even as we look at them, some of the stuff of which
they are composed has already passed into something else, while fresh stuff has come into them from another source.7
Burnet further quotes Plato: âHeraclitus says somewhere that all things pass and naught abide; and, comparing things to the current of a river, he says you cannot step twice into the same stream.â 8 In disasters, which can be seen as an extreme stage of metamorphosis, there is no difference between being burned by fire and being washed away by rushing water.
In the Book of Revelation, the world was destroyed a third at a time in various ways. The element of water is always part of this theatre of disaster, representing a ritual that brutally separates life and death or a game of survival. Water often symbolizes miracles and sanctity not only in the Book of Revelation, but also in the Old and New Testaments. Water is both a material and a topos that may, in its most violent form, cause massive destruction, and the Book of Revelation most vividly portrays this violence. Simply by portraying a waterfallâs cascading movement, Boomoonâs images suggest a likeness to a great fire and a tsunami. The uniform positioning of the horizon also implies this parallel. The horizon always remains obscure, sometimes even completely invisible, because it is always in the mist and splashes of water. The pool below the falls is likewise barely visible. A veil tumbles. Tumbles on and on. Boomoon focuses on the waterfall, the freely swaying veil. Yet he cannot see it, despite focusing on it, due to the spray and splashes. Boomoonâs act of photographing demonstrates a paradox: blindness helps us see the waterfallâs essence.
The waterfallâs pool is either invisible or barely visible. This obscurity and mystery defines the photographs. The destination of the cascading water, the very bottom of the waterfall where spray and water splash in response, is important. It is also reminiscent of the bottom of the valley, which Lao Tzu calls âthe mysterious femaleâ and likens to the beginning of the universe.
The spirit of the valley never dies.
This is called the mysterious female.
The gateway of the mysterious female
Is called the root of heaven and earth.
It seems infinitely long.
Yet use will never drain it.9
This offers an anthropomorphic analogy between landscape and body. The gateway-mother is agape like a vagina, and her fertility is described as an inexhaustible source. Gustave Courbet, who in 1866 depicted a provocative female nude with her legs spread open, also repeatedly drew a river cave that intensely draws the viewerâs gaze while simultaneously showing the water recede as if disappearing from sight. Werner Hofmann discusses the connection between landscape and body, the female vagina and the cave in Courbetâs painting:
What again and again draws Courbetâs eye into caves, crevices, and grottoes is the fascination that emanates from the hidden,
the impenetrable, but also the longing for security (Geborgenheit). What is behind this is a panerotic mode of experience that
perceives in nature a female creature and consequently projects the experience of cave and grotto into the female body.
At this point ârealismâ turns into âsymbolism,â for even if the title of this pictureâThe Origin of the Worldâdoes not come from Courbet
it would not be difficult to determine its perceptible symbolic dimension from the context that we have attempted to lay out here.10
Through erotic analogy, fissures in the landscape convert the âperceptibleâ object, or describable reality, into a symbol. For this duality to happen, the object need only remain obscure, unfamiliar, and uncanny no matter how closely one communicates with it. One might consider the phrase âthe mystery of nature,â commonly used since ancient times, to be another way of describing this duality. Expressing both inaccessibility and affinity, Boomoonâs waterfall images also embody a shift from realism to symbolism. However, his waterfall is neutral and without gender, unlike Courbetâs paintings, which seem gender-oriented and likely to suggest analogies.
A waterfall implies a terminus or a catastrophe of water flowing from a source, and is thus the opposite of a fountain. However, a waterfall can also transform into âa different kind of fountainâ when carp and salmon swim up rivers, using the splashes and spray created by the falling water, and when mythical creatures like dragons appear. Boomoon does not overlook the waterfallâs natural feature of countering gravity. Since ancient times, waterfalls have represented life or divine incarnation and have been the objects of worship or have been occupied by divine spirits. More recently, in Ătant donnĂ©s, Marcel Duchampâs last major workâa tableau of a waterfall and a nude female body anthropomorphically juxtaposed in a landscapeâwe can see that Duchamp considered the âmotherhoodâ of a waterfall as a âsecond fountain.â11 However, anticipating the presence of crude or voyeuristic viewers, he expressed it in a self-referential manner, criticizing modernism from within. Exhibited in the corner of a typical repository (shrine) of modern art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Duchampâs waterfall is still falling, both secretly and publicly, whether or not it is seen, enshrined in the background behind a lying nude holding a gas light.
A waterfall-fountain is not something that only signifies once, at either the beginning or the end, or something that can be symbolized. The waterfall as the second fountain âseems infinitely long. Yet use will never drain itâ since the spirit of the valley, or the mysterious female, never dies. The place where it begins is unknown. A waterfall that begins somewhere unknown and never stops falling is akin to a place that annihilates mythical stories of creation and the apocalypse.
