Shir Meller-Yamaguchi

Drawing in Space:
Inner Space / The Wilfrid Israel Museum, Hazorea Israel
September 2012

This exhibition features work by Japanese artist Onishi Yasuaki, whose primary sculpting material is space. In Western culture, space and matter are habitually perceived as antithetical: matter is defined as possessing volume, mass, texture, and form, whereas space is perceived as being devoid of form, color, and mass, and as infinite. Yasuaki proposes a different perception of space: he creates transparent sculpture which relates to the presence of the space, articulating the movement of air taking place inside it. In this context, this essay strives to draw affinities between Yasuaki’s works and concepts rooted in Japanese philosophy and culture. Architect Arie Kutz’s essay in this catalogue (pp. 45-44) explores the perception of space typical to traditional Japanese architecture, which is likewise echoed in Yasuaki’s works.

Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi was among the first to introduce to the West the view that space is a sculpture. Back in the 1920s, space gradually acquired significance in Western sculpture, in the work of such artists as Naum Gabo and the Russian Constructivists, and later in the work of Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and others. While the spatial element in the work of these sculptors was deemed equally as important as the mass, it was, however, contained within the sculptures. Noguchi, on the other hand, put forth a different approach, as reflected in his assertions: “I am excited by the idea that sculpture creates space. That shapes intended for this purpose, properly scaled in space, actually create a greater space. There is a difference between actual cubic feet of space and the additional space that imagination supplies. One is measure, the other an awareness of the void of our existence in this passing world.”1

In the late 20th century the Western sculptural perception expanded to installations and environments in which the viewer could move, undergoing a multi-sensory experience, instead of the exclusive focus on three-dimensional objects which the viewer could only move around. In Japan, this concept is naturally associated with the Buddhist world view, which emphasizes the close reciprocal relations between human beings and their surroundings. In her book Contemporary Japanese Sculpture, Janet Koplos compares these different sculptural approaches: “Western sculptural tradition emphasized the independence of the sculpture (and of the artist). […] In general, Japanese sculpture is concerned with parts rather than wholes, and with momentary conditions rather than fixity. Often these preferences result in installations rather than central mass vertical sculpture.”2

The year 1954 saw the emergence of a group of young artists, named Gutai, in Japan, who explored new expressive possibilities in their performances, kinetic sculptures, and environments. One of the group’s members, Kazuo Shiraga, executed a painting with his foot, while hanging from a rope over a canvas placed on the floor. Shiraga was equally interested in the action and the outcome, much like the view characteristic of traditional calligraphy (shodo) whereby the act and the result are one. The Gutai group paved the way for the next generation by transforming art into an open field, a laboratory which enabled experimental reference to the ordinary and mundane. As an artist who opted for the experimental course of action, already during his studies at the University of Tsukuba, Yasuaki preferred to avoid use of traditional sculptural materials, such as stone and wood. His decision to create variously shaped metal mantles of space bespeaks the direction that attracted him: the aspiration to momentarily remove the skin from all that is visible – to peel off the external appearance of things, and show that exterior and interior are, in fact, inseparable.

This view is masterfully illustrated by gawa (2001), ring in Japanese, which Yasuaki created upon graduation. “I found a pine tree, cut it, and created the shape of a circle. I gradually covered it with small pieces of metal, and finally burnt it until it became empty on the inside. This was my graduation project. […] My friends carved in stone or wood, but I was not interested in creating an original form. I wanted to follow the transformation of form. My action was repeated stoically, over and over again. I merely picked up my actions.”3 The sculpture delves into the mutability of matter and form, the transition from fullness to emptiness, and the transformation of line into circle. Its cyclical quality calls to mind the Enso, a circle drawn with a single line, in one stroke. One of the major symbols in the Zen Buddhist calligraphic tradition, this form represents the world, the void, the present moment, and the continuity of life. Yasuaki’s ring breathes through its small apertures, and its inner space reveals itself to the viewer. Like the Enso, it fuses space and time, consciousness and action.

To remove the obstructions to ordinary vision, Yasuaki turned to darkness, which eliminates the boundaries separating different objects, and where colors and textures dissolve. Inspired by Picasso’s light drawings, he began experimenting with a combination of space and time. He soldered square metal frames in the darkness, in front of a camera whose shutter was open for twenty minutes. The result was action photography in which the created sculpture disappears, and spark tails appear in its stead, which produce spectacular sight, like gates of light. This and similar works burst forth from the darkness, attesting to the impermanence of all phenomena. In this context one should mention the Japanese idea of “mono no aware” (“sensitivity to ephemera”) which relates to the way in which reality is revealed to us at a given moment. Originating in Buddhism, this notion stresses that all that exists appears before our eyes for a specific duration and subsequently disappears.

