Yuka, the Forest and Us

A natural disaster is incomprehensible in scale, horror, power and effect, unless you stand in its presence. The photographs and videos we are so used to will always be inadequate as meaningful translations; exacerbated when they are squashed into omnipresent screens, unable to become anything more than aestheticised pixels for us to consume before swiping onwards. We look upon these photographs in fleeting moments of amazement and terror in the safety of our homes, offices, parks and cafes; we have become passive onlookers that are happy to be dazzled by spectacle as long as we can’t see it from our window. This exhaustive bombardment does little to create empathy and action. Instead it drives in the opposite direction, embedding a passivity that we happily assume whilst the world starts to perish elsewhere.

It isn’t just the number of inadequate representations of these issues that deafens a discourse whose gravity can never be overstated, or how we absorb them, but also how dominating visual codes have moulded our perception of climate change into a narrow, exotic phenomenon. Wildfires, melting ice, parched lands razed of trees, boundless areas of oil boring infrastructure and malnourished animals are all distressing reminders, yet it seems difficult to locate the purpose they truly serve. Are they there to actually facilitate thought and action or are they just part of a discreet system of disaster capitalism? At times, the abuse of such sensitive material seems blatant whilst at others, unmerited cynicism feels more likely. What does feel certain is that today we see more and less simultaneously, blinded by the suffering of others whilst our capacity for attention is continually eroded. What makes the representation of climate change even more problematic is that it is violent in a way that falls outside of the conventional parameters of the term. Stretched over time and space it wrestles to be acknowledged as an immediate need, resulting in a cascade of destruction that is understood as something to be dealt with, but not today. How can we sufficiently convey the severity of such a violence, and communicate how this trauma is amplified by an ideology of neoliberalism that is seldom confronted?

Our lives in the West are evidently powered by a paradigm of speed, but perhaps it is time to slow down. Yuka & The Forest by Lena C. Emery appears to do this. In the artist’s second book, we are introduced to the forests of Japan, more specifically those termed chinju no mori (sacred forests surrounding Shinto shrines). The book opens with a story written in the first person by Emery, poetically narrating a meditative walk that the photographs later illustrate. It is vivid, sensual prose that instills tranquility of mind, where talk of clouds as gentle giants, morning bird trills, tree spirits inhabiting twisting Japanese tree trunks and instances of meaningful touch between human and nature populate the passage. Importantly, Emery opts to at times uses Japanese words, melding her western thoughts with traditional language to underscore Japan’s harmonious relationship with nature whilst accentuating the remaining dichotomies between the East and West. In the West we are conditioned to consume, the forests around us identified, labelled and deconstructed as inanimate resources, a model of thought that conceals the harm it causes ourselves and the wider world. Yet Japan’s collective psyche towards the spiritual, psychological, medical and cultural value of the land has enabled them to preserve monumental areas of earth in its natural state. Because the preface echoes the visual narrative to come, it grounds us in the ideas that the work ultimately revolves around. It’s a precursor to the importance that Emery puts on the world.

The photographs of Yuka & The Forest lead us now on the more familiar walk; starting in a house adorned by traditional tatami (traditional Japanese matting) and situated in a remote rural village, hushed photographs that refuse hyperbole through their tender tonality and ostensible detachment then meander on roads upwards towards a world which is engulfed by serenity. Settlements are left behind, replaced by dense swathes of trees. Here we stay for a while, bathing in contemplation where we can reflect on the earth as a living entity. Crucially however, the latter photographs move away from pristine vistas to landscapes of felled land that increasingly dominate the frame, functioning as a somber reminder of the realities of today and a shrewd ending to the book. In fact, there are very few photographs in the book where there is no trace of human life. It’s not that Emery believes Japan offers a utopian vision where the land is left wholly untouched, and it would be naively romantic to convey it as such, but the book does show a place that is some distance from the entrenched view of humans as subject and the world as an object, and offers a renewed perception of symbiosis.

Yuka, who is placed sporadically throughout the book is a curious protagonist. Sat either half-clothed on the edge of a bath or with her face pressed against rain tickled windows, she is as beautiful and as quiet as the landscapes around her, photographed with the same sensual sensibility which tempts a reading of spiritual connection between her and Gaia. There is, however, an enigma present within Yuka. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes unnerving that she remains confined behind glass, casting increasingly anxious looks towards the mountains. Along with the restrained tones that earlier on only seemed soothing, there is a transition to the underlying darkness of a troubling dream. Her role becomes even more elusive when the preface that Emery narrates in the first person seems to coalesce the two women towards a shared identity and it becomes somewhat uncertain who (including us) is experiencing what. Are we the intended subject of this earnest meditation, or is Yuka, or Emery? Or are we all being asked to think? Perhaps it doesn’t matter what the answer is as long as someone is thinking.

Yuka & The Forest is a narrative in slow motion; there is a tension between the sedate pace of the book and the frantic pace we are used to consuming these conversations. In the battle of representation, Emery has returned to a place that is quieter, somewhere a little less painful but at the same time doesn’t let us forget the dark weight that is pressing down on the world. It would be contrived to criticise the book for its heady aesthetics and to state that such a demanding discourse requires a more drastic frame. We don’t need to be shown more photographs of ceaseless destruction, we are too familiar with that. What we do need is more sincere and truly beautiful reminders like this.