People & PlaceCulture

Seasonal Abandonment of Imaginary Worlds

Carine Thévenau documents and examines deserted playground relics of the Japanese 1980s financial boom (and bust). The abandoned structures create a visual silence, allowing room for curiosity and critical thought. This interval, referred to as “Ma” in Japanese philosophy, is defined as a space between, or a pause that enables space for emotion, thought and life to pass through it.

Architect and researcher Gunter Nitschke describes how “place is the product of lived space and lived time” in his article ‘Place Space Void’. Both the playground and the abandoned, as place, can be nostalgic, but what narratives do they hold of lived space and time?

The playground locations featured in the work Seasonal Abandonment of Imaginary Worlds were shot in and around a farming village in Shiga Prefecture, Japan. The playgrounds were often situated next to a temple, in the front of a kindergarten or at the end of the rice fields. The mountains, the ume or plum blossom trees, which bloom in winter, can be seen in a few of the images.

During the financial boom of the late 1980’s playgrounds and extravagant theme parks, such as Koga Family Land, materialized across rural Japan. However, when the economy shifted, the theme parks were left unfinished or became bankrupt. Many young families, not prospering from agricultural business, migrated towards the big cities in the hope of attaining financial stability.

The theme parks and playgrounds that still stand are the residue of the boom period. Whether completely abandoned or not, they were built during a time of economic prosperity and a larger population, which meant more children. Since the onset of the playgrounds development, Japan’s aging population has caused further decline in youthful populations in countryside towns, such as Shiga.

The Japanese use the Buddhist term “mottainai” to communicate their regret towards wastefulness. Writer Kevin Taylor explains that the term “expresses a feeling of regret at wasting the intrinsic value of a resource or object”, and can be translated as both “what a waste” and “don’t be wasteful.” The playgrounds that make up Seasonal Abandonment of Imaginary Worlds appear to be gracefully decaying. There is no graffiti or damage to the playgrounds, allowing the possibility of further interaction, whether for child’s play or not.

In his book A Geography of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist, Robert Levine posits that “the pace of life is a matter of tempo.” He equates music theory to everyday life, in that time is subjective. The abandoned creates a visual pause in time, similar to a fermata within a music score. The fermata (pause) is controlled by or extended between notes at the discretion of the music conductor. A visual pause in the landscape presents a time of non-productivity, whereby the original purpose of the landscape has become obsolete, even temporarily. This idleness gives those who experience the abandoned, through pictures or in real time, opportunity to reflect, project and imagine. The silence allows room for curiosity and critical thought.

The empty space created by the absence of people within an abandoned scene creates an interval in time and space. This interval, referred to as “Ma” in Japanese philosophy, is defined as a space between, or a pause that enables space for emotion, thought and life to pass through it. Alan Fletcher wrote: “Isaac Stern described music as ‘that little bit in between each note – silences which give the form’… The Japanese have a word (ma) for this interval, which gives shape to the whole. In the West we have neither word nor term. A serious omission.”

The pause created by the impenetrable winter snow raises the question of how much time has to pass for the playgrounds to be considered abandoned. Most of the parks were built during the baby boom generation. With the knowledge of Japan’s shrinking birth rates, aging populations and economic shifts in rural farming villages, the playgrounds’ usability, after the snow has melted, is uncertain.

Understanding time and the measurement of time as relative, one can view the abandoned playgrounds as a time between controlled states of being and the unknown. The manufactured world is fading, a new ecosystem is rising.

Thank you, Carine, for your photography and words. Seasonal Abandonment of Imaginary Worlds will be exhibited at Sydney Design Week in March – you can also get yourself a print through Koskela Gallery. For the whole series you can order the book via Editions Publishing, available from April. See more of Carine’s work on her website –