One of the most iconic symbols of Japan, cherry blossoms appear across a range of images, from the famous paintings of the nineteenth century Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige, to contemporary manga comics and tattoos. Japanese news media track them as they open each year, from the south of the island to the north, and use this domino effect to illustrate the creeping arrival of spring across the land. The blossoms are the visual and conceptual shorthand for a nation that is simultaneously ancient and utterly modern.
Of course, cherry blossoms are temporal. They last for the shortest time. They burst flashes of spectacular pink and white, and die shortly after. As such are an enduring metaphor for the ephemerality of life, and this transience is a significant part of their appeal.
Oukaranman translates as a burst of cherry blossom. The word is dynamic, it has energy, but suggests also that this energy, while intense, is short-lived. The energy it refers to is a liminal state, locate between the incipience of the bud and the bare, shrivelled stem that is left when the blossom dies.
What is most interesting about this liminal state is that it doesn’t just apply to cherry blossoms. Liminality is a concept that is found in psychology, psychoanalysis, in the sciences of the mind, where it indicates that a person is caught between two worlds, alienated, with no sense of belonging. They are caught, quite literally, betwixt and between. They are in a suspended state, where their physical self is stable and fixed, but their mind is anything but.
Liminality is a psychological condition, but it is so prevalent that it is not a disorder, but a fact of human existence. It manifests itself not just in the mind, but, arguably, in all human activity, and its effects can be traced across a range of phenomena. Our relationship with the past and the future is a liminal one, as we are forever moving through time. We are always caught between incipience and terminus, moving forward and never quite attaining either. The Buddhist emphasis on mindfulness and the present is just one of the many coping strategies humankind has come up with to make the liminality of human existence tolerable. In terms of history, like time for the individual, human civilisation is balanced precariously between the historical and the modern, already historical and always contemporary. In this regard, it is little wonder that there are languages that have no present tense for the verb to be. How can the present be possible, when it is only ever liminal to start with? Man’s relationship with nature is similarly fraught – where does nature end and civilisation begin? Sigmund Freud tells is there are regular skirmishes between these two opposing forces, along a highly disputed border territory, located firmly in the human mind.
So it is with the Oukaranman series of images from the photographer Richard Whitehead. Here, we see the temporality of the blossoms set against the interminable infinity of the sky. Incipience, indeed. Beauty caught in a moment, destined to die, within a perpetual frame The immaterial nature of the blossoms themselves is emphasised by the thick black branches of the trees, their flaws underscored by the appearance of a cloud in an otherwise perfect sky. When juxtaposed against the buildings, the road markings and the traffic lights, we have a sense of the tension between man and his need for civilisation, progress, technology, on the one hand, and the relentlessly uncontrollable rhythms of nature on the other. The conflict that lies at the heart of the human psyche, the endless battle between nature and civilisation, writ large in these images.
The photographs that are not concerned with blossoms are no less insightful in their consideration of the liminal state. People queuing to get up a set of steps while others are queuing to come down suggests a logical Geiger-esque impasse that must be negotiated if any of these people are to continue on their way. And while we may look up at the temporal, deathly magnificence of nature, if we cast our eyes in another direction we see cigarette butts in a puddle, and the grubby impermanence of human activity.
Cherry blossoms may well be a symbol of Japan but the metaphor they embody - and the profound insights into the human condition that this metaphor provides - is what makes their appeal universal. They tell us something about ourselves, and when they appear in a city, or, via the technological medium of photography, in images in an art gallery, our sense of what it is to be human is enriched. We are reminded of our impermanence, and the conflict within us and within our societies that this impermanence engenders as we try to fight against it, through the creation of children and lives as liminal as our own, or else through art and the creation of something that we hope will outlast us. The only guarantee there is, though, is that, every year, the cherry trees bud, bloom and die. The blossoms come and go, just like we do.
Dr Alison Bancroft