I Want to Believe: "Proof: The Ryoichi Excavations" at UMMA asks us to suspend belief


Patrick Nagatani, Bentley, Stonehenge photo

Patrick Nagatani, Bentley, Stonehenge, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire, England R5, 1987, gelatin silver print. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Thomas Wilson '79 and Jill Garling '80, 2012/2.135. © Patrick Nagatani Estate.

Proof: The Ryoichi Excavations presents artist Patrick Nagatani’s series of staged, minutely detailed photographs of fictional archeological excavations. The University of Michigan University of Art's exhibition announcement summarizes the content of the exhibit, in which Nagatani uses photographs to present “artifacts” from the life of Nagatani’s alter ego, an explorer named Ryoichi:

Nagatani presents a narrative of Ryoichi’s archeological work, supported by images of excavation sites, unearthed artifacts, and Ryoichi’s own journal pages. According to the photographs, Ryoichi discovered evidence of an automobile culture buried at sites across several continents: Stonehenge, the Grand Canyon, and a necropolis in China.

The photographs represent the various facets of the Ryoichi Excavations project, with photographs of journal pages in Japanese, video stills, photographic representations of the excavations, and curatorial wall text explaining the contents of the images. Some of these are displayed in standing glass cases in addition to the gallery walls. Nagatani’s dedication to creating a playful illusion of an archaeological project questions the assumption that photography is a means to convey unaltered, factual images. 

The UMMA announcement also states, “[T]his provocative and playful series compels viewers to reflect on how photographs and institutions, such as museums, shape our knowledge of the past and present.” It urges us to acknowledge that the institution that disseminates it to broader culture, in part, shapes our perceptions of photography and photographic imagery.

In this series, not only does Nagatani playfully examine photography’s history, but also draws into question what role the museum that displays the work plays in its reception. If the images were displayed in a science museum, would we be more apt to believe the fantasy presented in Nagatani’s photographs? At an art museum, viewers expect this playful intersection of art and science. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for artists to question the ways in which artworks can reimagine historical imagery. Despite all of this, the photographs are surprising in their ability to momentarily suspend the disbelief I knew I should have when looking at them. 

Patrick Nagatani, Model A. Woody, National Radio Astronomy Observatory photo

Patrick Nagatani, Model A. Woody, National Radio Astronomy Observatory (VLA), Plains of St. Agustin, New Mexico, U.S.A. R26, 1987, gelatin silver print. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Thomas Wilson '79 and Jill Garling '80, 2012/2.135.  © Patrick Nagatani Estate.

The exhibition wall text by Assistant Curator of Photography Jennifer M. Friess elaborates on the relation between photography and truth: 

Nagatani challenges the notion that photographs -- and the institutions that collect and exhibit them -- tell the truth. But the elaborate evidence presented in these images of handmade miniature excavation sites and carefully composed texts, painstakingly assembled between 1985 and 2000, also invites viewers to engage with an improbable and fantastical tale.

Perhaps the most interesting facet of the project is the journal belonging to Ryoichi. Photographs of the original journals accompany photographs of the excavation sites, which appear all over the globe, from iconic sites such as Stonehenge to the rural American West and Southwest. Translated, framed texts in English are also available below the original journal pages.

Patrick Nagatani, Ryoichi's Journal

Patrick Nagatani, Ryoichi's Journal: Shōwa 60, July 13th, U.S.A., Tucson, 1999, chromogenic print. University of Michigan Museum of Art, Gift of Thomas Wilson '79 and Jill Garling '80, 2013/2.508A.  © Patrick Nagatani Estate.

In one such entry, dated November 22, 1998, from Albuquerque, New Mexico, Ryoichi asks, “Have we been archaeologists or grave robbers? The dismantling of the Anasazi walls at Chetro Ketl was unsettling. Some of us want to leave the artifacts and simply learn from them and photograph them. Possession seems to be unimportant.” Through these texts, the artist is able to integrate cultural theory and address criticisms that archaeological practices have garnered in the past and present. 

Nagatani’s statement on the project explains the intent and process: 

I layer the elements we accept as scientific record to construct an alternate reading of the past, and alternative stratigraphy of truth and illusion. With this project I hope to challenge us to examine the ways in which photography creates, recreates, or supports a particular history. I want to consider what we accept as evidence and why. I hope to orchestrate our understanding of the archaeologists' quest and suggest that it may have meaning for our own approach to the unknown.

Nagatani’s Excavations project engages with many ideas, disciplines, and discourses. His approach asks the viewer not only to question history and representation but also to question the means by which this information reaches the viewer. Through the inclusion of an array of representational “artifacts,” Nagatani also questions archaeological processes and practices, raising important questions about historical objects and who has right to them. Do images of the artifacts suffice, especially when we know that photography is subject to manipulation? The ambiguity of the project suggests that while we may never know the answers, cultural engagement and discussion through the arts is an important act of resisting the status quo.

Elizabeth Smith is an AADL staff member and is interested in art history and visual culture.

"Proof: The Ryoichi Excavations" is on display through February 3, 2019, at the University of Michigan University of Art.