John Sypal: Sacred Places
Thu 12 May 2005
John’s Sacred Places meditates on the place of the sacred in everyday life. The photographs are of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples—half-hidden behind walls, tucked between buildings, adjacent to street traffic—in Japan.
He writes on the series:
The subject matter, holy or sacred places, is loaded with chances to be overly poetic, nostalgic and trite. I want to get away from anything that is less than a clear vision of how these places fit in to the landscape—both the physical one and the mental model of one that we all have.
The photographs do not give us a clear impression of what these shrines look like on their own, but instead show them inseparably embedded in a context. They challenge us to delineate precisely between the secular and the sacred, to draw a perfect circle isolating these shrines and temples from telephone wires, people, hedges, and cars. John’s work reveals this task to be impossible. The shrine does not exist ideally on its own, but is instead a feature of the total landscape.
Enshrined in these structures are the kami (神). Thomas P. Kasulis has noted that sacred presence is a better translation of this Japanese word, which is usually rendered as god. Both natural things, like Mt. Fuji or an old tree, and man-made artifacts can be kami. The kami is not some mystical, invisible spirit or force residing inside the object, but is the object itself. Mt. Fuji is the kami. The sacred in Shinto does not exist independently, but is dependent on standing in relation with man to come into being. This is quite different from a conception of God based on the apophatic theology of Orthodox Christianity.
Presented “realistically” in the medium of photography, Sacred Places points to this role of the observer in bringing about a relation to the sacred. We see what John sees through the camera. The small details creep up: a parking sign and a bicycle stopped casually by the wall, a vacant lot abutting the shrine, a storefront window.
My understanding is that this series is a work in progress, and I encourage the artist to keep working along this theme. The strongest pictures in the series are Kitasenju #1 and #2, and Omotesando #1. These three photographs best show the shrines enmeshed in their environment while also being strong compositionally. I find the “Winogrand tilt” in Kitamatsudo #1 distracting; slightly less so in Kitasenju #4. Likewise, the presence of the photographer in Kamihongo #2 is unnecessary, since he is implicitly included as a viewer of, and is thus reflected in, all the other pictures. (A shrine or temple reflected in a traffic mirror might be another angle to try here).
Sacred Places prompts me to think about the role of the sacred in my own life. For much of my life, I had dismissed the sacred as an imaginary or useless concept. I have since realized that all experience is a real feature of the universe. You can’t separate out what is “inside your head” from the rest of existence. The religious demand as an aspect of humanity cannot be ignored.
Martin Buber exhorts us to not live a life that’s “sixth sevenths drab” (Walter Kaufmann, I and You: A Prologue in Buber’s I and Thou). But how? John Sypal’s photography is a good place to start.