Is Mom a Refrigerator ?
Text by Ushioda Tokuko     
 "Is Apu-chan's mother a refrigerator ?" my husband asked our daughter. She was two years old at the time. Her name is Maho, but she couldn't say it and called herself Apu instead.
  At that age she was either hanging onto my skirts, or, with one hand on our large refrigerator, she was begging me for ices or candy.
  Maho, my husband Shimao Shinzo, and I, started out as a family in a one-room apartment on the second floor of an old western style building in Gohtokuji in Setagaya-ku. The room was about 15 mats large and looked like a cube because the ceiling was nearly three meters high. At the south end of our box there was a large window. Across the room we kept the gas ring on a simple table whose top was a sheet of iron coated with blue tin. In another corner of the room we had built a simple closet. There was no television, no video, no vacuum cleaner, no washing machine nor anything that looked like furniture. So our over-sized white refrigerator appeared to have taken root at the center of the large wall.
 My husband had bought the refrigerator from a scrap-dealer who was selling goods that the Occupation Forces were getting rid of. He had chosen a simple Swedish design and paid40,000 yen for it. It had a freezer built-in, but otherwise was a Spartan affair with no extra functions or ornaments. When the engine started up, the large white box shook and purred like an animal. Ice was always forming in the freezer compartment, turning it into an ice cave.
  The hollow in the ice concealed bottles of herb-flavored vodka, and Zubrowka with a picture of Mount Ararat on the label, which my father-in-law had brought back from Poland. When friends came to visit, my husband would carefully bring out a bottle and wrap it in fabric. As soon as the bottle came into contact with the air in the room, it was covered with white crystals ofice.
  My husband expectantly poured the thick liquid into small glasses, and after two or three drinks, he carefully put the bottle back to sleep in the ice cave.
  The thermostat didn't work, so the vegetables and fruit we put in the refrigerator compartment would freeze solid. Even so, my husband, my daughter, and I were delighted with the refrigerator, which was the only piece of furniture we had in the room. We used it in every way we could.
  On the top shelf, we kept our tableware. Toothbrushes and toothpaste had their own compartment. Once a dried lemon and a deeply wrinkled apple that I couldn't bring myself to throw away were rattling and rolling on that shelf until all hours in the morning. Sometimes, even our daughter's toys were chilled in that refrigerator.
  Through the window with the southern exposure, the moon, the stars and the sun always shone on us when we had our meals, napped or went to sleep.
  My husband thoroughly enjoyed this poor existence. He would bring his camera out(he is a photographer), and snap pictures of my and our daughter's hands and feet, or the cups and dishes that were glittering in the sunlight on the table.
  We were poor, but there is nothing remarkable about my recall of those peaceful days. I started keeping a record of our life so I wouldn't gorget. I photographed the ragged curtains in front of the closet, and downstairs in the common kitchen I captured the dull glitter of the faucet in the weak light of a winter day. I also took pictures of the refrigerator, and I became much more fascinated with the existence of this refrigerator than with other things in the house. For the three of us, that refrigerator was proof of peace; our confusion was confined inside that frozen box as in a glacier.
  I began to use the refrigerator for fixed point observation, arranging shots with the door closed or open, and photographing from the front with as little posing and distortion as possible. I didn't allow any emotions, but tried to record everything objectively. As I was recording my own modest life, I began to take pictures of my mother's refrigerator, and those of my friends and relatives.
  Time passed, and Maho entered junior high school.
  I have exhibited my photos of refrigerators several times. After these photos left my hands and became works of art, they provoked many reactions. They have been called concept photos, photo essays, small reportage, new docum-entaries, and probably all of these descriptions are true.
  Women enjoy the photos because they are so familiar.   I've heard comments like, "Aah, there is turtle extract in this fridge," or "This household is a member of the Co-op."

(Published in "Tokyo/City of Photos Exhibition"Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography.1995)

The Pleasure of Looking at Refrigerators

Text by Hiroshi Kashiwagi

Our society has devoted a great deal of effort to placing more of our limited allotment of time at our free disposal. For example, air travel has reduced to a minimum the time it takes to travel from A to B. The invention of household robots such as washing machines and vacuum cleaners has brought us closer to the ideal of spending zero time on housework. And refrigerators have enabled us to stop food spoiling for long periods. Foods kept in a freezer, even at home, have a vastly extended storage life.

Before refrigerators, fish, meat, and vegetables had to be eaten the day they were purchased, or very soon after. Otherwise they had to be boiled, grilled, or preserved with salt or miso paste. The refrigerator has taken much of the day-to-day drudgery out of shopping for and preserving food.

