Sphinx

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 (http://vimeo.com/32789388) . 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?

 

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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.

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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?

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ImageImages: Carina Fearnley

Hogback

Geologists are detectives of deep time, tracking the formation of the earth to construct a history. In order to understand the past, uniformitarism embraces the concept that ‘the present is the key to the past’ as popularised by Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology in 1830. These gradual changes can be found, subtly in rocks, not just in the rock itself, but in understanding its relationship with other rocks, and what interactions they have had with the environment. More recently there has been growing opposition to this idea supported by as Stephen Jay Gould through the concept of catastrophism: that Earth was shaped by a series of sudden, short-lived,violent events. As a consequence there is a need to combine these perspectives, seeing Earth’s history as a slow process, punctuated by natural catastrophic events that have often had significant impacts on Earth and its life forms.

The ability to see through the magnifying glass of deep time provides a deep respect and need to engage with rocks. In the field geologists are often seen making sense of the geology by touching, tasting, smashing, and dissecting rocks. There is a deep connection with this object that many see as just ‘rock’. It is therefore no surprise that I was rather excited about touching the rock of Hashima, the bedrock that brought people to the island in the first place. However, after a couple of hours on the island and desperately trying to see where I could find even just a natural outcrop, let alone touch the rock, I was feeling disconnected to the land I walked on. From what I could see the whole outcrop was clad in netting, concrete, walls, and plant life. I asked Sakamoto, ‘is there anywhere on the island where you can touch the rock and see it in its natural form?’ He struggled to understand, Brian had to repeat the question a few times. It was almost like the idea of touching the natural rock did not exist in Sakamoto’s memory; why would there be a need to?

There was indeed very little opportunity to engage with the limited natural environmental of the island. The odd outcrop poked out in awkward building corners, dark, unloved, and overlooked by the rest of the group that always moved on. These outcrops, as pathetic as they were for geological investigation, gave me the ability to touch, engage, and connect to something grounded. Odd rocks strewn across the island provided a peep-hole into the deformation of the coal below, and the ability to feel the waxy, dark, smothering texture of the Hashima-tan.

Perhaps a catastrophic event of Hashima is that its people lost their connection with the very material that brought them there; an island clad, armored above ground, with exposure only through its inside.  It seemed people were always looking out, above, or away, using the original rock only as a spine to support itself.Image

Photo: Carina Fearnley

after the future

Today we are in Kagoshima meeting with UNESCO representatives interested in lobbying for former Japanese industrial sites to be granted world heritage status. Hashima, of course, is one of the sites. It will be interesting to hear what their view of heritage on Hashima is, and should be.

My own view – and this seems to be shared by many in Nagasaki, both consciously and unconsciously – is that island should be left as a monument to entropy, an ecological monument that would at once provide a critique of the folly of past industrial practices and hold out hope for a different future, a future where human beings are no longer considered as ‘lords and masters of the universe’.

In the entropic ruins of Hashima, all sorts of flora and fauna are beginning to emerge, and the kites from the mainland have started to return. The island buzzes with the sound of cicadas. I was shocked by how green it was.

Contrast this with Greenless Island, the English title of a Japanese movie set on Hashima in the 1950s. The film stock has been lost, apparently, but we saw some stills from it in the small museum to Gunkanjima that we visited on Monday. From the little I saw of it, the film looked like a social realist tragedy, a story of doomed love. Brian thought that there would be no happy ending.

Contrast this too with the melancholic black and whiteness of all those beautifully sad images of Hashima, ruin porn.

In the train trips between destinations, I have been reading Franco Berardi’s collection of essays After the Future. It’s a sobering book, full of pessimistic and complex insights; one of which is found in his critique of the narcissistic mindset that operates in political activism. For Berardi, whose history was – and still is – bound up with various forms of activist politics in Italy and France, activism hides depression, and is prey to what Lauren Berlant, in a very different context, has called ‘cruel optimism’. Against activism, Berardi argues for passivity and disconnection, in unplugging and refusing. His politics, then, could be a called a politics of enjoyment, a politics where hope (which is always futural) gives ground to pleasure (which is of the now). Bartelby, the strange, passive hero of Herman Melville’s novel Bartelby the Scrivener comes to mind. But then I am reminded too of Bartelby’s sad fate in the poor house…

In After the Future, there’s a very interesting moment where Berardi references Baudrillard’s The Transparency of Evil, and uses the image – it’s a cosmic image – of debt circling the earth like a meteor shower. Since the financial crisis of 2008, the meteor shower has hit the earth.

What fascinates me here is how metaphors of natural history are increasingly used to speak about human history, as if the two are now inseparable, and needed to be treated simultaneously. In a sense, this is the core of Berardi’s book, and it explains his interest in passivity and pleasure, in abandoning the activist drive to create future scenarios, to defer pleasure for an image that we are castigated into labouring for. Berardi wants us to give up on the future – or at least the twentieth century idea of it – and to ‘exalt tenderness, sleep, and ecstasy, the frugality of needs and the pleasures of the senses’.

More or less eighteen months after the Club of Rome published the influential text The Limits to Growth and Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen The Entropy Law and the Economic Process, Hashima island was being abandoned in the hope of continuing the Japanese economic miracle…a mere stay of execution…the transfer from coal to oil….a different type of fossil fuel.

How do we create a monument to that? A monument to a future that has passed?

Floating Fern

In December 1963, Hidekuni Matsuo visited the Hashima Colliery in the hunt for lifeforms; ancient ones. Deep in the Mitsuse Prospecting Pit, and accompanied by Mr Arimatsu of the Mitsubishi Corporation, he discovered the 2nd oldest record in Asia of the genus Salvinia in the family Salviniaceae; a floating fern. He observes that ‘the Cretaceous Salvinia was found in the grey silty shale layer containing many pyritised nodules’. Named Salvinia Mitsusense, this newly discovered species was:

‘Laminae lack apex and base: striate punctuate characters, margin entire: 11.4mm in length and 6.2mm in width. Midnerve rather thick and distinct; lateral nerves 16 in number, form an archeid at angle of 60°. Archied fine but distinctly impressed, commonly forming 4-5 regular hexagonal or pentagonal meshes. Impressions of tubercles or spines rather large. Usually one to each mesh.’

It is thought that this species, found under Hashima, grew in a bituminous bog from the late period of the Cretaceous (100.5–66 Ma). The later species of Salvinia,  Palaeogene (66-23.03 Ma) and Neocene (23.03-2.588 Ma), are likely derived from this ancestor. This discovery also implies that deep coal mining in Hashima went through deep time right back to the Cretaceous, with perhaps an unconformity (no record of deposits between some of the older deposits ages). Under this lies greenschist rocks that form the basement (541-252.2 Ma).

ImageUndersurface of the new species, Salvinia Mitsusense.

Reference: Matsuo, Hidekuni, 1967. A Cretaceous Salvinia from the Hashima Is. (GUNKAN-JIMA), outside of the Nagasaki Harbour, West Kyushu, Japan. Trans. Proc. Palaeont. Soc. Japan, N.S., No. 66. pp.49-55.