Two Mountains (2015 – 2018)

The Two Mountains project grew out of a residency at the Villa Kujoyama in partnership with Tadashi Ono in Kyoto in 2017, and received support from the Fondation des Artistes in 2018. 

In the mountains of Kumano and Ashio, in Japan, human activity in the form of intensive forestry and mining operations set in train a series of deadly processes across the region, leading to a blind pursuit of technology at all costs, local responses that included resistance by local residents, and a new awareness of environmental issues. Two Mountains recounts this rich, fragmentary dual story through the photographs, texts and historical documents brought back by Julien Guinand from trips he made between 2015 and 2018.

Excerpts from the book Two Mountains:

Texts (excerpts)

The twelfth typhoon of the 2011 typhoon season in the northwestern Pacific Ocean formed at the end of the month of August, just off the coast of the Mariana Islands. At first only a mere depression was reported, but it rapidly turned into a violent tropical storm. Named Talas, it headed northwards towards Japan. On September 3 and 4, it passed over the island of Shikoku, sweeping across the southwest of Honshū – Japan’s main island – covering the Kii Peninsula with heavy rainfall in its wake. In the Kumano region – the area of the peninsula through which the Kumano River flows – the mountains experienced a hundred landslides in the course of three days. Such severe weather was rare for the region, disrupting its metabolism a mere six months after the tsunami of March 11 and the Fukushima disaster. The mountains were unable to resist, probably due to the ancient forest having been replaced by intensive silviculture. Planted as cuttings, the fast-growing sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) that cover the slopes of many Japanese mountains have enabled the country to reduce its carbon footprint, but long before the era of the industrial exploitation of the forest, the spread of sugi was seemingly already the result of human activity. It is said that in ancient times the Empress Jingu, upon returning to Kyoto and having vanquished the Three Kingdoms of Korea, transplanted a branch of cryptomeria, thus giving birth to the Japanese forests. Why does this tale that involves the ancient imperial line continue to be part of the national historical myth? How can a cultural process generate a landscape which is universally praised for its natural character? On seeing the wooded mountain ranges of Kumano and their deep, narrow valleys for the very first time, I thought I was looking at nature.

Discussion about Two Mountains (excerpts)

Jean-François Chevrier:

Let us dive into the book, without delay, and consider a double-page spread page 48–49 :

1. A small dam, house of Kiichirou Kadotani, mayor of the village of Nosegawa; Nara Prefecture, Kii Peninsula, 2017

2. A sabō construction by the road linking Kitamata hamlet to the center of Nosegawa; Nara Prefecture, Kii Peninsula, 2017

On the left, the image of a small structure, designed to stop flooding, in front of a house, in the village of Nosegawa; on the right, a landscape not too far from the village: a large structure that buttresses and supports the mountain. Two contrasting views, both in terms of scale and of distance. The image on the right falls under the scope of the landscape, whereas the one on the left can be considered an architectural detail. Actually, the idea of an architectural detail is just as valid for the landscape as for the view of the doorstep of a house. Aside from the additional element of the concrete construction, the landscape is barely visible: one can see the road at the bottom, and the edge of the forest, pushed back, distant, all the way at the top, but the view is nevertheless centered on the technical object.

The caption indicates that the concrete structure is of the sabō type; composed of sa (sand) and bō (prevention), the word describes the structures erected to contain the slippage of sedimentary materials. As for the house, Julien told me that it is located opposite the Seikyu-ji Zen temple that was the setting for two other photographs in the book that show various people attending to a statue (pages 89 and 91); this notion of being “inside” confirms the intimate character of the image of the doorstep.

I speak of “architectural details.” It would perhaps be better to speak of “constructions,” each typical, each belonging to its own category. The protective elements in front of the house constitute a cobbled together arrangement, whereas the concrete structure is the result of engineering. One finds here the famous difference established by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his book The Savage Mind between the bricoleur (tinkerer) and the engineer. The juxtaposition of the two views thus shows the two levels of activity that provide different responses to the same concern for protection. Tinkering is more affable. The choice of layout makes the two views inversely proportional to the places being described. The small, magnified construction corresponds to an enhanced vision of daily life. The engineered structure is, on the contrary, reduced to an object brutally inserted into the landscape.

And so we have two types of “construction.” On one hand, the crude poetry of a tiny human construction, elements of a functional assemblage that evoke everyday gestures of survival; on the other, a testament to the impersonal reification of the landscape. This idea of reification has already been introduced through the use of a close up; it is emphasized by the clear choice to minimize the landscape, in comparison to the domestic assembly. Ultimately, the double page spread produces a composite image of a technical bifurcation. The technical object, with its “monumental” dimensions, designed on the scale of the territory, is undoubtably an example of counter-performance in ecological terms. It appears for what it is: a derisory piece of modern “armor,” which by contrast, shifts the emphasis onto the virtues of tinkering, equally derisory but much more human in nature.

