BY Edward Allington in Features | 01 JAN 10
Featured in
Issue 128

In Some Small Way

Explorations in size and scale in recent Japanese sculpture

BY Edward Allington in Features | 01 JAN 10

I am waiting to cross a busy road in Tokyo. Standing next to me is a young, kimono-clad, Japanese woman. She’s using the camera on her mobile phone as a mirror to check her immaculate make-up. I’m familiar with the way people view the world through the LCD screens of their phones, but it had never occurred to me until now that you could use one as a mirror.

The key patents for the LCD (liquid crystal display) technology are held in the name of American inventor James Fergason; the most important is US patent number 3,731,986 for ‘display devices utilizing liquid crystal light modulation’. The Japanese have dominated electronics for decades, but what we associate them with, rightly or wrongly, is not so much invention as miniaturization and an incredible attention to detail. However, the odd thing about a screen, be it an LCD on a mobile or a projection, is that it comes in two sizes: the one you can measure and the scale of its image – although scale is, of course, always relative.

Tomoaki Suzuki, Yukina, 2008, lime wood and acrylic paint, 60x18x15 cm. Courtesy: Corvi-Mora, London

The realization that the woman on the street was using her phone as a mirror vividly brought an image back that I first saw 12 years ago. Floating in front of me above a three-dimensional, dead-sea landscape and a multi-coloured lotus was a cyber-beauty dressed in a kimono, surrounded by manga-style aliens playing musical instruments on clouds. This goddess incarnate was the Japanese artist Mariko Mori in her video Nirvana (1996–7). She had created a vision of paradise – a paradise that was as much about the past as the future: Buddha meets Barbarella. The work obviously has a particular size when it’s screened but is usually listed as having variable dimensions: it can be projected at any size. ‘Using technology in art is very appropriate because we can actually create a vision,’ explains Mori.1 She creates her work through collaboration with major companies – for example, the three-dimensional system in Nirvana was specially created by the Graphic Imaging Technology Corporation. It strikes me now that Mori was predicting the future: 12 years later, the woman standing next to me on the street using her phone as a mirror was, in a sense, echoing what the artist did in Nirvana. In her hand was a solid object and in its tiny screen lay a world within a world – and she was in it.

Tomoaki Suzuki, Carson, 2008, lime wood and acrylic paint, 56x18x10 cm. Courtesy: Corvi-Mora, London

In Nagano City – host to the 1998 Winter Olympics and in the centre of the Japanese Alps – lies Zenkoji, an important Buddhist temple dedicated to ‘Pure Land’ or ‘Western Paradise Buddhism’. The most significant thing about Zenkoji is that it houses a secret image: the Amida Triad referred to in the anonymously authored, 12th-century Japanese classic The Tales of Heike. ‘As regards that temple’s Buddha: there was a certain Amitabba [Amida] Triad 16 inches tall, the most precious set of images in the entire world.’2 This is the form of religion Mori is referring to in Nirvana – a still-current populist version of Buddhist teaching which originated in medieval Japan and offered the possibility of being painlessly reborn into paradise through a lotus flower. Within this tradition the Buddhist icon is seen as miraculous, and is thought by many people to be actually alive.

A thread in Japanese contemporary art links the distant past with the present to create a vision of the future. The Zenkoji icon is hidden behind a screen; it is, apparently, only 25 centimetres tall, even though the temple complex itself is huge. Although more than a thousand years old, the idea of the sculpture, like the fragile digital data of Mori’s Nirvana, functions like a projection: an idea or image that can occupy a field much larger than its actual size.

