Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Sensing Nature at Mori

Japan, with its seasonal extremes and ancient landmass, its crowded futuristic cities and mountainous outlying areas, seems an ideal island on which to carry out a modern survey of nature and its varied depictions, its effect on man and his environment. The gallery too seems ideal: Mori Art Museum is after all an international outpost of big ticket artists, able to mount whatever it wants, when it wants - provided it is big and bold, for Mori specialises in installations with the wow factor, lavished with its must-have catalogues.

The show opens with Snow, an installation by Yoshioka Tokujin in which thousands, perhaps millions of tiny feathers are heaped into an enclosed glass-walled area of one of Mori's interstellar spaces. Unseen electric fans whoop the feathers up in a glorious three-minute blizzard of whiteness then cut-out, leaving the feathers to settle lazily and beautifully into drifts and mounds before another cyclone of air spurts it all up again a few moments later. Yoshioka is a former clothes designer turned artist and was once an assistant to Issey Miyake; in fact Snow was originally designed and produced for a Miyake shop window in 1997 and is reproduced in Sensing Nature for maximum art-effect in a space fourteen-meters wide by six meters high and eight (count 'em! Eight!) meters deep. Yoshioka is also showing a group of sculptures; Waterfall, a 5.8-meter lozenge of gently rippling solid glass, is his weakest piece. The (rather bossy) catalogue commentary tells us that it is 'sublime and overwhelming' and that it was inspired by the crash of a waterfall into a pool, but there is no echo of that crash in the piece. The catalogue also informs us that we are looking at the longest piece of 'optical glass' in the world; bit of a boast of production costs there, and it's probably fair to say Yoshioka's work is very over-designed. Alexander von Vegesack, director of Germany's Vitra Design Museum says Yoshioka is 'unique in the field of design'. Perhaps so, for his work is sought after in both the design world and the international art circuit.

Shinoda Taro, a former landscape gardener in the Japanese tradition, is showing Reverberation: projected moving images of Tokyo and outlying rural areas presented as three hugh screens in a triangle formation, soundtracked by a persistent rumbling; we are not told if this is the sound of distant heavy industry, or something altogether more sinister from deep underground. The first screen shows the suburban Tokyo where Shinoda lives interspersed with images of Tapir at Tama Zoo; the second screen takes the viewer on a journey along the canal-ways of Tokyo, and the third pans across the reservoirs that feed Tokyo's inhabitants: beautiful images of water and sky. The space is so large it is possible to move around this triptych, viewing the moving developing landscape images both separately from each other but also at the edges where the screens meet, so that the descent into the the gloomy tunnels of Tokyo's urban canalways abutts the sweeping wide open waters of the reservoirs and their lovely attendant skies in a sort of natural tension. It becomes apparent, in the darkness, that these three screens are folded around a further space, a small white room, clinically bright, in which we encounter the Model of Oblivion, a work Shinoda has been developing since 2006. We are confronted with a long white table, and what appears to be a white plastic mountain range at the far end over which pours red liquid, ostensibly blood, but it is too thin, which gathers in a seeping, encroaching pool covering about two thirds of the long tablet before dripping down the sides where it is collected by pumps and motors and regurgitated back over the mountain range. It is the very model of futility (Nature's lifeblood on a cyclical slab); the continuous bleeding of the landscape, and its regurgitation, seems filled with a sort of earthbound hopelessness. But all is not lost!... for in the next room is Ginga ('Galaxy'), an immense, round basin of white liquid, its peaceful stillness suddenly and occasionally irked by the jetted propulsion of droplets electronically released from some thirty mineral-water bottles suspended above, causing a dance of pin-pricks, ripples radiating all over. The piece was informed by the gardens of Tofuku-ji temple in Kyoto, where the stones are the stars around which the small pebbles are raked in a swirling representation of starlight... the milky-way in microcosm. If Ginga is Shinoda's Heaven, and the filmic expanses of suburban Tokyo, and its accompanying bass-ratting soundscape are his Earth, then perhaps the Model of Oblivion is Man, bleeding inbetween.

