After growing up in Japan and studying in journalism in the University of Missouri, Columbia, Ikuru Kuwajima has been living and photographing in various post-Soviet countries in the past 9 years. He has extensively photographed in Central Asia and now lives in Russia, continuing personal projects. His work has been published in international media like Newsweek Japan, National Geographic, Forbes Magazine, Daily Telegraph, Le Monde, NYT Lens Blog, TIME Magazine’s Lightbox, The Guardian among others. Most recently, he was awarded the First Place at PhotoBook Dummy Contest 2017 in Moscow for his book I, Oblomov.
I, Oblomov is a personal response by Ikuru Kuwajima to the novel Oblomov, written in the mid-19th century by the Russian writer Ivan Goncharov. Over 150 years later, the novel still remains as a key to deciphering the Russian mentality, which has been a great interest to the artist. Through his own experience in the country he photographs himself day after day as he lies down on the sofa or bed, while contemplating the ceiling or simply meditating about life.
- You have previously published three books and you recently won the First Place at PhotoBook Dummy Contest 2017 in Moscow, with your book 'I - Oblomov'. How did you approach this one differently?
This book is the latest of the four books I’ve done since 2014. As I have previously worked on more projects, I had a better understanding about bookmaking, and I knew this project should be presented in a book format when I started working on it. I started making books after taking part in the bookmaking masterclass taught by Xavier Fernandez in St. Petersburg in the fall of 2014. Xavier, who sadly passed away recently, pretty much designed my first book “Trail” and told us about the importance of experimenting with form in book designing, which was highly inspiring. Since then, I tried to experiment with form for each book I have worked on.
For instance, in my first book “Trail” was experimental in its design, showing Afghanistan in black & white panoramic trail pictures in a lot of white space. The second book, “Tundra Kids” was made in the according style and showed somewhat playful portrait photos on one side and children’s drawings on the other side. This book also included a text from a Soviet ethnic fairy-tale relevant to the story, and its special edition was put in a box with stamps of reindeer. The third publication, “Volga After Volga” was made of an old national geographic article about Volga in 1917 and my own photographs and text about Volga about a century later, and my “article” (photographs and text) was printed on half-transparent paper placed upon each page of the old national article to have readers compare the past and the present. I think those three books can be called artist books instead of photobooks, as the design, text and other elements are as important or even more important than photographs.
I printed “Trail” and “Volga After Volga” in a small unknown printing office in a Russian city Kazan, where I used to live for three years and worked on the dummies for all the projects in that place. Since I used copy machines the pictures aren’t printed in superb quality, but for those books it fitted the style. Whereas for “Tundra Kids”, I showed a dummy in Kazan to a publisher in Vienna, and the publisher Schlebrügge/Editor printed it in Vienna.
As for the “I, Oblomov” book, I kept the design simple, but added a literature element, as the book also shows 30-40 quotes from the Russian classic novel of the 19th Century, Oblomov, on which my project is based on. In some way, this work looks much more like a photobook than my other works, as its design is not radically different from classic photobooks. Moreover, the quality of photographs is very important, so I invested more and printed the final version of the dummy in a printing place with an expensive and big printing machine in Moscow. Yet, I think I approached it in a similar way that I worked previously — this is a combination of literature and photography, sort of hybrid of two different disciplines, and in a way, it’s a teaser for what many people and I consider is one of the best novels of the 19th century.
- The cover of the book is an important feature to the narrative of the story, how is that so?
Indeed, I put a special-pillow-like book cover, which is relevant to the novel Oblomov, of which hero Oblomov is always lying down on the couch. I spent a lot of time thinking about the cover design and discussing it with several friends in Russia, but nothing worked out for a while. And, it was for the first time not being able to come up with anything that I liked, though for previous works, I picked the covers fairly quickly. I almost gave up with it around March and was kind of desperate, and I asked Julia Borissova, who makes beautiful artists books, for her advice. Then, she threw me this idea in the last minute. And, I tried it and it worked out well. From here, I picked a number of different fabrics in the shop called “Slavic Fabric”, and I think the one with which I won the book price was one of the best ones. I just made one poorly-handmade pillow book jacket, took it to a clothes repair service in the next apartment building and asked a lady there to do it.
Going back to your question, the pillow-like book jacket is relevant to my work, since is based on the novel Oblomov, as the novel’s hero Ilya Ilych Oblomov is always lying down on the couch, thinking about something. And, the idea of my work is also that I often lied down, doing nothing and looking at the ceiling apathetically, and so, do many people in Russia and the surrounding countries. Having lived and travel in a number of different cities of post-Soviet countries, I often feel there is a certain atmosphere that makes you feel sleepy, indulgent, lazy, bored and so on and on, but at the same time lying down takes you to an inner trip, in which you contemplate and daydream different things… It can be interesting, exciting, and most importantly, you could find some peace in it. Part of Oblomov’s philosophical discourse is about peace that he was seeking for. So, this soft and puffy pillow cover fits in this sleepy atmosphere of this work.
