By Diane Pernet
Stepping into the Musée Guimet, one finds themselves engulfed by a kaleidoscope of Asian perspectives—viewpoints that not only illuminate but challenge, interrogate, and cross-pollinate one another. Central to this ever-dynamic tableau is the stunning debut of Pierre-Elie de Pibrac’s “Portrait éphémère du Japon,” a series that explores the ephemeral nature of existence in Japanese society—a land where collective harmony balances precariously against nature’s destructive force, as poignantly exemplified by the Fukushima disaster.
At the core of Pibrac‘s artistic inquiry is impermanence, or “Hakanai Sonzai”—a term that means “I feel myself to be an ephemeral creature.” With this notion as his philosophical lodestar, Pibrac embeds himself and his family into the Japanese milieu, adopting the lens of a documentarian but the soul of an empath and the eye of a film director. His method is unique, initiating a rapport with locals through notebooks and disposable cameras before meticulously framing his shots. The slow, deliberate dialogue between artist and subject finds reflection in the aesthetic deliberateness of each frame—a style inextricably linked to Jun’ichirō Tanizaki‘s seminal “In Praise of Shadows,” wherein natural lighting shapes every image, each one a photograph of nuanced grays and silvery tones.
Pibrac‘s odyssey unfolds through Japan’s varied topography—from the spiritual gardens of Kyoto to the rain-soaked island of Yakushima, the hardscrabble streets of Osaka‘s slums, and even the haunted forests of Aokigahara. It is a narrative of “inner exiles,” of humans unmoored yet inextricably bound by cultural expectations, rendered with an aesthetic authenticity so loyal it might as well be etched in ink on mulberry leaf paper, as each photo is.
Beyond Pibrac‘s 17 large portraits, the exhibit also showcases a series of black-and-white landscapes and still lifes under the title “Mono no Aware,” or ‘the sweet melancholy of things.’ Here, the viewer confronts not only the breathtaking impermanence but also the arresting beauty of existence—a concept so deeply entrenched in Japanese thought that it might be considered its own form of Memento Mori.
Adding another layer of immersion is an exclusive podcast by Pibrac himself, guiding visitors both geographically and emotionally through Japan’s complex landscapes. Initiated during the uncertain throes of a global pandemic, his lens captures a Japan poised between tradition and modernity—not as a dystopia marking the end of times but as a realm of endless spiritual and cultural possibility. His photographs serve not just as optical meditations but as windows into a society where solitudes coalesce, spectral figures appear to break free from their corporal constraints, and even the notion of obsolescence becomes a mutable, living thing.
In Pibrac‘s exhibition, which effortlessly bridges diverse photographic eras and styles, the influence of Japanese cinema and art is palpable. As I delved into his compelling imagery, I found myself reminded of the works of Gregory Crewdson. Offering a narrative both dreamlike and firmly rooted in the real world, the exhibit explores a society on the brink of an undefined future. Pibrac masterfully interweaves color and black-and-white compositions, featuring landscapes and portraits that capture both the poetic and the everyday. In doing so, he provides a nuanced, fleeting glimpse into the multifaceted soul of Japan.