Curator and founder of The Tsuka Project, Dr. Kristian Häggblom is inspired by transdisciplinary art practices and cross-cultural exhibitions. Having lived and worked in Japan for eight years during the late 1990s, Häggblom collaborated with local photographers, painters, sculptors, and curators to establish artist run gallery spaces in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. After his relocation back to his home in Melbourne, Australia, Häggblom continued to create these curated gallery spaces with an informed aim to showcase work from around the world, that of which was not readily known in Australia.
The Tsuka Project, originally an exhibition presented at the Centre of Contemporary Photography Melbourne, was born from a concept Häggblom first discovered during his residency in Japan. The Japanese word, tsuka 塚, meaning hill or mound, specifically refers to a hill or mound that has been made by human intervention that often acts as a tombstone or place for worship or mourning. Häggblom extends this imagery, of man-made monument of remembrance, to apply the notion of photograph as tsuka 塚. This concept has become the locus for the curation of The Tsuka project and has influenced Häggblom’s own photographic practices.
Tsuyoshi Ito (Ito): Tell me about the Tsuka Project. I am particularly interested in the concept of tsuka and the way you are using it to frame these photographers and their work.
Kristian Häggblom (Häggblom): I’ve been thinking about this idea of tsuka since 2002 when I read about it. I believe that photography can be something that expresses atonement or respect or homage, like a tsuka. I think that making books is like the a way to seek some kind of deeper respect. We can see that through work by Shingo Kanagawa’s work. It’s a book called ‘Father’ and it’s a phenomenal work.. His father basically wants to die but he can’t kill himself. Through photography, Shingo brought him back to life. He gave him a camera and said, “you have to take a picture of yourself everyday and think about who you are and what life is”. I just think photography can be so powerful, and the fact that anyone can do it too. So it’s the democracy of photography that we know about, and it’s got deeper meaning that need to be considered. And through doing exhibitions I want to bring attention to thinking about if it is further than just the surface.
Ito: You’re basically saying that these photographers treat their life events, which they photograph, as something that is monumental like a tsuka monument?
Häggblom: Yes, like photography acting as a monument in some ways. One of my students from Iceland said to me the other day, “so is the website your tsuka?”, and I hadn’t even thought about that. It’s kind of my monument to paying respect to these photographers and their ideas that they’re doing and making.
Ito: I don’t know where I read this but the one thing that you referenced to tsuka was the demarcation between the land and sky. Tsuka is basically where human effort creates the demarcation because you raise the mound up and then that said land becomes more conspicuous. And that’s when people felt awe back then. There’s definitely something about the edge of the land and how you don’t know what’s behind where the land and sky meet. That is conceptually what tsuka represents to me.
Häggblom: That’s a great reference, I’m going to borrow it from you.
Ito: How do those ideas come together in the form of an exhibition, not only logically but also conceptually?
Häggblom: I think it’s just a lot of things that are coming together as one in my head. It’s got to do with so many different things, like not seeing the horizon. When you’re in Tokyo you don’t see the horizon. Even when you go up a building to see things, you still don’t really see the horizon because it’s just scattered with buildings. Then there’s other ideas like I’m obsessed in tetrapods. Tetrapods are these crazy concrete things that are kind of like a tsuka. They’re built with the idea that they’ll assist people in an earthquake and in a tsunami but an actual fact is that they’re more dangerous. But because Japanese politicians and government officials retire into construction companies, they just keep making them without thinking. I think it’s a combination of all these ideas, reading a lot about Japan, ideas about Japan, and putting them all together as one thing. I think it’s got a lot to do about the appreciation of photography too.
Ito: How were you able to get connected to these photographers, or how did these relationships come about?
Häggblom: Some of them I’ve worked with before like Tomoki Imai, for example. And I’ve been talking to Kazuma Oba for about four years or so. The other ones are a little bit newer, but when I was back, over the December-January period, I met with all of them. If you seek out and are interested in Japanese photography, you’re probably going to come across these people.
Ito: Looking at the website, the presence of their books is definitely an important part of the whole concept. What is ‘photo book’ to them, and also what is it to you?
Häggblom: People have been making photo books in Japan for a very long time and obviously it’s high quality and people take it very seriously. I’m stressing the fact that if you’re going to show the book and the work, you can’t simply print the pages and put them on the wall. You need to consider the triangle idea. At the top of the triangle is the print. On the right hand side you have the book. That’s become more important. And on the other side you have web presence, like how do you put your work online. Not many people are doing that interestingly. So I try to talk to them about how the book’s fantastic.The book is like the outcome of it.
Ito: [Shoji] Yamagishi, who was co-curator with John Szarkowski, said Japanese photographers don’t think in terms of tableau, or singular image, but it’s always series. Have you ever thought of the book as a collection of images as opposed to some sort of pinnacle image that defines that body of work?
Häggblom: I have. The book is something you have to read from the start to the end. I think that’s the point that’s very interesting, and I think the Japanese have done that very well. So it’s only within the last year, the project I’m working on now, I’m shooting it and I know it’s a book. I’ve never thought about that before. I’m always about “this is the image”, “this is the singular thing”, or it’s going to go into a gallery. I think a lot of Japanese photographers are working for the book before anything else which is really quite interesting.
Ito: Typically when I talk to people for this journal I just talk to people who were working in the 60’s-70’s and prior so at the time the mindset was they all had to publish books because the gallery was not an option. They have hundreds of pictures inside the book.
Häggblom: And I think it could work in a book. Physically, we can put that many images into a gallery. But if we do it’s not really going to work, is it? You’re just going to get bored. But in a book it could work.
Ito: Tell me what was challenging to you to put a group show like this over two cultures;conceptually or logistically.
Häggblom: Well our logistics were not there and our funding not there but it figured itself out. There’s so much interest in Japanese culture in Australia for quite some time. There’s already an audience who are interested in it. It’s so easy to be cliche about Japan. That’s why I’m stressing that none of these projects are going to be cliche. People need to understand that Japan isn’t just about Mt. Fuji and geishas. There’s other layers and I think it’s important to show the complexity of that. And in photography there’s so much interesting work that’s not about the usual people that we know. I think that’s important that that’s driving the project to show the complexities.
Ito: This is a question I ask myself too, because I grew up in Japan and the other half I grew up in the United States. How do you go beyond that cliche to someone who hasn’t been there?
Häggblom: I think that it’s about this idea of saturation. You need to saturate yourself in the subject matter or whatever it is that you’re exploring regardless of whatever it is that you’re researching or photographing. I think that my experiences in Japan are grounded in this idea that I’m not there just to go and do touristy things. I’m there to live and so I think having the experience of doing what people do normally is really important. Photography is a great license to get into those things.