In seeing darkness (2004), created when Yasuaki completed his masters degree in art at Kyoto City University of Arts, the artist heaped variously sized boxes and packs to which he attached phosphorescent stickers at fixed intervals. When the light was turned off, a city emerged with lights shimmering from the windows of its buildings. In that period in his oeuvre, the dark room became a laboratory in which the familiar revealed itself in new, surprising modes.

In the series two sights (2004), Yasuaki painted the interior of his room with a red laser beam in front of a camera shutter which was left open for a long time. He stretched horizontal and vertical laser lines which moved along the walls and floor; upon encountering various objects, they broke or bent, in keeping with their shape. Neon lights, a cupboard, or an air-conditioner thus became an integral part of the volumes in the space, and lost their individuality as objects. Yasuaki’s feet were also photographed in the same manner, continuing the floor lines. There is no differentiation between object and background, and places which the laser beams miss disappear. Of special interest in this series is two sights: self 2, a work in which the artist’s black silhouette emerges against the backdrop of the aforesaid web of red laser lines. In effect, it is a “vanishing self” devoid of all identifying features, representing the idea of the absence of self.

In his most recent series of action photographs, mountainroom (2006), Yasuaki connected all the objects in his room with a freer line. This time he placed a phosphorescent woolen thread on a table, chairs, and in-between them, as well as on a pile of boxes, and shot from a different place each time. Connecting all the photographs into a single picture generates a woven texture of the interior lines and the artist’s movement in the room. Here too, at first we fail to recognize the familiar objects, which are not distinguished from the background. The lines move amid volumes and depressions, generating a mountainous topography within the room. Engagement with the space prompted Yasuaki to create installations exploring the line between the visible and the invisible. In restriction sight (2007), hundreds of phosphorescent dots painted on a giant transparent balloon move in the darkness. The work illustrates the movement of air through the balloon’s inflating and deflating movement, as if the room were breathing.

Yasuaki presents us with sculptural spectacles whose beauty is founded on the principle of mutability. One may observe the same object in several different ways, and each time encounter a different sight, to the extent that we begin doubting our eyesight. He eludes us like a magician who pulls one picture of reality one moment, and exchanges it with another in the next. Both pictures are equally valid, and their substitution elicits doubts as to the very existence of a fixed reality. Yasuaki’s acts, which unite space and time, acquire an additional meaning associated with the notion of “Ma” which developed in Japanese culture from its Chinese origins. This concept, whose Chinese character resembles a gate through which the sun sets or rises, alludes to the space-time in-between.

In his book Ma: Space-Time in Japan, Arata Isozaki discusses the difference between Western and Japanese space-time perceptions. While the West relates to time as an infinite linear sequence, an entity distinguished from space, in Japan space and the events taking place within it are perceived as a single essence.4 Dr. Ilana Singer, in her study, relates to the “Ma” as a key value in Japanese culture and art, a state of “in-betweenness,” “space,” “time,” “interval.”5 This notion stems from the Buddhist view which strives to empty consciousness from principles and concepts that split it in order to see things clearly. Referring to the ideas of several leading Japanese thinkers, among them Seigow Matsuoka, she writes: “Ma aesthetics is characterized by absence and presence, movement and stasis, namely – by being able to contain a thing and its opposite. […] It is an aesthetic or an art form oriented toward the impermanent, variable, hidden, ambiguous; in which the atmosphere (kehai, ki) or void are as important as ‘presence.’ In other words, the open, ‘negative,’ imaginary moments in space-time are as important as the things contained within it.”6

These ideas are also reflected in other works, in which the sense of space-time is generated by the movement of the transparent bodies and the viewers roaming amid them. In daily distance (2008), created during the artist’s residency in Denmark, an inflated body made of plastic sheet is seen rising up; as it descends, it reveals a set table with white dishes. The work oscillates between a familiar, everyday scene and the mysterious appearance of the translucent body floating in the room; between the definite time of the meal and the indefinite times of floating in the room’s interior.

In another installation, untitled (2009), a cluster of transparent plastic bodies moves up and down in the space, rendering the air within them real. These virtually weightless bodies are experienced as having a real and transient presence at the same time. Through them one may see, blurred, the viewers moving like passing stains of color.

Yasuaki’s interest in the membrane distinguishing between the visible and the invisible, in substances such as air and light, and in confronting a different space each time, was reinforced and acquired diverse manifestations in 2008, the year in which he began traveling the world in residency programs which offer spaces for creation and display for given durations. In those years Yasuaki tackled a large variety of variously sized spaces in Denmark, the Netherlands, Korea, USA, Japan, India, Austria, Sweden, Germany, and Portugal, for durations ranging from one to six months.

