In an age where Satnav offers a guiding light through places unknown, and Google Street View reduces us all to that tiny orange man, it’s easy to assume that the thrills of individual exploration have been lost to a universalised perspective. The comprehensive, digital nature of modern mapping not only leaves little to the imagination in its uniform presentation, but also serves as an uninspiring reminder that there are few original pleasures left to find. Early cartographers weren’t just mapmakers, but pioneers of discovery who took it upon themselves to understand their surroundings in minute detail. Thanks to the convenience-led digital age, it’s now easier than ever to navigate the city (or indeed any) space, but perhaps with a simplicity that is an injustice to our complex environments.
Japanese photographer Sohei Nishino has sought to reimagine the urban landscape through his work, encouraging us to look at our cities from a new vantage point through his blend of artistry and photography. What began as a university project quickly turned Nishino into a huge international success: currently represented in the UK by the Michael Hoppen Gallery, the photographer’s Diorama series was featured at the Saatchi Gallery’s Out of Focus exhibition last year, and has received notable acclaim worldwide.
More recently, the entire 13 works in the series were shown together for the first time at The Foundation of Vevey photography festival in Switzerland.
His process is as important as the work itself: Nishino wanders through the chosen city on foot, taking hundreds of photographs along the way. He later arranges the prints according to the memory of his journey, forming a vast yet incredibly detailed black and white collage. The desire to capture urban spaces in this way has taken him from his college home of Osaka to iconic cities the world over.
On one level, the work recalls the sheer scale of human endeavour that cartography demands. Nishino’s process is a painstaking one, mimicking the technique of 19th Century cartographer Ino Tadataka, who mapped Japan by surveying the land on foot over a period of seventeen years. Although Nishino executes each project with precision, he does not strive for accuracy – in fact, his purpose is quite the opposite. His ‘maps’ resemble something more like a ten-thousand piece jigsaw incorrectly put together, simultaneously aerial and oblique in appearance. Despite the high level of detail, there is something almost wild about each composition, with famous monuments positioned incongruously in unexpected places, and whole cities turned into oddly shaped islands surrounded by sea and sky.
Nishino goes beyond merely refreshing the visual satisfaction that old maps provide. His process reveals well-trodden physical surroundings that remain psychologically unexplored. In the Diorama series, every piece prioritises a mental conception of the city rather than the actual lay of the land through a kind of photographic impressionism. Though they are instantly recognisable, each collage is idiosyncratic and slightly irrational, an effect that seems to echo the experience of city living, where myriad worlds collide; a multitude of faces and architectural styles, the moneyed and the poverty-stricken, all mingle together in cramped quarters. We become accustomed to these discordant collisions, passing them by every day as they blend into – and come to inform – our sense of normality. Nishino’s work reminds us that on an infinite number of levels, cities are peculiar, where chaos is the norm.
Nishino’s signature style remains constant throughout the series. But where online maps present an unbiased version of the world seen through non-discriminatory satellite eyes, Nishino’s layered, surreal visions are founded on idiosyncrasies of the subjective experience. His process is inseparable from memory and personalised discovery, as each photo builds a human connection with the environment influenced by the people he meets, the voices he hears, and what happens to him along the way. We can also partially relate to these places, but they are simultaneously strange because we are viewing one person’s vision, something only the artist himself can fully understand at the time of composition.
Nishino’s work beckons us to rethink the ways in which we interact with our cities: perhaps technology can even facilitate a more creative and less convenience-led understanding of the urban environment, as apps such as Serendiptor seem to try to suggest (although they actually supply the user with even more parameters). With or without smartphones, it’s the music we’ve heard, the art we’ve seen, the people we’ve encountered that bring shape to our own city map – it is a mental scrapbook which builds the more time we spend there. Places that were once forgotten often become significant when they are revisited, as the cold bricks and mortar hold memories we didn’t even realise we had. These are the things that validate our conception of the city, and it’s quite an overwhelming thought to realise that this varies infinitely from person to person. Nishino’s work shows us that there is room for unique versions of routes well-trodden.
I was fortunate enough to interview Sohei Nishino for The New Wolf’s recent publication, New Cartography. In it, he describes more about his process, the inspiration behind his work, and muses on how we seek to understand the urban space.