”Today's Levitation” © Natsumi Hayashi, courtesy MEM, Tokyo

By Jacques Lhuillery

I get off the train in a distant suburb of Tokyo. A hillside rises above the station, and perched on top is a small Shinto shrine. The steps leading up to the monument are steep, tall and uneven, but I cannot resist – I must climb up.

After all, I tell myself as I carefully make my way back down, I’m about to meet a young woman who can “float” in the air. 

After lengthy negotiations with her agent, I finally get the go-ahead to meet Natsumi Hayashi at an American-style diner with a preternaturally clean interior. While waiting in the equally spotless parking lot, I pull a few photos from my bag, marvelling at images from the artist’s “levitation” project.

Here she comes, beaming like a child while appearing to slide across the asphalt, her jet-black hair spilling across a gingham shirt. She seems so frail, diaphanous almost. We shake hands – not very Japanese – and I attempt, awkwardly, a bow.

For anyone witnessing our encounter, we make an odd pair. I’m well over six foot tall and prefer to keep my feet on the ground. Indeed, I couldn’t get much lift even if I wanted to. She seems almost weightless, and therein is the essence of her work. Thanks to a special technique she’s developed, Hayashi is able to freeze herself in mid-air, instantly rendering banal situations surreal. 

”Today's Levitation” © Natsumi Hayashi, courtesy MEM, Tokyo

Over the past year, Hayashi – thirty-something, endearingly shy – has accumulated images for “Today’s Levitation”, a strange and intimate journal in which she “floats” through everyday scenes captured by photographer Hisaji Hara.

Her unusual obsession with wanting to pull away from Earth is beautiful, and oddly disturbing. 

A cameraman films a photo taken in 1936 by Hungarian-born French war photographer Robert Capa showing a militiaman being shot, 21 January 2005 at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin.
AFP PHOTO/DDP/Johannes Eisele

In one photo, Hayashi’s outstretched body arcs with her head thrown back as if she has been struck by a bullet. I immediately think of Robert Capa’s immortal image from the Spanish Civil War, which ostensibly shows showing a fighter the moment he is shot.

In another photo, she appears suspended in the air, alongside clothes that have been hung out to dry in the sun. On her blog, the artist shows astonishing images of herself dangling, as if motionless, above terra firma. 

Like all magicians who don’t want to reveal their secrets, she won’t let anyone film her or take her picture. It could spoil the illusion if she is seen with her feet on the ground or with her body stuck to a chair. 

But the spectral figure does have a voice.

”Today's Levitation” © Natsumi Hayashi, courtesy MEM, Tokyo

With a typically Japanese reserve punctuated with little bursts of laughter, Hayashi starts talking about herself and speaks warmly of the complex relationship she shares with her mother “who hasn’t always understood” her ideas. She also speaks passionately of Japanese society, of which she remains a little suspicious.

Hayashi is not the first person to capture such leaps, a photographic gimmick deployed in snapshots the world over. But she does it in such a way that we forget the jump itself and all the preparation and work that went into it.

It takes enormous self-discipline for Hayashi to create the sense of hovering. In one picture, she appears to be calling someone on a public telephone, one hand on the dial and the handset pushed against an ear. It is all choreographed perfectly, a split second before she lands back on the ground. 

”Today's Levitation” © Natsumi Hayashi, courtesy MEM, Tokyo

As the camera shutter snaps at 1/500th of a second, Hayashi’s black eyes stare off somewhere into the distance. To avoid looking troubled by gravity’s inevitable pull, and to reinforce the illusion of weightlessness, she never looks at the ground. 

Nor does she digitally alter her images.

But even as she appears frozen in space, there is movement and life too. “In my photos, time doesn’t stop even if I am immobile. Time includes movement and stasis, you can’t divide the two.”

”Today's Levitation” © Natsumi Hayashi, courtesy MEM, Tokyo

For someone who was a self-described “hyper-active kid”, the artist today is serenely calm.

“I touched everything,” she says. “As soon as there was a button I could push, something to push in, it was impossible to resist. I had to do it. My mother would always say to me: ‘Calm down, be stable. Keep your feet on the ground’ (chi ni ashi ga tsuiteite).”

Japanese expression, equivalent to 'Keep your feet on the ground'.

So she did the opposite. Hayashi wanted to explore the darker side, her yin in the yang of a Japanese crowd bristling with stress. In one of Tokyo’s busiest subway stations, for example, she made a photograph in which she appears to levitate, sprite-like, through the turnstiles.

Though she smiles broadly, Hayashi says she still grapples with herself and prefers the company of cats to humans. Like the images she creates, her person carries a curious mix of lightness and gravity.

She sees her work as both narcissistic and therapeutic. The photos, she says, show “the two sides of my personality.” They have also helped her disentangle a complicated relationship with her mother who, she adds, finally “understands” her work and is now waiting to see what’s coming next.

”Today's Levitation” © Natsumi Hayashi, courtesy MEM, Tokyo

Hayashi says she is only halfway through her aerial voyage, and is now at work on a second collection. 

Does she want to be famous? “Honestly, yes,” she says. “So I can share my photos with more people.” Her work is currently showing in several Tokyo galleries. 

We part, this time without shaking hands. Hayashi and her photographer Hara take me to the station and leave me on the platform. The last thing she says to me runs through my head: “If in 100 years, someone finds my journal, it doesn’t matter if they know it’s me.”

”Today's Levitation” © Natsumi Hayashi, courtesy MEM, Tokyo