Emilia Ukkonen spent a few months at the Arts Initiative Tokyo Residency in Japan, a whole two years after she had originally planned for.
Looking for spirits in Tokyo
An interview by Athanasía Aarniosuo Photos provided by the artist
The residency period, originally awarded for 2019, was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as many others during that time. Travelling, even two years later, was not easy and many changes to original plans were made. Due to Japan’s strict regulations, Emilia thought it safer to travel by plane rather than through land and sea.
The first months of the residency were rather solitary. Not many foreigners had taken the extra step to travel to Japan, and communication with the locals was challenging. Japanese people are generally not so confident in speaking English, Emilia found.
However, the overall experience was positive and fruitful in many ways, and after the first secluded period, more and more foreign artists started to arrive in Tokyo.
The Arts Initiative Tokyo Residency itself is a small, two-storey house that only accommodates one guest artist at a time. However, collaborations with other residency programs and visiting artists are arranged. Emilia was the first in a long time to visit.
The two-year wait influenced Emilia’s plans in regards to her work as well. While her subject matter and main research focus remained unchanged, a majority of her contacts were no longer useful. During the residency, Emilia wanted to explore the supernatural, and people’s experiences with ghosts and spirits; finding a whole new set of volunteers to interview was a part of the process.
She talked to locals who had seen ghosts in order to learn more about Japanese supernatural beliefs. The residency staff helped arrange a meeting with a clairvoyant, psychic, Mr. Hidetoshi Hoshitani, that a Japanese artist had collaborated with previously. Historically the Japanese have valued their spiritual experiences; however, Emilia found it rather challenging to engage the locals about their personal beliefs.
Emilia visited the forest of Aokihagara, Mount Fuji’s vast ‘Sea of Trees’, which is located a mere two-hour bus ride away from central Tokyo. The Mount Fuji area is a well-known tourist destination and the forest is visited by many because of the well known caves in this area. However, it is also home to ominous events: every year, many Japanese people go to the forest to take their own lives. A popular suicide spot, the stories of ghosts and haunting spirits existed before these more recent tragedies, but have increased with them.
Emilia has been interested in ghosts and the supernatural throughout her life, and has been working on this particular project for a few years already. The project is not limited to Japan, but she has photographed well-known haunted areas around the world, while also interviewing people about their relationship with the supernatural and their personal ghostly encounters. The project has taken her, among other places, to England and Scotland, where the cultural history encourages ghost stories; every village has them! Next, the project will take her to Romania, where stories of the spiritual world are plenty. The photographs she takes are mostly of outdoors spaces, forests particularly; not so much haunted houses or castles.
Emilia is interested not only in the haunted stories themselves, but also the history behind them: how do they get formed and where do people go to experience the supernatural? The photographs and related interviews have not been exhibited publicly yet, but Emilia is in the process of compiling them into a book.
Alongside her main project, Emilia also took a trip to Hiroshima to photograph some old trees as part of another larger body of work, through which she takes portraits, in a way, of trees that have witnessed major world events and personal tragedies. This project is also ongoing.
Emilia’s time in Japan, in the end, did not differ too much from how she usually works: she travels to a place of interest, photographs it, then continues working from her laptop at home. However, it did come with many new ideas and revelations.