The Fourth Dimension, 2001

Betacam numérique, PAL, couleur, son

The Fourth Dimension is a journey to the heart of Japan at the dawn of the 21st century: a literal, allegorical, spiritual, musical, cultural, and political voyage. “The Image of Japan,” says Trinh Minh-ha, “as mediated by the experience of 'dilating and sculpting time' with a digital machine vision.” As she traverses Japan by train, manipulating, for the first time, a digital camera and the liberties it offers in terms of both its handling and the resultant visual, Trinh never reveals her exact location to the viewer, thus intimately integrating the viewer into her travel, making them the ears that listen, and the eyes that watch as the country emerges in all its contrasts.

Since World War II, Japan has oscillated between a philosophical sustenance of tradition and an unprecedented economic and technological development. Refusing to relegate her sacred rituals and folk beliefs to the past, the country keeps these memories alive while appropriating the Western model (American in particular), and adapting it to a vernacular modernity. Using shots and montage of captivating poetry, Trinh transports us to a contemporary reality on which she comments in voice-over, associating quotes from Japanese sages, reminders of historical facts, and observations on day-to-day rituals to her phrases and thoughts. The images unfurl in a horizontal movement following the course of the railway, while seeking to inject this fourth dimension upon which we get a voluntarily elliptic definition almost at the end of the film – “the fourth dimension: to be attentive to the infra-ordinary”. The ordinary and the extraordinary accompany this infra-ordinary, modifying our visual and aural perception. Trinh deliberately plays on the former by manipulating her camera's technological features. The frames are in movement and the colour traveling mattes reveal or camouflage the landscapes: urban and rural views, details of interiors, and musicians' and dancers' gestures. The artist, in the same unique way she had been able to look at Senegal and Vietnam, proposes a dilation of rhythmic encounters in this diminutive space that ensues from the infra-ordinary. The arms of the women, men and children wielding batons while beating the drums resonate to the sound of these rhythmic encounters; the percussion gives tempo to the entire film. While music and Trinh's whispering voice are omnipresent, it is nonetheless a feeling of meditative silence that prevails. It seems that this journey and the vibration of the body seated in a train are suspended the moment images depicting the elements of nature appear, for Trinh films water, the sky and trees in a hypnotic manner, and the photogenic side of Japan is at its most beautiful when captured by her lens.

Trinh devotes an important part of her publication entitled The Digital Film Event (2005) to a study of The Fourth Dimension. The artist's remarkable analysis accompanying her visual work makes it possible to comprehend the poetic,. philosophical, literary, and social and political confrontations that she establishes in reference to the techniques she employs. In Trinh's work, all representations beget a reference. The shots showing the traditional Japanese gardens come with detailed information on their origin: a Korean refugee created them in the year 612, becoming the 'pathmaker'. In the same way, the woman, a leitmotiv since Trinh's first works, is featured in close-up allowing the extremely sensitive perception of the vibration of the skin and lips, and the fluttering of eyelids. We read “Women's Time, Japan's Time” in one of the captions, fragments slipping into the images throughout The Fourth Dimension. Trinh worked with the gender department at the University of Tokyo while preparing her video, and the most contemplative sequences echo shots of headlines then highlighting the country's political reality of the 1960s. She cites the bloody suppression of the student uprisings in June 1960, as well as Kamba Michiko, activist and figurehead of the feminist cause.

While the haikus of Basho, the great classical poet of the 17th century, mark the beginning and end of the film which closes with the image of an immaculate lotus floating on water, Trinh never forgets that temporality, absence, memory, frontiers and history – even fragmented – are notions underpinning her artistic and theoretical research. The storyline of The Fourth Dimension published in her book reads like verse. Poetry and critical thought satisfy each other within a postcolonial reflexion articulated beyond cultural limits. Trinh also reminds the viewer that 'time is liquid'.

Elvan Zabunyan

Translated by Yin Ker