Sumakshi Singh

volume of strings / Religare Arts Initiative, Delhi India
The Transforming State

The Earth is suspended in vast, silent space.
Its mountains hang by invisible strings.
We are told that an atom is less than 1% mass and 99% free space.
Earth is space.
Its mountains are actually empty.

The thing about Onishi Yasuaki’s (Yasu’s) work is that you immediately know what you’re looking at but you just can’t believe it. The sheer simplicity with which the impossible has been articulated, causes a sharp, involuntary, openmouthed intake of breath. The installation is stunning and it’s monumental…
except that it is missing the monument.

“This vast expanse of our world was born out of emptiness, which is without form, and it will return to the same emptiness. Everything appears and disappears, but the source is the same emptiness, the immense void.” – Osho

April 2010. I am looking at Yasu’s portfolio. In this world form and space have reversed their relationships: nouns have disappeared and conjunctions remain, leaving behind the sentence of space-time punctured with gaping holes for you to enter strange dimensions of scientific lawlessness. A giant, three dimensional drawing of a floating mountain is created that seems to manifest the intangibles of gravity, light and air.

Yasu creates miracles using simple plastic sheets held in place by thousands of strings of hot black glue dripped down from a network of wires in the ceiling. The sky is present and the mountain is missing. In other darkened chambers, room-sized unseen plastic bags breathe. They inflate and deflate slowly; their living, breathing, membranes defined only by star-like points of phosphorous that expand to convey the convex inhale of space and then map the trajectory of its gentle implosion downward. Sometimes glowing strings suspended from the upper surface of the plastic, stretch to expose the full length of extended air and then collapse into a slack puddle of luminous thread: simple yet cosmic, essential, revelatory and immaculate. It’s as if breath pauses and expands into an eternity of silence, and one is invited to walk in to see what that looks like.

As I regard the meticulous austerity of the simple installations done in Korea and Japan, I wonder what will happen to Yasu’s visual language in India.

July 2010, New Delhi, India. A chaotic, colorful network of criss-crossing, overlapping strings appear to create the peaky waves of a mountain-like form, still erupting from the upheaval of colliding tectonic plates. A vertical monsoon of black glue raining from the ceiling culminates in this heaving, undulating, vividly colored web.

Gone is the clean black and white language representing the flash-frozen, blue-print of something. “The Volume of Strings” is “the something” itself: alive, tangible and confrontational. Gone is the considerate back-up room, the safe distance for quiet contemplation and regard. This construction demands a more aggressive phenomenological encounter: at, above and below eye level, with its shifting configuration of conflicting planes. Gone are the neatly defined boundaries of form. Addition or subtraction could happen at any given moment and the plane is now pierced by air pockets.

Upon closer inspection, the visceral tangle slowly reveals a beautiful, carefully considered methodology to its madness. Drip by carefully calculated drip of shiny, tar-like glue descends to catch and be caught by a precise spot on the colored string below. Gravity is used to create a piece that defies it.

Thousands of pieces of found string of varying lengths and colors are knotted together piece by piece and lifted from the seductive pull of the earth by a point of black glue, stretching to the ceiling frame, drawing a hair-like line through liminal space. The usual role of glue, as the invisible agent holding together visible forms is subverted as it announces itself in this profusion of linear repetition. In this universe, physics is redefined as mountains float, the space in-between is given solid substance (filled in like vertically hatched drawing) and the viewer is allowed to enter the forbidden (positive) space relegated to solid matter.

Yasu came to India on the 3rd of July, preparing to hang volume with glue and plastic sheets through another mountain-like intervention. The co-mentor and I quizzed him, “How will this extend your pre-existing practice?” We urged him to consider what the opportunity to be here, in New Delhi at this moment in time, could uniquely offer his work. I hesitantly put forth some points of departure. Perhaps the mountain could echo the shape of the Delhi ridge? Perhaps the language of scooped out, reversed sculpture could be used to evoke specific cultural artifacts, buildings or trees that have disappeared in the violent transformations of our capital? But these options felt too contrived. These were solutions for a long-term citizen invested in the absences of the familiar, a dweller who had been processing and digesting changes in the city. Yasu’s vantage point was different and he would have to find his personal point of contact.

