To demand the portrait that will be a complete portrait of any person is as futile as to demand that a motion picture be condensed into a single still.–Alfred Stieglitz
The other person is absent as a point of reference but present as an addressee. This strangely warped situation causes an unbearable presence: You are gone (which I lament); you are here (because I am turning to you).–Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse.
The more one blows on a fire trying to put it out, the larger the flame becomes.
One stops blowing. The cold blue of the flame changes to a soft red.
Why is that I tried to extinguish that warm, gentle fire?–Seiichi Furuya, 1996
I wanted to write something about love and madness. About what it is to love when the futility of its expression is felt omnipresently, and how one’s ability to pour love into one so stricken mirrors the futility of love itself. The lover will always find a way to empty love from themselves and into the beloved, and the beloved will always take and take and take.
Is it compassion for something we are powerless to affect that drives love into futile places?
Is it a recognition of our collective vulnerability, a karmic reflection back to us that if we were to be so stricken, there would be someone there to love us unconditionally, to worry over us properly?
Is it just an emotional impulse to try and fix something that is broken?
(Or is it all of these things and more, and words further trying to articulate only mess it up further?)
The phrase stultiferous navis emerged in the middle ages when towns, confronted with a mad contingent, did not know what to make or do with them. Were they senseless and harmless, non-contributing members of society, or were they “touched” by god, therefore to be feared and/or awed? Hedging their bets, the townsmen would collect those so “touched” and load them onto boats that would leave their shores, unmanned. If god wanted them, then he would guide them to safe shores. The townspeople could view themselves as merciful, in that that they did not murder them directly.
Later the mad were isolated, and put into the space of former leper colonies, on the tops of hills–where their screams could not be heard, so distanced from the populous.
Their madness came to be viewed as a moral flaw, a willfulness of spirit that could be driven out by hard work and good examples. The institutions of Tuke and Pinel in the 18th and 19th centuries reflected back these beliefs.
Now, in the 21st century, we think we know that so-called-madness is chemical. We scoff at the notion of humoral pathology, wandering wombs and inherent moral flaws. We know that neurons misfire, that parts of the brain don’t receive enough serotonin, that we can mix together cocktails of things and with enough tinkering, nearly anyone can be made “well.”
Seiichi Furuya was a man haunted by an emotionally deficient past. his younger brother was left permanently mentally ill due to a childhood fever, and institutionalized for life. One night he was pinned under the chassis of a car because of the drunk driving of his father. He moved away from his native japan and settled in Austria, where he met the woman who would become his wife, Christine Gössler.
Christine had been through emotionally trying times as well. The year prior, her betrothed had called off their engagement, and she had plunged into a suicidal depression. In an effort to extricate herself, she had slit both her wrists and her neck, the reasons behind which she did not tell Furuya until years later.
Two wounded and circumspect found one another and buoyed each other’s spirits. Furuya began photographing her immediately, she became the center of his eye, and of his “I.”
If you consider the taking of photographs to be in a sense a matter of fixing time and space, then this work–the documenting of the life of one human being–is exceptionally thrilling…in facing her, in photographing her, and looking at her in photographs, I also see and discover “myself.”–seiichi furuya, 1979
The above words were written for the catalog of a show Furuya had exhibiting the images he had made of Christine over the first year they had known one another. later, of this same writing, he added:
…Rereading the translation again and again I feel uncomfortable, I find it somewhat difficult to believe that it is something I myself wrote. Since my proficiency in German at that time did not allow me to write it properly, Christine, herself the subject of the essay, corrected it for me, and this is probably the source of my irritation. Or perhaps it is due to the eighteen years that have passed.
His tone is cynical, like someone who has been overextended and who has fulfilled far too many uncomfortable requests.
Seiichi Furuya and Christine Gössler would soon marry, and they would later have a child, Komyo. Throughout their seven years together, Christine would plunge in and out of depressions and psychiatric institutions. And one Sunday in October of 1985, she would jump to her death from the 9th floor of their apartment building in East Berlin. Furuya photographed her throughout, to the very end. And this faithful and macabre portrait making would become his artistic and philosophical project.
Is death the manner through which others love?
I do not understand those for whom suicide and death is a great seducer…
What is it to be guided by a death-impulse (wish fulfillment) throughout one’s life, and what is it to be one in close proximity to it?
