Arie Kutz

Onishi Yasuaki and the Japanese Concept of Space

The work of Japanese artist Onishi Yasuaki – especially his installations, which are presented in this exhibition – represent a unique spatial quality. These works blur the boundaries with their designated spaces; they inspire a sense of dynamic spaces undulating into an indefinite state. While the works, in his unique style, are obviously personal, they are undoubtedly anchored in the tradition of the Japanese perception of space – in terms of the quality of the space, the fluid boundaries between different spaces and their continuous flow, as well as the complex relationship and the dynamic transition between “inside” and “outside” distinct of the tradition of classical Japanese construction.

Unlike Japanese culture, the arid Middle East developed as a “stone culture.” The ancient living spaces in this area – a structure that includes thick walls and small openings – did not take shape due to climatic considerations, but rather because of the severe restrictions in the very complex engineering dealing with the nature of stone. Ancient stone architecture, and its engineering limitations, created a concept of space that sharply distinguishes between the interior and the exterior. In contrast, Japan’s abundant forests and the quality of the wood in the country, made the Japanese culture, from the very beginning, a culture of wood. In wooden architecture, the thick stone walls, that bear the weight of the house and roof, are replaced with a delicate and light structure of columns, beams, and a large roof. This is the basis of a Japanese house. Once the wooden skeleton is erected, there is no structural need for walls. Erecting walls is thus a matter of choice.

The 10th century saw the height of an impressive creative period in Japanese history. During this period, the architecture of palaces was formed in Heian, the capital city of the time (today’s Kyoto). The Japanese palace (“Shinden”) shaped in this period, consisted of a structure of vast spaces without walls. Large roofs with wide frames, raised on rows of pillars, shaded and protected the vast spaces. They used light mobile partitions in this large space or thin reed curtains, hanging loose from the ceiling and rolled up when needed. The horizontally laid reed curtain, the Sudare, is a dynamic means of dividing spaces and opening them up as needed. It also serves as a means to control the quality of gentle light pouring into the space and the gazes that are directed both inside and outside of the space, as the material deliberately blurs the site of the space.

Over the centuries, the basic ideas and the concept of space on the “Shinden” permeated the remaining levels of the society – first effecting the military nobility of the Samurai (Shoin architecture), then the merchant class (Machiya architecture), and finally reaching the villages and the common people (Minka). For many centuries, the Japanese home was constructed, throughout the social hierarchy, from a large roof raised on rows of wooden columns and very little, if any, fixed walls. The spaces inside the structure were dynamic, ceaselessly changing and flowing. Most of the rooms were surrounded by partitions that can be easily moved on rails and completely removed when necessary. These spaces can be opened and closed according to their momentary use and change on a daily basis. The external walls, were almost all made of white, translucent paper screens, stretched on a delicate wooden frame (shoji). The house changes quickly and easily, as necessary, from being entirely open to the outside to a state in which the white paper walls block the view, all the way to a state in which the dark wooden shutters close them off from the exterior. The “classic” Japanese house is transparent through and through and exposed both inside and out, visible to the surrounding landscape – the garden or nature.

The boundaries between a Japanese house and the environment are not clear. The tile or straw roof protrudes around the edges of the house, under which extends an intermediate area, both internal and external to the house. Another passageway extends here from the inner spaces and over the natural soil around the house, shaded by the large roof. Between the unmistakably interior living rooms and exterior under the natural sky, exist rings of intermediate spaces which blur this transition and enrich it.

Deep-rooted architectural values developed from the world of wood structure engineering: Free, flowing and dynamic spaces, rich and gradual transitions between the spaces in the house and the between the interior and exterior; controlled and dynamic transparency of the space; unique light quality. These ideas have become the most essential part of Japanese architecture, life style and everyday culture. Modern architecture’s perception of space, which arose during the early twentieth century, owes a lot to Japan. In the second half of the previous century, some of the world’s leading architectures came from Japan, drawing inspiration from both Japanese culture and Western modernist architectural concepts. These architects presented the world with fascinating perceptions of space and complex systems of internal – external relations, as could only be displayed before in Japanese tradition.

The Japanese perception of space, both traditional and modern, has also influenced the emergence of artistic concepts, as seen in Onishi’s work. Similar to the transparent and transient partitions in the Japanese house, this artist uses plastic sheets and creates screens made by the dripped black glue. Onishi constantly explores the boundaries between his works and the spaces in which they are installed, the relation between the full and the empty, between “being” and “nothingness.” Thus, Onishi merges into his installations the spaces in which they were created.

Architect  Arie Kutz