The streets of Connaught Place, Sadar Bazaar and Chandni Chowk can give the term “sensory overload” a whole new dimension with an overwhelming and simultaneous encounter with sights, smells, sounds, textures and temperatures. Meandering through these streets, Yasu wondered how he would dialogue with Delhi. He insightfully points out, “If I had come as a tourist on vacation, I would have been looking at Delhi in a very different way; at eye level; at the people, the shops, the artifacts and the monuments in the guide books. But being here as an artist, looking for something to hold on to for a project, I was looking up and saw the cacophony of colorful tarps strung overhead on ropes and wires dissecting the sky and then looking down and I found the discarded colored string. Vendors use it to tie bundles of books and other articles. I picked it up and brought it into the studio.” I smile and consider what it tells me about Yasu’s nature, when in the midst of the sheer devastation of ripped up streets, torn down buildings, people, cows, garbage and bikes, what he saw was a string.

When Yasu began to go out to comb the streets for discarded strings, people stared curiously. “I started to pick them up to use as my material. People began stopping to speak to me, asking what I was doing. Somebody laughed, but then somebody helped me. I was watching the ground, only to look for different colors and kinds of string. I looked up to see a person who was picking up only clear plastic bags. We looked like friends”.

Yasu’s innocent observation penetrated deep and threw me for a spin considering the unlikelihood of a friendship developing over the economic divide. At the “Ecology in Fragments” seminar at Max Muller Bhavan, our group of artists learnt that 350,000 villagers live off the city by segregating garbage; unpaid laborers, without contracts, scraping up a meager living from recyclables they can sell. I try to put my finger on “What does it mean to have two men engaging in similar action with completely different intent and unequal results? One man to recover the remaining value in its base material state and the other to flood it with value by simple dislocation into a white cube; one to use and one to regard; to salvage functional value versus a wish for the mundane to transcend the functional; an economic necessity versus a chosen visual point of contact with the city.” And why would I presume all this? What if he was an artist too?

During one of his daily sojourns, disappointed at finding only red and white strings, Yasu was looking for more options. Enthusiastic shop-keepers jumped in to help their (by now) local celebrity, trying to get his attention from across the road, excitedly yelling, “Japanese! Look…over there!” pointing toward the blue and green strings, hidden from his eyes or that some had saved for him.

Yasu used the found object like a door, to go outside and experience the city. His self-imposed rule of not purchasing material and using instead the urban detritus afforded him an opportunity to penetrate the street and its inhabitants in a manner rare for an outsider. A micro-community was created around this remarkably simple activity that allowed the users of public space to suddenly stop and consider the potential in the mundane. He recalls that against all odds, not one, usually aggressive street vendor tried to sell him anything during this entire process.

Choosing to make his project out of the ignored byproducts of urban culture, Yasu found yet another way to make the invisible visible.

The mountain-like form is flexible in its associations and used by Yasu simply as a volume that elicits “reads” of nature, accumulation, power, impassiveness, social hierarchies, intimidation, beauty or simply the visual chaos of the streets outside. It is a structure complete at almost any stage in its trajectory of creation after the first string of glue has pulled up a point in the pyramid. “It’s also, sort of a joke. If the residency deadline appears unexpectedly, I can stop making the mountain anytime and at each point, it’s a mountain!” says Yasu with a cheeky smile, which belies the sheer rigor and integrity of his daily ritual of finding, tying and dripping a chandelier of strings.

I think that it might be the colored string that found Yasu, and changed his entire working methodology. Yasu came in “taking out the information or putting the isolated clue in the void, using simple extracted elements: only shape, only color or only motion, pared down even further to a dot, line or light.” This minimalist practice has been exploded open to resonate with the “maximalist” context of Delhi.

Yasu has gone from simply giving voice to a pre-conceived idea, (by raining glue upon plastic covered objects that are removed to leave behind contours of the chosen, absent form) into a much more additive and organic arena. One move responds to the next. One discovered string could shift the entire outcome. He is now constructing the void of the form, bit by bit like the city outside: from underneath and from above. One sees him inside his material mountain, delicately tying, untying, and gluing: negotiating the relationships between its parts. The found object has its history to be reckoned with. He spends long hours standing, chin in hand, staring intensely at this growing volume as if asking it what it would like him to do next. Then one sees him suddenly spurred into action, hot glue gun in hand, performing an impressive acrobatic feat of balance and focus high up on an aluminum ladder, following the trajectory of each drip thirteen feet down with his eye.

This time, perhaps the found object had become the glue; the invisible connector; the negative space that was pulling together a series of stories, communities, interactions and experiences, some visible and others invisible.

Sumakshi Singh, co-mentor, the WhyNot Place Residency 2010