During his sojourn in Korea, he took up work with hot black glue and plastic sheets. The glue, he says, creates an extremely airy, ultra-thin line. The occurrence in time – the artist’s work with matter – is a continuous process which fills the space.7 In five chairs (2009), for instance, Yasuaki covered five chairs with a plastic sheet, and stretched strings of black glue from the ceiling to the sheet. Once the chairs were removed, a chair-shaped transparent shell remained, with empty space underneath it. One may draw affinities between this work and the aforementioned series mountainroom.

Another work, ten receptacles (penetration) (2009) was created during the artist’s residency in Berkley, California. It consists of a variety of receptacles covered with a transparent plastic sheet, among them Yasuaki’s open suitcase. Once the objects themselves were removed, their “shells” were presented, suspended from the ceiling by strings of glue, rendering the interior space present. These bodies seem to hover in the air within the larger receptacle – the space of Kala Gallery, Berkley. In these works Yasuaki focuses our gaze on the empty space to which we tend to ascribe little significance, through a fragile, transparent form that contains nothing but air. The plastic sheet, an ordinary material generally used for wrapping, and the hot glue, which usually remains a hidden substance, become the main protagonists in a mesmerizing sculptural spectacle. Via meticulous work, Yasuaki uses them to create a negative drawing in space, thereby eliminating the sense of weight and mass, pivotal values in a long-standing sculptural tradition.

One of Yasuaki’s favorite artists is the British Rachel Whiteread who creates space negatives by means of concrete casts. In one of her best known early works, House (1993), she sprayed concrete on the interior walls of a Victorian house intended for demolition in east London; she subsequently shifted the casts to the facade, thereby exposing the interior which is seldom seen on the outside, reversing private and public. Another British artist who has gained Yasuaki’s esteem, Tony Cragg, engages with intertwining containers and volumes using wood and plaster casts. As opposed to the massive sculptural language of his favorite artists, however, Yasuaki persistently creates transparent sculpture adapted to the spaces in which he operates.

During a residency at the Aomori Contemporary Art Center, Japan, Yasuaki created a site-specific work – adapted to this fan-like space, six meters high, designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando – entitled reverse of volume (2009). He installed a monumental plastic sheet reminiscent of a mountain which overlooked the space. The viewer could stand at the foot of the “mountain” and feel the movement of the air. The work garnered great success, and was presented in many variations in venues the world over, among them in a solo exhibition at Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, Nagoya (2009), and in the group exhibition “Ways of World Making” at the National Museum of Art, Osaka (2011), both in Japan. Relating to that installation and the spatial perception it embodies, Fumiko Nakamura, curator of the Aichi Museum, wrote: “The artist draws our attention to the empty space and heightens the intensity of the void at its center. Normally, in the process of casting a bronze statue, the undulations of the work are the inverse of the mold used to make it, but is Onishi perhaps attempting to cast the entire exhibition space here? And is it perhaps we, the viewers, who are being poured into the temporary mold?”8

The current exhibition at the Wilfrid Israel Museum features two installations by Yasuaki, alongside additional works and photographs. The highly celebrated reverse of volume, which, as aforesaid, aroused great interest throughout the world, is presented in a site-specific version. The plastic sheet which sheds and assumes forms opens a gateless gate to the blurred world seen through its transparency.

The sprinkles of black glue, which condense and subsequently resume being thin strings, like weeds growing from the ceiling downward, call to mind the style of calligraphic writing, incomprehensible even to the Japanese themselves, dubbed “grass” or cursive script (Sosho). Yasuaki writes his scroll in the air, over his floating mountain, and we, the viewers at its foot, come across a ravishing spectacle which changes with every step. In the dark room in which the installation clue in the cylinder (2006) is presented, they are answered by strings of light growing from the floor upward, only to drop and wriggle downward once again. Photographs are presented in a space between darkness and light, attesting to the artist’s constant search for the invisible in the dark. Yasuaki endeavors to look beyond form and matter. The transparent quality of his works is a reminder of the ephemerality of all phenomena in our life. “Form is void, void is form,” maintains the Buddhist Heart Sutra. Form is simultaneously present and absent; it is momentarily revealed within the space, and subsequently disappears into the void.

1. Sam Hunter, Isamu Noguchi: A Sculptor’s World (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1968).
2. Janet Koplos, Contemporary Japanese Sculpture (New York: Abbevile Press Publishers, 1991), p. 17.
3. From the writer’s interview with the artist, January 2012.
4. Arata Isozaki et. al, Ma: Space-Time in Japan (New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1979).
5. Ilana Singer, Ma: The Concept of the Empty Space in Japanese Aesthetics (PhD dissertation, University of Haifa, 1999) [Hebrew].
6. Ibid. p. 23.
7. From the writer’s interview with the artist, January 2012.
8. Fumiko Nakamura, cat. reverse of volume (Nagoya: Aichi Prefectural Museum of Art, 2011).

The Wilfrid Israel Museum Curator Shir Meller-Yamaguchi