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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Furuya Seiichi: "Last Trip to Venice | Letzte Reise nach Venedig" (2002)

When facing the unexpected loss of a loved one, photographs depicting the deceased become invaluable to us left behind. Only then, it seems, we begin to understand what Roland Barthes meant when he posited the magic potency of the photographic medium: its seemingly unique ability to give irrefutable proof of the former existence of its subjects and the power to simulate their presence beyond death. It is indeed difficult not to take Barthes' late ideas on photography, developed in his small 1980 publication La chambre claire. Note sur la photography (Camera Lucida), into consideration when contemplating on the work of Japanese born photographer Furuya Seiichi (b. 1950, in Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture), for it was the tragic death of his wife Christine that led to publications such as Last Trip to Venice | Letzte Reise nach Venedig.

Furuya Seiichi: Last Trip to Venice | Letzte Reise nach Venedig (2002).

In 1973, after finishing his studies at Tokyo College of Photography (now, Tokyo Polytechnic University), Furuya traveled to Europe via Siberia where he initially stayed in Vienna for two years before moving to Graz. There he met his soon to be wife Christine Gössler (b. 1953) in February 1978. They married only three months later. From 1982 to 1984, by now together with their son Komyo Klaus (b. 1981), the young family lived in Vienna so Christine could pursue studying drama. However, at that time she developed first noticeable symptoms of schizophrenia. The illness would soon make it impossible for her to continue her studies and from then on demanded frequent hospitalization.
As of 1984, in addition to his photographic occupation that continuously encompassed documenting his beloved wife and son, Furuya decided to start working as an interpreter and shortly afterwards received a job offer that would lead him and his family first to Dresden and eventually to East-Berlin. It was there that Christine's health condition worsened noticeably. On October 7th, 1985 - the day of the celebration of the 36th anniversary of the former German Democratic Republic - she prematurely ended her life by jumping from the ninth floor of the family's tenement block.

Furuya Seiichi: Last Trip to Venice Letzte Reise nach Venedig (2002).

With that said, it becomes clear why Furuya's self-published book Last Trip to Venice plays a much more significant role within the photographer's oeuvre than its modest size and design may at first sight suggest. It is nothing less than - as the title confirms - a document of the couple's last trip together, more precisely a spontaneous visit to Venice in February 1985, shortly before leaving Austria for East Berlin. In the relatively few photographs depicting among others Christine's hospital in Graz and subsequently their brief stay in Italy's historic town of canals (Furuya shot altogether only two rolls of color transparencies), the photographer confronts the viewer with an arbitrary sequence of street and interior scenes that almost always incorporate his wife as part of the overall composition. Alternatively, Christine enters the picture through association in that Furuya recalls her e.g. in the photograph of a mosaic of the Virgin Mary or a caved woman's head adorning the capital of a white stone pillar. Last Trip to Venice was a sentimental journey. A journey whose destination, as Furuya writes in the book's accompanying text, "did not matter." Confronted with Christine's advanced schizophrenia, the couple was not in search of a lost space but merely a lost time - days spent without the constant notion of the illness and the possible consequences entailed.

Furuya Seiichi: Last Trip to Venice Letzte Reise nach Venedig (2002).

After settling in East-Berlin two months later - Christine had again been hospitalized-, Furuya out of habit started to document his new living environment. This time, however, he accidentally re-used one of the two color transparency films already shot during their recent trip together and in doing so unintentionally created a roll of double-exposures. The results were images of socialist East-Berlin superimposed onto the photographs of Venice including his numerous portraits of Christine. On this double-exposed transparency film the bleak political reality of the former GDR (documented as of May 1985) and the intimate reality of their sentimental journey two months earlier intermingle and result in a strange spatiotemporal paradox. Consequently, the superimposed East-Berlin cityscapes - an environment that Christine at the time her picture was taken had not yet experienced - function as a visual signifier of her tragic fate. Or to put it in Barthes' words: "I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. […] I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred."

Furuya Seiichi: Last Trip to Venice Letzte Reise nach Venedig (2002).

Last Trip to Venice was published in 2002 on the day of Christine's birthday in an edition of 529 copies. It is the fifth book of a total of ten publications dedicated to the memory of Christine, starting with Mémoires (1978-1988) released in 1989. Ever since October 7th, 1985 constant unrest regarding the question of guilt continues to prompt Furuya to rearrange and reassess his photographic work as well as himself. Accordingly, at the end of Last Trip to Venice he asks himself:

"The last trip and her death - meanwhile all this lies 17 years in the past. As I try to filter the single image from the double scenes, my slowly moving eyes come to rest. I close them and wait for words … Is the photographer who hides his face behind these images a man who kept photographing her to drive her to her death?"