- You have been inspired by Russia for many years now, and in fact, you are very fluent in Russian language. Can you talk about how this Russian identity has influenced in the production of your book 'I - Oblomov'?
Well, before answering this question let me tell you a few things to make the idea of the project a bit more understandable to the readers. First of all, people in the post-Soviet countries (and maybe some Eastern European ones) and ones outside of them generally take this project very differently. For example, the novel Oblomov is widely known in the post-Soviet countries, and people there know the atmosphere of what I photographed. So, for them, “I, Oblomov” can be taken as a satirical, humoristic work with strong historical and literary references. Oblomov’s indecisive, lazy, apathetic but kind and somewhat likable character, known as the phenomenon of “Oblomovschchina,” is one of the stereotypes of Russia. On top of those, the work was unexpectedly done by a Japanese, whose national stereotype is completely opposite…
On the other hand, the novel Oblomov and the concept of Oblomovschchina are not very well-known outside the post-Soviet countries. So, for people outside of the former USSR, the concept of this work is new, and some people just gets lost. But, despite the concern, seems like a lot of non-Russian speakers find the project interesting, and I’m happy about it. Without some knowledge about Russia, my Oblomov project may be harder to get, but I’m always for trying something new for myself and introducing something new to the audiences. Otherwise, it’s boring for me. Also, it seems like some people even try to read Oblomov, which makes me happy and feel like I did a good job with the project, as the book is profound in many ways and still very relevant today. The Oblomov book helps you get to know much more about Russia.
That being said, when I try to articulate “Russia,” I feel like entering a deep forest with a lot of holes and traps at dusk. Russia is also identity and a political labyrinth. Basically, the more you think about Russia, the less you feel you understand it. I also spent several years living in three other post-Soviet countries like Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where Russian is widely spoken, and I learned and improved Russian there, while mostly hanging out with people who speak Russian as their mother language. Yet, thanks to this experience, I observe Russia from different angles today as well — from the east and the west. Over centuries Russia swallowed both; the East and the West, not only geographically, but also culturally — territories and even people, so it’s a huge mosaic of so many different things, which is impossible, if not difficult, to make a perfect generalization.
Moreover, certain stereotypes are rampant outside the post-Soviet countries. For instance, when I showed my Oblomov project to a man from Western Europe, he said, “well, I imagine Russians as kind of tough, militaristic, strong, macho and maybe aggressive people. So, I don’t really understand (this project).” Sure, there are some macho people, but they are not so representative, and this stereotype spreads and grows, partly because certain stereotypes of “exotics” are easy to spread out and accumulate through the media. Those exotics are more “visual” and appealing to the audiences, who would then have limited imagination of certain countries and people. It could create certain negative simulacra, which can be dangerous. So, when the work is shown to people outside of the former USSR, Oblomovschina (meaning something like “Oblomovness”) can work as a counterargument, which present a different representation of Russia, and this representation can be critical and ironical, however, it can be positive in some way — it’s as confusing and ambivalent as Russia is.
For this project I partly took an auto-ethnographic approach to show this less known reality of people in Russia and the surrounding countries. Basically, I’m not originally from Russia or other Russian speaking region, but I’ve lived in Russian-speaking countries for 9 years, learned the language and subsequently managed to blend into the society somehow. So, say, this “Russian-ness” or some mindset of Russian speaking people is a newly acquired part of my auto-ethnography, and my Oblomov project is partly about my newly acquired mind-sets, or Oblomovschina. To illustrate more about the process of this “blending” I lived in not only affordable Soviet apartments but also often stayed in the apartments or houses of locals in various Russian and other post-Soviet cities and villages while traveling. People are also very hospitable here, and they are also from different socio-economic groups. Yet, there is often a certain atmosphere. It’s a bit sleepy, warm and comfortable, but at the same it can be slow and a little sorrowful. In here, time flows differently and more slowly, and I feel the strong difference, as I lived for many years in Japan and America, both of which societies highly value hard work and efficiency. Over there, people constantly look for efficiency, success and speed, which can be too much and takes away time for sleep, contemplation and reflection from you. However, in Russia, there are less problems with that (which I appreciate), and it’s apparently got different problems. In terms of efficiency and speed, of course, it’s changing now, speeding up, becoming more efficient and getting more and more adapted to the system of capitalism. Still, people here often rest, though they know that they should work. Some people even don’t want to change, others want to change, but simply don’t.
