Tomoko Yoneda. History and Memory

The Tomoko Yoneda exhibition – presented by Fundación MAPFRE at its Recoletos halls in Madrid between February 9 and May 9, 2021 – is the first comprehensive overview in Spain of this Japanese photographer’s oeuvre, offering 112 images and highlighting some of her most recent works such as Dialog with Albert Camus, Correspondence-Letter to a Friend or Crystals. Together with her best-known series, the works on display include a new series on the Spanish Civil War and the figure of Federico García Lorca, commissioned by Fundación MAPFRE specifically for this exhibition.


Tomoko Yoneda was born in the city of Ak ashi in 1965, studied photography in Chicago and later in London, where she currently lives. From a very young age, she wanted to be a journalist, but she soon realized that images offered her the possibility of conveying ideas much better than she ever could through the written word. Her works generally refer back to historical events, especially those from the contemporary history period. Landscapes and interior scenes depicting places associated with armed conflicts and, in particular, related to the two World Wars, the Second Sino- Japanese War and the Cold War. As she herself points out, with regard to one of her bes t-known projects, “Scene” (2000-present), “History is not only apparent in tangible, clearly visible monuments and buildings, but also expresses itself impassively in various intangible ways (…) it is something that is pr esent in our daily lives. History surrounds us, in the blue sky, the blue sea, the woods, the fields, and the city streets; it is already engraved upon the strata of landscape where we are born, but it appears quiescent and disconnected from our thoughts.”

Between 2009 and 2015 the artist also produced a series of works focused more specifically on Japan —The island of Sakhalin, Kimusa, Japanese House, Cumulus and DMZ and, therefore, on the quest for her own identity, as well as a common one, that of her nation. As a Japanese woman who has lived much of her life abroad, her situation, precisely thanks to this distance, has enabled her to place herself in the shoes of ‘others’ in order to delve deeper into her roots and the history of her country. Perhaps inspired by reading the texts of the Nobel Prize laureate Kenzaburō Ōe, who has consistently maintained critical awareness in his writings, with the premise of seeking a new humanism to confront the threat of technocracy and contribute to the reconciliation and healing of humankind, Yoneda produced these works which analyze the legacy of the Japanese empire and ‘Japaneseness’. Ōe called for a revaluation of Japan’s recent history, the relationship with its close neighbors and what he called the imperial system, which he opposed. Imperialism remains a controversial issue for the Japanese even today. Within the country, at home and even in the schools, despite the passing of the years, it is difficult to talk about the atrocities committed by the imperial army in its East Asian colonies, perhaps in the hope that, if something is not mentioned, it is as though it had never taken place.

From the series Scene
Beach—Location of the D-Day Normandy Landings, Sword Beach, France, 2002
Chromogenic print

When working on The island of Sakhalin, a title taken from the book by Russian writer Anton Chekhov, Yoneda practically took on the role of anthropologist and, through the landscape, sought the imprint of its inhabitants. With sovereignty long disputed by Russia and Japan, the island was divided in two along the 50th parallel following the Russo- Japanese war of 1905. Finally, with the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, it became part of the Soviet Union. Throughout its history, Sakhalin has housed a Soviet penal colony and various Japanese pulp and paper plants. In her images, the artist depicts the place where Japanese troops disembarked during the Russo- Japanese war, the local prison camp, or the road which crosses the island and previously defined the border between the two countries. 

Her photographs also show stranded Japanese warships which were abandoned at the end of the Second World War, not forgetting that the depths of this sea are home to more recent remains, namely submarines and planes shot down with civilian passengers on board.

“Kimusa” is the name of the building that housed the interrogation center of the South Korean counterintelligence service in Seoul from 1961. Sealed off by high walls, its patterned glass windows and drapes meant that the connection with the outside world was virtually non-existent. Bare walls that witnessed incarcerations and torture sessions that elude comprehension. Japanese House also focuses on architecture to speak about power. In this case, the houses were built in Taipei during the Japanese occupation between 1895 and 1945. Alluding to a similar issue is DMZ, the initials of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, an area that extends four kilometers north and south of the military border, dividing the Korean peninsula with countless buried land mines and totally off-limits to civilians.

From the series After the Thaw
Mud bath, Hajdúszoboszló, Hungary, 2004
Chromogenic print

This place has developed its own particular ecosystem in which plants and flowers grow, but which, thanks to the barbed wire defenses and concrete walls, also reminds us that Korea is currently at war.

Despite what they convey, it should not be forgotten that, generally speaking, the artist’s images are aesthetically ‘beautiful’, almost always tranquil and endowed with a certain halo of nostalgia. The photographer’s distant, aseptic view of the subject matter allows viewers a free interpretation, in line with their own memories and past history, something she considers fundamental. Her oeuvre comprises various strata of meaning that progressively manifest themselves as she undertakes her work. The images in one series bear some relation to those in the following series and cannot be understood as separate entities; rather, this is a linear investigation in which she deals with the same questions related to the past and, most of the time, to the reparation of the harm caused. It could be said that the 20th century was marked by the wounds of hitherto unimaginable harm, and many creators and intellectuals have dedicated their work to striving to imagine how to heal, alleviate and prevent that pain.

Yoneda is one of those artists whose work can be considered ‘committed’ and morally responsible, probing deep into our memory to remind us of the past and draw attention to events that actually happened, but should never happen again. The titles likewise form part of this process and are usually accompanied by a short explanatory text. Reading them affords each picture even greater signification and those that could considered simply picturesque images of landscapes, parks, rivers or city sights are turned into spaces for reflection: the image of two lovers in the swimming pool of a Hungarian city in the series After the Thaw, 2004 in fact depicts the normal course of life in a country recently integrated into the European Union, following a lengthy history of occupation. An aircraft streaking across the clear blue sky —American B-52 returning from a bombing raid on Iraq, Fairford, England, 2003 — is the image of a B-52 bomber, one of those which, during the Iraq war, took off from the RAF Fairford airfield in the Cotswolds, England, to attack Baghdad. In turn, this reminds the artist of the stories about the air strikes during World War II that her parents told her when she was a little girl. Each of the places she photographs becomes a space deeply scarred by war and tragedy.

Yoneda’s work always poses a myriad of questions, despite the aforementioned titles or the texts she adds to describe her series. In stark contrast to the photographs we are accustomed to seeing in newspapers, on television or on social media, which tend to address the most abject aspects of wars, natural disasters or pandemics head-on, these are balanced, carefully considered compositions. The artist addresses tragedy and evil from a tangential point of view, almost by allusion, thus distancing herself from documentary photography in which critics have sometimes tried to pigeonhole her.

From the series Correspondence-Letter to a Friend
A glimpse of the sea, Tipaza, Algeria, 2017
Platinum and palladium print