With ever-larger refrigerators now found in every home, the channels of food distribution have been transformed. When consumers began to buy in bulk, there was an inevitable expansion of shopping facilities. The 1980s saw the arrival of supermarkets and convenience stores on a grand scale as, one by one, neighborhood grocery and liquor stores gave way to larger outlets.

Meanwhile, the availability of refrigeration has also transformed the foods themselves. Once refrigerators and freezers began to extend storage life, the producers of food were led to manipulate its contents in order to delay deterioration still further; the use of chemical preservatives is one such manipulation. As a result, foodstuffs have gradually taken on a new identity as industrial products.

Refrigerators are a part of the home, but at the same time they are a conduit from the outside world, connected to supermarkets, convenience stores and, in some cases, consumer co-ops. Some young people claim to use their local convenience store as their personal refrigerator, (though perhaps this is merely a figure of speech). Conversely, the refrigerator could be said to be a convenience store in the home.

Refrigerators serve as independent, self-contained food storehouses, but there are limits to the time they can guarantee. It is possible to live on their supplies for several days. This was vividly illustrated in Liliana Cavani's film The Night Porter. A former Nazi officer goes into hiding when his old associates come to kill him; he holes up with his lover in an apartment, stocking the refrigerator with all the food he can carry. But the provisions dwindle and eventually run out, spelling the end of the siege and the end of their escape.

Even when there is a convenience store nearby, a refrigerator provides significant independence and autonomy. Life without a refrigerator feels oddly insecure, as if it somehow lacked these things.

The interiors of the refrigerators that Ushioda Tokuko has photographed clearly show that, in every one of the homes, people depend on processed foods obtained at supermarkets, convenience stores, and co-ops. At first glance, the contents appear very similar. Yet one seldom hears people complain of a monotonous diet. Following the Kobe earthquake in 1995, when food was distributed to the disaster victims, protests erupted after a while. People complained that they could not go on eating the same things day after day. The list of foods distributed was, however, essentially the same as what we normally eat. The reason for the complaints was probably that people had not gone to the store and chosen these same items for themselves. This experience suggests how painful it is not to have a choice. No one would have objected to an equally unvarying diet, if only they had chosen it themselves.

In Ushioda's photographs, although the contents of the refrigerators are homogeneous, one notices slight differences which indicate personal preferences. One also notices a few items that must have come from, say, the imported food section of a department store, rather than the local supermarket. One pictures the householder thinking, "Let's have something different once in while." Or maybe these treats were midsummer's or New Year's gifts. But even then, one can tell at once where they must have been purchased. In other words, we eat such a homogeneous diet that the sources of supply are immediately obvious.

Apart from their actual contents, however, the refrigerators themselves are surprisingly varied in demeanor. In some homes everything is jumbled together on the shelves, in others the items are neatly arranged. Some families stick countless notes to the door, so that the refrigerator becomes a repository of memory. Some people hang tea-towels on the fridge door, and some place things on the top. This diversity reflects the diverse ways in which people live and keep house. Perhaps no other household appliance provides such a clear reflection of people's lifestyles and housekeeping methods. In this collection, all the participants have exposed this device to Ushioda's camera with an openness approaching vulnerability.

The refrigerator is a strange device which makes one realize anew that the homogeneity of our diet (which is also the homogeneity of consumer society) coexists with the diversity of our ways of life. That is to say, while it is a support system for the society in which we in modern Japan live, it is also very revealing of the ways we live individually. Looking at these photos makes one curious about how refrigerators are used in other countries.

The pleasure to be had from gazing at other people's refrigerators turns out, quite unexpectedly, to be the voyeuristic thrill of a glimpse into modern life.

The Innards of Our Homes

Sanoyama Kanta

From the outset, photographs have been both a window opening onto landscapes and scenes of distant places, and a mirror reflecting ourselves and our surroundings.

From the window, we see everything in the outside world; in the mirror, we find our own image. But whereas an ordinary mirror always reflects in the here and now, with left and right reversed, the photographic mirror is a strange one: even in a Polaroid self-portrait, it shows me a true (nonreversed) image of how I looked several minutes ago. And the self in the photographic mirror grows steadily and irreversibly distant in time from my present self, until the mirror eventually ceases to be a mirror reflecting me and becomes a window on that distant place we call the past. Moreover, even if someone else should take the place of my present self sitting in front of this mirror of my past self, it continues to show them my past self. To other people, it thus becomes a window, through which they gaze intently at the past shape of another that it presents to their view.

