The Time that is Hashima (1)

To think of Hashima as a ruin is, perhaps, to locate it outside of the modernist progress of time embodied in the rise of Mitsubishi, the growth of Nagasaki Prefecture as an economic hub, the stocking of Japan’s imperial navy, and the fuelling of the country’s Meiji Restoration. Hashima seems to signify an oppositional moment to this tempus, as the quickening rhythms of production and reproduction stutter and finally unravel into a chaotic ensemble of materials and forces that exude a ‘stillness,’ or imperviousness to time passing. The proffered tourist encounter with Hashima, wherein a guide explains daily life on the island, and the careful carving of metric time here as well as space, becomes a matter of recalling, and marking, a trajectory that, now, will never be realised. We are called to witness a ‘lost hope’ for a modern Japan, wherein it succeeded in bringing forth a new, Pacific-centred, world order. Nagasaki Prefecture becomes the site of this other Japan’s birth and death.

Current efforts to ‘conserve’ Hashima as part of a broader landscape of production, and associated avant garde architectures, would seem to confirm this setting aside of an imperialist tempus. Such historical stratagems put the dead in their place. What is more, the allure of haikyo (manifest in visions of a deathtopia), would appear to build on Hashima as a prudent lesson for proponents of present rhetorics of progress, as Japan’s economic bubble continues to dissipate. To encounter Hashima as ruin is to become dis-located from, and to mourn for, the fragile tempus we are remembered, and anticipated, within. As Carl has intimated, this encounter itself becomes dis-located, dream-like; it exists, in part, as a form of collective remembering that requires prompts, autocues, and moments of slippage between the now and then.

Yet, does not an imperial temporality itself rely upon such dis-locations? A renewal of time, again and again? For David Harvey, creative destruction is (he rightly observes) a spatial ‘fix’ for extant and emerging falls in profitability. So too the ruin is a site of creative destruction, offering up times future. The ruin becomes here the symbol not of death and decline – the sublime ‘Fall of Empire’ — but of a contingent and adaptive tempus that enfolds stillness into irruptions, revolutions, gentrifications, and rapidly extending presents.

For me, this renewal of time is interesting not because it is predicated on, or resists, death. This anthropo-centric framing of temporality has been much discussed elsewhere. Rather, I’m interested in,

(1)    The spatio-temporal displacements that allow for a rhythmic production/reproduction to occur in sites such as Hashima;

(2)    How such temporalities are read through an extant natural history. (And here I would reference Walter Benjamin on the German baroque and petrified landscapes, as well as Achille Mbembe and Janet Roitman’s essay ‘Figures of the Subject in Times of Crisis.’);

(3)    How such temporalities rub up against, and are enfolded within, what we might call ‘earth times’ of subduction and weathering, fracturing and corrosion; temporalities of the past, present and future that are the concern of earth scientists (or, as Carina has termed them, earth detectives), but which are all too often subsumed or dismissed by historians. (Here, I would reference the work of Deleuze, of course, on the dynamic between a Chronos and the Aion, as well as de Landa on time. But also the speculative realists, who have so much to say about an inhuman cosmos, and the feminist material philosophers, who reach between the quantum and the flesh.) And;

(4)   How ruination itself both inhabits and exceeds its denotation as a modern, Western topoi.

The Night Sky – On Hashima

I was just reflecting on last nights meteor shower here in the UK and thinking of my friend Dan Roach, sitting in his back yard at 2am in his dressing gown and wellington boots, looking up at the sky and …

The Night Sky – On Hashima

One student, influenced by the planetarium, took to the concrete roof tops to star gaze. She saw; the fading ember of the sub-horizon sun. As the sky darkened she saw, towards the south, a blurred patch – the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring irregular galaxy moving through interstellar space, it is, in subtle ways, affected by her own galaxy. In a quantum gravitational scale we attract that same dust, that gas, that mass of stars. Our student of the sky saw; Sagittarius, the Southern Cross, Scorpious and Corvus (the Crow). Perhaps most compelling is the thing she saw unawares – that part of the sky, which contained the galactic centre of her own galaxy. It looked like nothing. A patch of sky like any other. Penetrating deeper, she witnessed a group of stars orbiting an empty point in time and space. These were not in the realm of normal stellar orbits. These colossal balls of burning hydrogen were catapulted around at a rate of weeks and days. She saw them piroutte around the singularity that anchored all that existed in the Milky Way. They careered, hell for leather, through the void in space, hurtling around the super-massive black hole, who’s maws gaped, signifying the end of space time and everything. This when the smog lifted and the sky was clear.

