Rinko Kawauchi’s AILA uses photography to thematically illustrate notions of birth, life, death, and time. No single image can neatly encapsulate the nuance of temporality that is embodied by Kawauchi’s AILA. Instead, the photographs that compose AILA must be viewed in relationship to one another. One comes to an understanding of AILA only through the process of piecing together portraits ranging from a loud birth to muted images of breaking waves to the stillness of a formation of clouds. This, Kawauchi’s latest series, appropriately employs the progression—and pause—of time to exemplify the very essence of photography as it is used to capture a moment.


AILA (from the Turkish word “aile” meaning “family”) is a series that celebrates the awe-inspiring essence of life. Consisting primarily of images of nature, Kawauchi captures the limitless diversity of life while emphasizing the limited time all creatures have on earth. Her work is suggestive of a Japanese aesthetic that notes simplicity, transience, and at times, melancholy. She does this by using a language of pastel colors and patterned light to create harmonies of form and color. The square format used in many of her photographs further concentrates and contains the usually discursive photographic space into an atmospheric plane. Animals, plants, and humans are all depicted at various stages of transition from birth to death. But rather than dwell on the glory of beginnings and the finality of endings, Kawauchi’s intent is to convey the beauty of all of life’s moments, no matter how ephemeral.

As the show’s title suggests, it is the shared experience of being alive that brings all living creatures closer together, closer to nature, and binds our “global” family. Kawauchi is successful in conveying these layered relationships by utilizing images that both imply –and literally depict— humankind’s similarities and interaction with animals and nature. Images of a farmer aiding in the birth of a colt or of a park visitor hand-feeding crows, for example, remind us of the symbiotic obligation the human race has to other living creatures. Another image depicts human hands holding up animals in an act of display, while yet another shows a breathtaking scene of a massive boulder being sawed in half by machinery. These works reinforce the power and responsibility man now wields over his surroundings and its inhabitants. These images are both heartwarming and unsettling at the same time, forcing us to confront the fragility of life and that of our own mortality.

Although AILA is overwhelmingly a life-affirming visual statement, Kawauchi includes several poignantly understated glimpses of death and pain. One especially powerful image depicts a row of slaughtered chickens with their heads hanging over the chopping block. Kawauchi skillfully employs a shallow depth-of-field to focus solely on the chicken in the foreground. With its eyes closed and feathers plucked, the animal has obviously just been killed. A trickle of blood hangs precariously from the bird’s lifeless beak, freezing the scene in an eternal stillness. For Kawauchi who is so fascinated with life’s transient moments, this image uncharacteristically seems to reverberate indefinitely. By interspersing images such as this throughout the series, Kawauchi is able to delicately offset the celebratory tone of AILA with a somber stillness.

We are also reminded of the remarkable physical likeness man shares with other living things. Some groupings point out physical similarities in form, such as an image of an umbilical cord and placenta together with a photo of an insect that has sprouted a long, winding growth from its hardened body. Other groupings pair man-made, constructed environments with the natural to convey similarities, not just of form, but of mood and atmosphere as well. One such juxtaposition features a bedroom scene with a crack of sunlight peeking through the curtains to illuminate a disheveled bed joined by an image of a glowing white swan floating in a pool of darkness. Kawauchi’s exploration of analogous forms in nature is itself paired with her unique fascination with ephemeral beauty, creation, destruction, life, and death.

Born in Shiga prefecture, Japan in 1972, Kawauchi has quickly become one of the most celebrated photographers in Japan. In 2001 she simultaneously released three publications, Utatane (catnap), Hanabi (fireworks), and Hanako, to great critical success. In 2002, she was awarded the prestigious 27th Annual Kimura Ihei Award for her work in Utatane and Hanabi. In the past two years, she had her U.S. debut, a one-person gallery show in Los Angeles, followed by her most recent gallery show at Cohan & Leslie in New York. Before coming to the UCR/CMP, the AILA series was previously exhibited at Little More Gallery in Tokyo, and debuted in Europe at the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie D’Arles, in Arles, France. The upcoming exhibition at UCR/CMP marks the most complete showing of the AILA series to date.

This exhibition was guest-curated by Gabriel Ritter and coordinated by museum Assistant Curator Linda Theung.

In-kind support provided by Hakutsuru Sake Brewing Company, Ltd. and Giant Robot.