Mono No Aware by Anton Kusters
A quick Google search of Belgian photographer Anton Kusters produces hundreds of results on his project about the Yakuza, a Japanese crime family that controls the streets of Tokyo’s red light district. This was the artist’s first large body of work and book project, which received international praise. Three years later, he has taken a decidedly different approach with his second publication, Mono No Aware. While Odo Yakuza Tokyo is a documentary project, Mono No Aware is conceptually driven, focusing on an idea rather than portraying an unfolding narrative. The Japanese phrase Mono no aware alludes to the conflicting emotions experienced when considering the transience of all things; it is not simply about sorrow or wistfulness, but also the joy and intense appreciation that comes from acknowledging the beauty intrinsic to this evanescence.
Kusters explains, “[w]henever I feel that tiny sadness for the beauty of things passing, I try to make images.” With an open-ended concept at the heart of his picture-making, it follows that the 32 images included in this book are wide-ranging — including color, black and white, portraits, still lifes and landscapes. In spite of variable subject matter and process, there is an overarching aesthetic treatment that pervades, a blur and haziness that renders the commonplace ethereal. The interlinking formal attributes of these photographs is what ultimately guided me through Mono No Aware — the way an overexposed cat face mimics a bright rising sun or the way circles on a bedspread echo the beautifully lit and suspended translucent globes that follow.
The book is divided into four “chapters” — each folded like an accordion and placed in an individual sleeve that resembles an LP record; unfolded, these sections extend eight feet in length. I admit, I cannot explain how the eight images included in each chapter relate to the corresponding titles. However, with chapters titled “the dreams” and “rest your mind,” an argument could be made for how anything could fit within the nebulous themes. The process of pulling each chapter from its pouch and unfurling the enclosed page forces the viewer to slow down. This is not a book to easily flip through on the fly; I unsuccessfully attempted to do so amidst a perplexed audience in a San Francisco café. While the effort may initially seem cumbersome, upon reflection, the design feels fitting for a book about the transitory nature of our existence. Why not take an unhurried moment to savor an experience before the opportunity passes?
The image sequencing is much more fluid in Mono No Aware than a traditional photobook. Kusters’ folded accordion chapters empower the viewer. He or she can define the number of images visible at any given time — just a few or the entire book. Notions of a fixed beginning and end are less prescribed as well. It was this autonomy that allowed me to bypass what did not resonate, moving along to those instances that caused pause and sent me drifting through my own memory bank of these bygone moments.
In her 1977 collection of essays, On Photography, Susan Sontag suggested, “[a]ll photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” In many ways, Kusters approach echoes Sontag’s melancholic sentiment — his images capture what he cherishes, but can never be repeated. What about a photograph’s ability to change the way we see and consume the world? In the face of “time’s relentless melt,” an unavoidable inevitability, perhaps all we can ask for is a reminder to hold on to what is fleeting and to notice those precious details around us.