Lee Hassall


8. 8.13

Lee has left us today. He’s flown back a day early.

What I have found most interesting about this project is not so much the sharing of disciplinary approaches – although that has certainly been enlightening and provocative – but rather that the experience of fieldwork, the doing, the experiment, that we all engaged in on Hashima island a week or so ago, has now come to exist as a kind of collective memory – a membrane – that connects, corrects and keeps evolving (see the Performance Research edition On Fieldwork, eds Daniels, Pearson, Roms)

I was tempted to write ‘self-regulating’ above, but that would have been a mistake, for to use such a word would imply that there was an endpoint, a balance to the process, a moment of pure homeostasis or regulatory autopoesis. On the contrary, everything appears unpredictable, chancy, contingent, disruptive, dependent on an uncontrollable outside.

In this respect, my experience of Hashima is indissociable from the play, or rather the eruption, of involuntary memory – a type of memory that is occasioned, ostensibly, by luck. Who can tell what encounter will allow such a memory to emerge? Indeed it could be said that Hashima is like a ruin, a shipwreck in my own mind, an image that has been covered over and hidden by subsequent waves of perception and sensation. The only way to reveal the ruined shipwreck,  is through an involuntary shock of some sort or other. We could also see this in terms of being touched.

Importantly – and here I borrow from Gaston Bachelard as well as the German choreographer Michael Klien – this shock, this touch, is always material, a matter of matter, so to speak. The more intense the feeling, the more acute the memory.

Here in the Kyu-Shiba-Rikyu Gardens in an unfashionable and largely banal district of Tokyo, the sculpted shapes and theatrical placements of water, trees and stones produce a different type of thinking, a green wind thinking.

And as things slow….I start to remember Hashima….to reflect on it, to take it somewhere else, to take it on a journey with me.

Now I know – at least for the moment – why I was always interested in responding to Hashima as a phantom, and not simply as a ghost. For where the ghost ties us to human history, the phantom is conjured by an encounter with matter, which, in turn, produces a virtuality that points towards a new horizon, an horizon allows us to get beyond the ‘permanence’ of the ruin, its staggered but redemptive temporality, and instead to practise a different future in the now.


In this blog, Hashima has been thought of, again and again, as palimpsest, a dense layering of different temporalities, landscapes and images merging and overlapping with each other.

Walter Benjamin, arguably the greatest thinker of ruins there has been, would undoubtedly see Hashima as a kind of constellation.

Yesterday, while making his film for the AHRC scheme, Lee asked to us to imagine Hashima in terms of a single image – I think the question was: What do you see when you think about Hashima? – in response, I suggested that I saw it as a Sphinx.

For me, Hashima is like a Sphinx because every time I get close to it, it disappears – it exists as a riddle, a provocation to the imagination, a shock to thought.

Hashima as Zen Garden

Tokyo, Shinjuku

Just been watching the French architect Murielle Hladik giving a talk on time in Japanese aesthetics on Vimio ( . She’s arguing that the Japanese Zen Garden is rooted in a dual aesthetics of absence and transcience. So the absence of water in a Zen Garden, its minimalist commitment to dry rock, is intended to evoke its opposite: namely, the flow of liquid – waterfalls, waves, floating islands. Hladik discusses this evocative aesthetic in terms of ghosts. She also suggests – and this is the central argument of her 2008 publication Traces et fragments dans l’esthétique japonaise – that gardens in Japan are intended to show the passing of time, the weathering play – the elemental performance – of erosion. In keeping with the thinking of Zen, the point of this weathered disclosure, for Hladik, is to allow for a meditation on the essential transcience of existence, to show that everything solid is founded on a void, an abyss.