In an essay to the exhibition catalog of A Model Wife, Arthur Ollman writes:
She occupies the center of most of the pictures. Slowly and intermittently, over time, her intensity, seriousness, and depression emerge. The pictures, even the most pained, are shot intimately and at close range. Furuya’s distance to his subject is the physical distance of trusted family. This, then, becomes our viewing distance as well, and often it seems too close.
What if you believe that the greatest thing you can know–that can be known–is precisely what you cannot–that which is alien and final and unknowable–death itself?
How does one who loves someone else who is intoxicated–obsessed–with the idea of of their own death–how is that imbalance of drives and values ever reconciled? Do we pity the one who dies or the one left with loss (the one who was always left with loss–even when in the presence of the loved one–loss is ever present)?
Some time past noon on October 7, while she was supposed to be preparing lunch, Christine disappeared. While the parade commemorating the thirty-sixth anniversary of the founding of East Germany was being broadcast, and which I was taking photographs of while also watching after Komyo, I had a bad premonition. I hurried down the hall to the bedroom facing the living room but did not find her. The door to the flat was half open. Running out of our fourth floor flat, I immediately headed for the ninth floor. As I was running up the stairs I heard a dull thud. It sounded like a bag of cement hitting the ground. The ninth floor was inaccessible from outside, but there was a connecting passageway which enabled one to come and go between the neighboring residences…one time, muttering to herself, and perhaps making an appeal to me in a moment of crisis, she had said, “If you jumped from here, you’d definitely die, wouldn’t you?” I couldn’t help but recall that scene, and the sound I had just heard a moment before, when I discovered a familiar pair of rubber sandals at the flung open window. “Ko-chan. Mama ist tot.” “Papa, has du mama gettet?” “Ja.” There is no way of knowing whether Komyo remembers that conversation. To this day I have regretted saying, “I killed her.”–Christine Furuya-Gössler Memoires, 1978-1985
…One after the other the images–one of the day we flew to Japan; of our wedding ceremony in Izu; of her ecstatically smiling face when she drew the best fortune at Izumotaisha shrine–appear and disappear. As I rapidly retrace the past, my memory becomes confused and fatigued and starting to blame myself, I gradually return to myself…by blaming myself i can find absolution. My awareness of my need to save myself probably comes from this idea.
I first came to Seiichi Furuya through his most famous image, the contact sheet that shows his wife’s suicide, or more precisely, shows him showing us his wife’s suicide. And then coming to him through all the questions which follow such a fantastically passive event. Is it mediation? Astonishment? A need to rely on something normal or everyday in order to understand, or assimilate, something unfathomable and out of time? Stop time in order to stop life from happening at that very moment?
And then there is this question: what is he trying to get at in exhibiting these final contact sheets? In mediating that moment amongst the others, mixing frames, choosing one version over another–what does an educated eye do when it looks at a contact sheet if not the most automatic of all things: it edits.
I have been reluctant to post on this photographer since I first knew I wanted to write about him. Because to write is to reflect, to know yourself through that which you ingest and infer, and the issues at hand in Furuya’s pscyho-biography and his philosophical boundary conditions are delicate and emotional ones. It is not that his photographs are the most artfully seen, or those most representative of an era’s way of seeing. It is that his photographs are both an image of a wound and its excision, that they are a compulsive need to live with and to exorcise the presence of something the photographer does not understand, cannot ultimately help to cure and is utterly terrified of living without. What would occur were Furuya to burn his hundreds of pictures of Christine, his thousands of negatives? Would he feel release or would it be unrecoverable loss? What does it mean to tie your identity as an artist to a memento mori project on your dead wife? What if all you have to hold on to memory and feeling is your connection to this loss, this absence and lack, and to divest yourself of it is a kind of personal heresy?
What I find myself most drawn to in my investigation of love, loss, Japanese photographers and eastern aesthetics in general is that the work often asks more questions than it answers. That there are fewer initial biases or prejudices to confirm, and that you as the viewer are often in the same uncomfortable, unknowable space as the photographer, and further: that there are no apologies tendered for the questions which fall in empty air, or the discomfort felt between the book and your hands, or the image on the gallery wall and the place between you and it.