The third artist is Kuribayashi Takashi, who studied traditional Japanese landscape painting and lives and works in Germany. His vision of nature is surveyed from the world's edges and borders; he constructs immersive, somewhat theatrical environments that force the viewer into an act of territorial exploration. There is an obvious playfulness - a trompe l'oeil surprise in his control of the viewer entering into or merely peering through a hole, from one world/space into another. His installation Wold aus Wold (Forest from Forest), is a bleak, bald, pale landscape, made entirely from molded paper pulp of handmade Japanese papers, featureless apart from skeletal, leafless trees. This land fills a room, but the work is not installed on the floor as one might expect: it bisects the room so that the viewer is able to move both under the landscape, albeit crouching at certain points, but also able to stand and look out over it through various occasional openings in what appears to be the forest floor. Examining the underneath of this mysterious forest-space, it's opposite under-space with it's wooden frame and tape, is a bit like seeing the main play-act but also backstage, the pulleys and lighting rig... In this work we are experiencing the main event but also all that supports the unfolding fiction; dual dramas unfolding in parallel lands. That his work is titled/named in German further forces the viewer to consider where territories begin and end. The final rooms of the exhibition house Kuribashi's landmass/mountain Inselu (Islands), a big squat Mount Fuli, some ten meters high, with a perspex dias atop. The viewer is invited to climb a makeshift platform of wood and scaffolding to peer over the peak and its clear lid, which seems to reference the ancient belief of wordly-flatness, the remaining mountain space beneath perhaps representative of the great hulking depths of the world's oceans. In Kuribayashi's final room we come across a Yatai, a traditional Japanese food stall, like a sort of hut on a wheelbarrow, installed in the gallery space, which Kuribashi uses to explore border territories throughout various locations. It is a travelling vantage point that not only has to be pushed (controlled) by the artist, it also opens a flap at its chosen site and receives visitors, an immediate engagement with the artist's chosen site. Kuribashi films his adventures with this Yatai, and is often accompanied by jolly musicians (the stall is a traditional feature of festivals), but that does not mean this work is glib. We see in one film for instance, the artist being admonished by guards at the border of North and South Korea.

There is such an energetic universality at play in Sensing Nature; the show seems to reach into both sea and sky and further, to the stars beyond, all played out against Japan's rich cultural bedrock. It seems remarkable that such a broad investigation is possible with only three participants... but they are an interesting and articulate grouping, and all three in their thirties, with a modicum of international exposure but not too much, which suggests they were chosen for their separate abilities to speak about the world, rather than any sort of tick-boxing of fashionable artists. Oh dear, there I go again... I am clearly suspicious of some of these big, overblown spaces. I admit I occasionally mistrust the motives of their programmers and curators, but Sensing Nature is such an artistic success that it is, of course, a curatorial success also. The artists are interesting too, for their former activities: Shinoda's time tending ornate Japanese gardens is an utterly appropriate grounding for his current cosmological concerns, likewise Kuribashi's patrolling of borders feeds off the endless horizons of painted scrolls he spent many years studying.

Coming to the end of the show I felt a slight hankering for some drawing, but this was not lost on Mori for they have this too, in a punchy display of drawings and studies in the shop, many of which are for sale and reasonably priced. Shinoda's are particularly interesting: he draws colourful cartoons of himself naked and gesturing amongst naive, childlike studies of his sculptures and ideas, Yoshioka's plan for Snow, a small red-pencil drawing of a man seen side-on, standing before a great elemental whoosh seems to have something of ancient Japan about it whilst remaining a modern picture, and such is the success of this show: it manages to show us new ways of speaking, without being afraid of or wishing to escape or deny the broader cultural context, which is Japan is particularly complicated. Sensing Nature succeeds in its reexamination, and like all successful art exhibitions it sheds new light on our perceptions.

Sensing Nature - Rethinking the Japanese Perception of Nature
Mori Art Museum
Mori Tower., Roppongi Hills,