In his book Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan suggests a connection between photography and psychoanalysis: "the snapshot of arrested human postures by photography directed more attention to physical and psychic posture than ever before.... Freud and Jung built their observations on the interpretation of the languages of both individual and collective postures and gestures with respect to dreams and to the ordinary acts of everyday life." It seems to me, however, that photography called forth the act of psychoanalysis not so much by directing attention to postures and gestures as by providing an experience that was not possible before its advent: the experience of gazing intently into what lies behind the eyes of the faces in photographs. Before photography, people looked deep into one another's eyes only when prompted by love or hate. Photographs made it possible, for the first time, to look deep into the eyes of others without arousing their suspicion and hostility. And thus a new interest in looking into people's minds and hearts (including, of course, one's own) was awakened.

This was something I had thought about before now, but I was reminded of it on first seeing Ushioda Tokuko's photographs of refrigerators-as soon as I became aware that in these photographs I was gazing deeply not into the eyes but into the homes of other people.

Looking at the photographs in, for example, Kuwabara Kineo's collection Tokyo 1936, one's eye is caught by such things as the prices displayed on tags at an old-fashioned vegetable stand or on the menu posted in a cafeteria, but these offer a rather different sort of interest from looking into other people's hearts. In experiencing for ourselves the scenes that caught Kuwabara's eye while he was out for a stroll, we feel a renewed sense of nostalgia for that distant place called the past. But to look into the refrigerators in Ushioda's photographs is to look deep into the heart of other people's homes, an inner realm which they do not reveal to the outside world and of which they remain unconscious-a realm which, in the human mind, is known to psychoanalysts by such terms as the id and the [subconscious?].

To begin with, the refrigerator is found in the inner part of the home. Traditional Japanese houses had a parlor next to the entrance hall which kept outsiders from invading the home itself. The refrigerator is located in the part of the home traditionally off-limits to outsiders, and hidden inside its doors are the innermost recesses of the home. It is these innermost recesses into which we are gazing. If the experience of looking at photographic portraits can be said to have led to psychoanalysis, perhaps this experience may lead instead to a depth analysis of daily life.

In taking these photographs, Ushioda says, she started with the refrigerator in her own house. In other words, "self-portraits." Finding the inner realm of her home mirrored in these photographs, she developed an interest which soon extended beyond her own home.

Now, we experience that interest for ourselves. For example, take the refrigerator in a house in Nakano (2A). Its open interior in this photograph holds no secrets. Any secrets it might have held have been tumbled out into the space where the refrigerator is. The "innards" of the home have been exposed, filling the space in which the refrigerator stands.

When I ate lunch at a restaurant in Naha, Okinawa, which served local home-style dishes, I learned that the Okinawan word for hog intestines is nakami. (In other parts of Japan, the same word means "contents.") We could borrow this expression and say that the nakami of the home have been laid bare. And the innards of the home are just as richly flavored as the dishes prepared from nakami.

Some houses (such as 11A) are so neat and tidy that they contain a kind of "exterior" space, right up to the front of the refrigerator; the real interior of the home lies inside the refrigerator doors. Generally, though, there is a correspondence between the spaces inside and outside the refrigerator. In some houses, both are sparsely furnished; in others, both are stuffed full of things. Perhaps these spaces also correspond to the internal world of their owners.

Such thoughts occur to me as I gaze into these photos. It does seem a little crass to enjoy rummaging through other people's secrets like this, and when I think of the occupants of the houses I am embarrassed to let my interest show too freely. Yet in spite of-or maybe because of-these scruples, the photographs are interesting. You never know what you might find: sachets of medicine, health tonics, turtle extract, ginseng (for some odd reason), or a whole fridgeful of beer.... The inside and outside of a refrigerator reflect the lifestyle and circumstances of the household, and more-they express the owner's character and state of mind.

But in the middle of enjoying the photographs in this way, it dawned on me: I have been peering not only into other people's lives, but into our lives-including my own.

One or two refrigerators might not have added up to this discovery. But when the innards of fifty homes are on display, suddenly they take on universality. They go from being particular people's to being ours. Just as a zoologist investigates the stomach contents of individual animals to learn how the species lives, Ushioda Tokuko has turned our innards into specimens, and has brilliantly displayed how we live in Tokyo at the end of the twentieth century, as the mass-producer, mass-consumer culture nears its end.

Thus, photographs which began as a mirror permitting us to see inside other people's homes take on the character of a window opened onto our way of living. Then, with time, they will become a window on a past that recedes daily, revealing for eternity "life in Tokyo at the end of the twentieth century."

If this unique experiment in fixed-point observation were to continue over a long period, or if similar experiments were to arise and continue in various places, no doubt the results would vividly illuminate deep truths about the American-style civilization which has engulfed the world, and its ultimate fate.