In these terms, Hashima might then be figured as a type of Zen Garden, a huge, grey ruin that points to the vanity of human existence, the restless play of le temps qui passe. In this aesthetics, Hashima would be a monument to temporality, deliquesence, and nothingness. As such, and this way of thinking invests, of course, in the paradoxical logic of Zen, the best way to care for Hashima would be to see it swallowed up by the sea, to permit the rock to return to rock. That way, we would be left with the solidity of an image, an image that wouldn’t fade, that would stay in the memory forever, perhaps. This archive would not be an archive of things; rather, it would be a virtual archive, a phantom archive, an archive where what is is haunted by what is not, where presence and absence finds themselves in a perpetual game. Is this, I wonder why my physical encounter with Hashima is increasingly figured in terms of an encounter with children, those kids who played baseball on rooftops overlooking the ocean, gazing out at the water? If it is, then the ruin of Hashima, its death, if you will, is inseperable from a meditation on the vitality, the open-endness, of childhood. Perhaps, too, this is why I can’t help but see Hashima as a fading relic that is inherently futural, that points forward to what will been.

As I continue to reflect on the children of Hashima, I am astonished by their ability to concentrate on the games they played, when everything – the waves, wind, the glint of sunlight on water – was undoubtedly pulling them elsewhere, outwards, away, to the sea.

I note that the performance theorist Allen K Weiss has a forthcoming book on Zen Gardens – it will be published next month.

Remembering a Hashima Route

Today we spent some time recreating our route through Hashima. Already we struggle to note down on a map which direction we took. We constantly refer back to the photos taken at the time, scrutinising the contents for an indication of which building we walked alongside, or in. We circle some parts in black biro pen, These are the places where photos no longer give us a foothold, and we have to negotiate our memories of stepping around corners, and gazing across rooves. Finally, one of us says yes, I remember, we stood there, we saw that. And the rest of us remember.

Without the photos, our embodied memories would have no shared reference point. How does our guide Sakamoto navigate the island? How does his body remember a route?



A tale of two islands

I asked the taxi driver what the pile of bags were that lay beside the volcano signs that I had seen scattered around the island of Sakurajima. ‘Ash’ he said. These are bags of ash that the locals sweep up after an event to keep the island clear / clean. At one observation point on our trip around Sakurajima we saw a man in gloves and mask sweeping the ash from the steps. Mark said in Japanese, ‘This must be an endless task’. The man laughed. As we walked the ash was everywhere; like footsteps imprinted on grey snow, ash in the air, ash getting between my teeth. The ash sat heavily on the plants under the plume that puffed for us that day. It came out in mini pulses / explosions. But what were to happen if no one swept the island?

Sakurijima, like Hashima, is the result of powerful natural forces. The subducting Pacific Plate plummets under the Eurasia plate and through the recycling process of plate tectonics it melts, merging with the basement rocks of Japan, and then balloons upwards, erupting out at the surface. The plate here is thin and hot, and there are many excretion points (volcanoes) where the recycled plate emerges. Westward is the site of extension and contraction between West Kyushu and the Eurasian and Philippine plates that thrust the ocean sediments above sea level to form Hashima.

Tourism circled the volcano, with many observation platforms, memorials, and museums, each attempting to provide a sense of the earth’s deep history and the cataclysmic events on Sakajurima. The island had a cataclysmic eruption that created a caldera 17km by 23km, 22,000 years ago. The ruin of this massive volcanic eruption can be traced from the harbor at Kagoshima out to the sea.  13,000 years ago another large eruption created another extension to the harbor, smoothing the waters above.

Whilst Sakurajima has 100s of eruptions a year, creating an almost constant plume of ash, punctuated by large scale events, Hashima is slowly being eroded by typhoons, wind, and wave action. The people living and working on Hashima also constantly swept up the coal and concrete dust, sand and rocks that swept over the island. This too would have been an endless task, punctuated by large-scale breaches of the sea wall that would require significant clearing and patching. Where does all this dust now go? To the sea? To new shores?

The residents of Sakurajima slowly conserve the extant landscape. If this island were abandoned, it would be buried, preserved, like Pompeii, a place of memory and archeology. Perhaps the allure of Hashima comes from the fact that, as Lee noted earlier, it is performing its own inhuman archeology, uncovering itself each day.



Images: Carina Fearnley

Essential Saltes

We gathered a small quantity of dust from a sheltered corner of a room at the top of Hell’s Staircase. An initial analysis from the portable spectrometer seems to indicate that the material is composed of: 65% organic material, including skin cells, insect feces, pollen and other plant material; and 35% concrete dust. 

Could it be possible that here lay the mortal relics of modernity; snatched by supreme ghouls from crypts where the world thought them safe, and subject to the beck and call of madmen who sought to drain their knowledge for some still wilder end whose ultimate effect would concern all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe?


ImageImages: Carina Fearnley