To do or not to do... (or, “To be or not to be” like in Hamlet). This indecisiveness is partly a state of Oblomovschina, and this is what Oblomov is also about — being in the state of ambivalence, indecisiveness. Imagine the situations like those: you know, you have to work, but don’t want; you want progress but can’t act; you know, you need to act, but also feel like everything is vain. Then, this is also similar to what “Russia” is like: it’s sort of Europe, but not quite; it’s sort of Asia, but not as much. And, importantly, you feel like not much has changed since hundred fifty years ago when the novel was written. In Russia, you often have moments you feel like history repeats. A lot of Russian literature works suggest that history repeats, or not much has changed here. And, Oblomov is an example of that. So, I also hoped to transfer this long-lived ambivalence, indecisiveness and suspended feeling through the various rooms where I visited and made self-portraits. And by connecting this experience to Oblomov, I also hoped to connect the audiences, who don’t know much about this region, to the novel, from which I’ve learnt more about Russia and its surrounding regions. I think Putin, Stalin, Lenin, Vodka and cold winter are not enough and too simple to describe Russia. So why not show Oblomov? This is part of the reason why I did work on this project.
Those belonging to this Russian-speaking world seem to appreciate my Oblomov work easily, as it’s easier for them to get it. The project looks humoristic and satire. But, it’s also exotic to them — a Japanese being like Oblomov. And, I guess that a lot of people liked it because they also share similar experience and can relate themselves to it. In fact, different people have different interpretations of the novel Oblomov — some people like Oblomov and see something very good about it, but other people just remember Oblomov as a lazy man lying on the couch all the time.
The “lying down” is an important part of the novel and (subsequently for my work as well) offers a big room for different interpretations. The act of lying down has been often a key element of some other literary and philosophical works. Freud’s couch may be a good example, and it is actually quite similar to some of “Russian” interiors. Also, I was first inspired to do a project about being in a horizontal position after reading “The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg)” by Thomas Mann, who wrote about space and time profoundly through a young man who was also lying down all the time and contemplating, though he was lying because he was sick, unlike Oblomov. And, the ending is quite different as well.
- Previously, you have been focusing your projects on photographing others or their landscapes. I am intrigued to learn more about your self-portraits. How did it occur? Moreover, in several of your portraits you seem to be asleep or fully unaware of the camera. Can you talk about your approach on this?
I tend to get bored after working on the same thing for a while. I started photography as a newspaper photojournalist. Then, I kind of got bored and felt like doing something different. I tried social documentary and even a little bit of conflict photography but came to conclusion that it’s not for me. I also did commercial photography but later became inactive in this genre, too. (I make a living as a combination of Japanese-English-Russian translation and photography by the way.) At some point, I switched to documentary photography showing the life of different people and landscape, etc. I worked on one subject and then wanted to do something different for the next project in terms of photography style or subject. Basically, I am trying to experiment with forms and contents in order not to get bored. I participated in Reflexions Masterclass in Europe and did a distant learning contemporary photography course at Fotodepartament in St. Peterburg, which highly encouraged me to experiment more. Also, I had very few photographers to talk with when I lived in Kazakhstan, and instead, I became friends with local artists and writers. I also talked to people of different backgrounds in Russia. And, they also changed my attitude towards photography.
I didn’t really feel like repeating projects that have been done before. Of course, today, basically everything has been done. But still, I wanted to try something new, at least for myself and at most for the society. And, I think it’s important, and I’m for this type of progress. I thought self-portrait would be the last thing I would do. Actually, I hate getting my pictures taken, let alone showing them to others. But I came up with this self-portrait project, which I thought would work well to show what I wanted. Moreover, I almost reached the point I got so tired and bored of traveling around and photographing others. I felt like I was doing the same thing. Also, a lot of Russian photographers whom I know do self-portraits, and a lot of people in the post-Soviet countries love selfies. And those things made me less conscious about doing this type of work than otherwise. Then, I tried it, and, it went rather smoothly. In a way, I somehow managed to objectify my body, which is, in the end, an instrument for my works. Basically, I just use it because I needed it to execute this certain project. Overall, I prefer making works that give more questions to the audiences instead of offering a simple and banal idea. So many things are undecipherable, especially things like Russia, but we tend to want oversimplified explanations to think less in order to feel secure and have less headache. But, I’m in favour of curiosity to think and raise more questions to have better and deeper understandings of the world.
- One of the quotes go: "He was lying there gazing apathetically at the ceiling, the book lying by his side neither read nor understood". Did you photograph yourself with the book by your side?
It was my friend’s apartment, and I got photographed by a friend, who lived there. So, the book in the picture is his book, I assume. Like I suggested, this project is not just about myself. It’s about a certain type of people who live in the Russian-speaking world and around. So, it’s about locals and about the fact that I also became like them somewhat by staying there and lying down, somehow blending into the environment… In fact, I often lied down by unread books, lying down on the couch and looking at the empty ceiling apathetically after moving to the post-Soviet countries. I suppose, English saying describing this blending would be like: “Who keeps company with the wolf will learn to howl.” I’m not sure if this saying refers to only bad habits; in my case, though, I’d say (or I hope) I’ve acquired good habits overall, though there are also a few bad ones, I have to admit…
- Now that you have been awarded this price what's coming next to your book and when we will it see it published?
Several hundred copies of “I, Oblomov” should get printed within several months thanks to the award. But, I still don’t know the details yet — we are working on it now.