Was not such an endless or bottomless valley mentioned in the Book of Revelation? However, this is where every obscurity begins. As a disaster is etymologically derived from an âill-starred event,â the ultimate disaster and the sign, or the prophecy, of the end of the world is described as a falling star. The star that falls down to earth opens up an abyss, a bottomless depth of despair. Let us listen to the tune of the trumpet once more:
Then the fifth angel blew his trumpet. I saw a star which had fallen down to the earth, and it was given the key to the abyss.
The star opened the abyss, and smoke poured out of it, like the smoke from a large furnace, the sunlight and the air were darkened
by the smoke from the abyss.12
Both the birth of the world, described by Lao Tzu, and the end of the world, described by John the Evangelist, begin in a bottomless abyss like a waterfallâs pool at the âentranceâ or âexitâ of a deep valley. However, the âdiscoveryâ of the birth or the end per se is eternally postponed. Does a waterfall act as a veil, hiding the birth and the end of the world by continuously falling? Boomoonâs intense dialogue with nature in his waterfall series invites us to consider the hard-to-reach places of the beginning and end of the world. I wonder if we might call the veilâs act of obscuring the endless repetition and the trace of a waterfallâs natural movements signs of salvation, pacification, or healing. Lacking memory, nature is constantly overwriting itself. Like waterfalls or waves coming and going, nature acts as an amnesiac. As a symbol of natureâgiving birth to, nurturing, and destroying all beingsâor as the materialization of nature, can a waterfall ever be gentle? Can a âgentle disasterâ13 ever exist? Obscuring everything else while exposing its body of water, the veil of the waterfall continuously sways and roars. It never ceases to end.
(The original essay was written in Japanese and translated by Sumiko Yamakawa and Oana Avasilichioaei.)
1. About the formation of waterfalls, see Brian J. Hudson, Waterfall: Nature and Culture, Reaktion Books, London, 2012, pp. 17-47.
2. Eadweard Muybridge, Muybridgeâs Complete Human and Animal Locomotion: All 781 Plates from the 1887 Animal Locomotion (3 Vols.), Dover Publications, New York, 1979.
3. See Sarah Greenough, âFragments That Make a Whole Meaning in Photographic Sequences,â Sara Greenough and Phillip Brookman (eds.), Robert Frank: Moving Out, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1995, pp. 100-101.
4. Kamo no Chomei, Hojoki: Visions of a Torn World, translated by Yasuhiko Moriguchi and David Jenkins, Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley,1996, p. 31.
5. Chomei, ibid., p. 51.
6. Revelation 8:7-12, Good News Bible: Todayâs English Version (2nd ed.), American Bible Society, New York, 1966.
7. John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, 4th Edition, Adam & Charles Black, London,1958, pp.145-146.
8. Burnet, ibid., p.146.
9. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, translated by D.C. Lau (slightly altered by Yamakawa), Penguin Books, London,1963, p.10.
10. Michael Fried, Courbetâs Realism, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1990, pp. 210-212. Fried believes that Hofmann made an overly hasty and simple connection between Courbetâs painting and its symbolism. He argues that the âblind spotsâ of cave motifs occupying large areas of Courbetâs paintings, as in the Source of the Loue, were crucial for the painter-beholder, helping him to âundo his spectatorhoodâ and become physically absorbed in the work. Fried posits that representation in Courbetâs paintings (which he describes as the eclipse of visuality, the undoing of spectatorhood) âis thematized as the product, perhaps by-product, of an enterprise that has for its primary aim the accomplishment of a quasi-physical merger between painter-beholder and paintingâ (Fried, pp. 217-218). This âquasi-physical mergerâ has taken place not only in the Skogar series, but also in Boomoonâs previous series, such as Naksan and On the Cloud. See Shino Kuraishi, âSnow, Sea, Lightâ in Boomoon, Naksan, Nazraeli Press, Portland, 2010, n.p.
11. For Duchampâs Ătant donnĂ©s: 1 la chute dâeau, 2 le gaz dâĂ©clairage (1966, Philadelphia Museum of Art), see Arturo Schwarz, The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp, Third Revised and Expanded Edition, Vol.2, Delano Greenidge Editions, New York, 1997, pp. 865-866.
12. Revelation 9:1, Good News Bible, op. cit.
13. After quoting Simone Weilâs words, âbut there is, in my view, no grandeur except gentleness,â Maurice Blanchot writes: âI will say rather: nothing extreme except through gentleness. Madness through excess of gentleness, gentle madness. To think, to be effaced: the disaster of gentleness.â Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, translated by Ann Smock, Lincoln and London, University of Nebraska Press, 1995, pp. 6-7.