Jean-Christophe Valmalette:

This difference is clear, however the expression “ecological counter performance” seems inappropriate and revealing of our own Western representations. The way that I look at these two images is definitely influenced by my reading of Kumagusu Minakata, who, even at the beginning of the last century, was a vocal critic of the disruption caused by the new laws concerning the grouping of Shinto shrines (promoted by the new Meiji government) and the consequences on the villagers’ relationship with the forest (Shinto can be translated as “religion of the forest”). From my very earliest exchanges with Julien I was struck by how close the questions that he raises in his work are to those raised by Minakata a century earlier. Indeed, the expression “ecological counter performance” that Jean-François used sustains the idea of an ecology capable of becoming part of a model of performance based on “Western” criteria. For me, this photograph is more evocative of a “cultural misunderstanding” in this archipelago where a real “organic world” has developed in the true sense of the term, in other words a world organized around flows, all the way down to the slightest flow that preserves life by nourishing it.

Every drop of water makes its contribution to life before returning to the ocean, all light that breaks through the canopy brings something to every being who lives there, throughout its entire trajectory, from the treetops to the soil. A world away from this idea, the engineering structure in front of us belongs to a world that divides reality, fragmenting its representations. The engineer was tasked with providing a solution (here a sabō) to a problem (the slipping of whole forests provoked by the intensive monoculture of sugi, or cryptomeria). This is how our societies have evolved: their conception of the world is based on problematizing reality while at the same time dehumanizing it. It is in this respect that the photograph on the left seems more “human” to us; it doesn’t pretend to be a complete solution but rather a derisory adaptation to the submersion that the arrogant structure will be unable to avoid in the long term. Far from trying to hide it, it exhibits its inherent flaw, providing a reminder of the danger nearby. How can one avoid drawing a parallel with the multitude of shrines, spread throughout the small hills, that served as shelters when tsunamis approached, with the inhabitants ultimately forgetting their role over time in the belief that they were now protected by the massive walls, such as when a new tsunami hit the coast of Tohoku in March of 2011?

I have travelled many times through these cryptomeria forests that now cover a large part of Japan, under the cover of which no trace of life can exist to startle or surprise us. These varieties of sugi are the result of a long process of selection in the laboratory aimed at accelerating their growth and capturing more carbon. They are easily recognizable thanks to their dense and heavy foliage, which plunges the undergrowth of these artificial forests into a deep, lifeless, dark. As a result, it is much more difficult for carbon to be captured by the forest floor, usually a principal reservoir, as is the case with living forests that contain large quantities of carbon in the form of organic matter; carbon also ensures a robust soil cohesion in a natural forest. The industrialized approach to the forest leads not only to a catastrophic “management” of carbon, but also to the proliferation of sugi, whose insufficiently developed roots do not allow them to provide stability, as well as a clear decline in quality of wood. Concrete engineering, an essential ally of sylvicultural engineering, creates such turmoil in its operation that it renders inaudible the message of the kami [divinities or spirits in the Shinto religion] about the profound nature of the forest.

Hidetaka Ishida:

There is no evidence that the Kumano landslides of September 2011 were caused by intensive sylviculture. The serious collapses that occurred were of the so-called shinsō-hōkai (deep landslide) type: the layers that collapsed are found much deeper than those ordinarily observed, far below where the trees take root.

Furthermore, the mythical and sacred dimension of the forests of Kumano should be taken into account when telling the story of this catastrophe; this is notably the case in the text on page 22. It is an important aspect, one that makes it possible, for example, to situate the history of the burakumin pariah—a community that sits on the lowest rung of the Japanese social ladder and that has always suffered discrimination—in the Kumano region. In this ostracized peninsula, a vast hinterland of the two former capitals of Nara and Kyoto, the logic of the sacred and the “defilement” of the inhabitants are integral to the memorial depth of places. It is important to note that Kenji Nakagami was born in this region, as was Kumagusu Minakata.

The presence of the sugi is part of this mythical backdrop. In the Shinto religion, sugi grew out of the beard of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, god of the seas and storms; and this is why sugi is found in and around Shinto shrines, and why it has become the object of a cult (goshintai). But the plantations established in the wake of the Edo period, since the end of the 19th century, are part of another, industrial, context. It is true that since that time the Kii Peninsula has been one of the main regions for sugi production, used in the construction of houses and the manufacture of goods, such as sake barrels.

I would tend to interpret increasingly frequent natural catastrophes like typhoon Talas in 2011, as new types of cataclysm directly linked to the calamities of the Anthropocene, a direct consequence of global warming: each year Japanese records for rainfall and flooding are smashed, which is no doubt the case in neighboring countries as well; typhoons are ever more intense, as are the hurricanes that occur in the Atlantic Ocean, and we are all aware that land is burning all over the world. All of this is typical of the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene. I consider this characterization to be important when providing context for narrative of the Kumano disaster in the first part of the book, in relation to the second part dedicated to the pollution caused by the Ashio mine, which is rooted in the modernity of the 19th century, and marks to some extent the beginning of the Anthropocene era. As Jean-Baptiste Fressoz pointed out in L’apocalypse joyeuse, the issue and awareness of ecological risk were consubstantial with industrialization; with modernity, the risk of ecological disaster was “gladly” accepted everywhere.

With regard to the sabō structures, if I’m correct, it is a technique used to support and reinforce terrain using architectonic framing structures, as if the land is being covered with technological nets (this can be seen for example in the image on pages 140–141). It is impossible not to associate these types of interventions with passages by Heidegger in The Question Concerning Technology, when he speaks of Gestell (the “enframing” of nature)? Here nature is set to one side in a highly paradoxical manner.