Emily Lawhead

Sculpting the Invisible
The Hidden Landscapes of Yasuaki Onishi
Coconino Center for the Arts, Flagstaff AZ USA
15 September – 27 October 2018

Time. Air. Gravity. Space. These are the invisible forces that drive our experience of the physical world. They are intangible—and yet, many artists have sought to represent these phenomena in material form. In the 1950s, renowned Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi wrote, “If sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.”1 In other words, the space surrounding a work is just as important as the work itself.

This concept gave way for installation art to develop as a medium distinct from traditional practices like painting or ceramics. Installations are site-specific, meaning they are designed precisely for a unique space and are often time-based, limiting display length to a definite period. They are also experiential. Many installation artists believe that a viewer’s presence is the missing link that completes a work of art. Anyone who has visited the Phoenix Art Museum to experience Yayoi Kusama’s You Who Are Getting Obliterated in the Dancing Swarm of Fireflies will see that viewer participation is vital to the experience of the artwork.

Installation artist Yasuaki Onishi creates massive works with these concepts in mind. A native of Osaka, Japan, Yasuaki has a bachelor’s degree in sculpture from the University of Tsukuba and a master’s degree in sculpture from the Kyoto City University of Arts. He has become a well-known contemporary artist throughout Japan and has exhibited in Dubai, China, France, Israel, Kazakhstan, Norway, Denmark, Russia, Italy, Korea, Taiwan, Australia and the United States.

In many ways, Onishi’s medium is space. His large-scale sculptural pieces accentuate the negative space in a room, and he often works to “sculpt” emptiness. He achieves this using everyday materials—plastic sheeting, cardboard boxes, fishing wire and glue. A quick trip to the hardware store will provide everything needed to create an expressive landscape. For his Reverse of Volume installations, Onishi piles cardboard boxes to create a profile of the work. He covers the boxes with plastic sheeting, and black hot glue is dripped from fishing wire until the thousands of glue strands hold the sheeting in place. The cardboard is then removed, revealing a footprint of negative space in its absence—or the “reverse” of the sculpture. Conversely, Vertical Volume installations feature plastic sheeting formed into cylinders, which are suspended by fishing wire and “float” from the ceiling to the floor. Together, these two works create an experience of mountains and clouds, invoking viewers to experience a sense of “seeing and attaining emptiness.”2

The use of nonrenewable materials to represent the environment highlights contemporary society’s relationship with the natural world. In the gallery, viewers experience the human-made and the nature-made simultaneously. The monochromatic expanse forces contemplation of the landscape’s form rather than engagement with its color. Each angle offers an entirely different perspective, and the works react to disruptions in the space by fluidly moving along with the air. They are dynamic monuments—landscapes of the invisible.

Yasuaki Onishi will be installing both a Reverse of Volume and a Vertical Volume work in the Coconino Center for the Arts’ 4,000-square-foot gallery this month. The solo exhibition is entitled Hidden Landscapes: Yasuaki Onishi and is the culmination of a research project I began as an undergraduate at Northern Arizona University. In 2015, I received the Hooper Undergraduate Research Award to conduct studio visits with contemporary installation artists in Japan and compare their concepts of space with medieval garden designs. One of the artists I met was Yasuaki Onishi, and I invited him to exhibit in Flagstaff. Since then, we have been collaborating on installation concepts and exhibition design specifically for the Coconino Center for the Arts gallery.

The cultural exchange generated by Hidden Landscapes continues the legacy of Dr. Don Bendel, who invited Japanese Master Potter Yukio Yamamoto to Flagstaff in the 1980s. Flagstaff has a long history of interest in Japanese arts and culture, which is embodied in the traditional wood fire kiln complex at NAU. Hosting Onishi in Flagstaff provides the next generation with the same opportunity to engage with a Japanese artist and his contemporary practice.

At the conclusion of the exhibition, Onishi’s work will be dismantled. Never again will this particular installation be seen in the same way. Commonplace materials will have been transformed into art and will return back to their everyday components. There’s something valuable about this finite expression of time—another unseen force that guides our experience of the world.

1. Isamu Noguchi, “Meaning in Modern Sculpture,” Art News 48 (March 1949), p. 55
2. ARTCOURT Gallery, Yasuaki Onishi: Empty Sculpture (June 2015), p. 17

Independent curator Emily Lawhead