Yoshihiro Suda, Carmelia, 2009, Wood and rock powder paint, dimensions variable. Courtesy: LOOCK Galerie, Berlin

Yoshihiro Suda makes flowers. I first saw his work in the exhibition ‘Facts of Life’ at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2001. Small weeds seemed to be growing from the corners of the gallery but, on close inspection, they proved to be life-size wood-carvings of flowers. Curiously, though, the size of the sculptures was listed as ‘dimensions variable’ – as with Mori’s digital projections, the artist believes his work occupies the entire space of wherever it is located. Suda’s sculptures are an homage to the small wood carvings of fish, fruit and insects by the sculptor Takamura Kotaro (who died in 1956), one of the most influential figures in modern Japanese art, who is perhaps better known as a poet and critic than an artist. In 1910 he published the essay ‘Midoriiro no Taiyo’ (Green Sun) in the magazine Subaru. A call for artistic freedom, it is regarded as the first statement in Japan to be published in support of Impressionism. ‘If someone paints the sun green, then I do not intend to say that he is wrong,’ he wrote.3

The sculptures of Tomoaki Suzuki also refer to the past while remaining resolutely in the present. I met the artist by chance on the corner of London’s Oxford Street. He was talent-spotting, looking for people with a certain style, who he then asked to model for him. His small carved and painted wooden figures (about 60 cm tall) are exhibited in galleries, where they appear isolated and dwarfed by their surroundings. Although he was trained in London and still lives there, Suzuki’s origins remain profoundly Japanese. A major influence on his work are the extraordinary sculptures of Hiragushi Denchu, an artist who died in 1979 at the age of 107 with enough wood in storage for another 40 years of carving. Denchu used Western clay modelling techniques to prepare for his wood carvings: occasionally painted sculptures of, say, a woman sitting on a mat or a man with a walking stick. However, whereas Denchu’s figures seem unaware of anyone looking at them, Suzuki’s models appear to be very obviously posing.

Hiraki Sawa, Dwelling, 2002, DVD still. Courtesy: James Cohan Gallery, New York

The works of Mori, Suda and Suzuki herald a recent generation of Japanese artists who fuse historical Japanese ideas to contemporary Western approaches; they are particularly concerned with scale, size and place. Hiraki Sawa’s video Dwelling (2002), for example, is a view of a secret place – the artist’s flat. Blending fantasy with everyday life, small aeroplanes fly around his bedroom and kitchen, taking off and landing like the embodiment of small dreams of travel and escape. Similarly, the twins Akiko and Masako Takada reveal complex worlds in the most commonplace of objects. They work on an incredibly small scale, unearthing not only the potential buried in everyday objects – such as two lozenge-shaped pills carved into shoes and boats – but also, by changing their size, transforming them into a kind of screen onto which can be projected new, imaginary scenarios. In the same vein, Kaoru Tsunoda is a young artist who creates objects that reflect upon the Buddhist notion of reincarnation, where an object is transformed and given another life. She produces absurd drawing machines that leave traces of time passing, made from very small, apparently inconsequential things such as plastic drinking straws, computer cooling fans and coloured balls of polystyrene that seem as light as lace. In her ‘Chaotic Circus’ series of works (2004–5), a huge cone of plastic champagne ‘glasses’ stands in a room. A small conveyer belt lifts coloured polystyrene balls and drops them over the glasses as time passes, filling them up. Tsunoda believes that, in time, every human tear will return as a drop of rain; this benign, pastel-coloured machine – a machine of eternal return – is like an everyday echo of this idea.

Kaoru Tsunoda, Chaotic Circus (Series 2, version 1), 2004, plastic cups, motor, polystyrene balls, conveyor belt and plastic tubing, dimensions variable. Courtesy: the artist

Kentaro Haruyama’s work is more ambivalent. Problem (2006) comes in an elegant box, is made of polished plastic and is very colourful; it sits in my hand as comfortably as a mobile telephone. Haruyama is an artist whose work is very close to design, except it has no obvious function. Problem is the same size as a mobile but has no LCD screen and it tells me nothing; it’s like an attractive negative of a world driven by consumerism.

But back to Zenkoji. There is, apparently, a tunnel beneath the miraculous hidden icon. If you walk down it in pitch darkness and can find a protrusion on the wall, then your passage to paradise is guaranteed. Having been down the tunnel and touched it, I trust my eternity is now assured. I just hope it’s as good a paradise as Mori’s.

1 Mariko Mori, Dominic Molon, Mariko Mori, et al, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, and Serpentine Gallery, London, 1998, p. 37 2 The Tales of the Heike, or Heike Monogatan, translated by Helen Craig McCullough, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, 1990, p. 88 3 ‘Midoriiro no Taiyo’ (Green Sun), Takamura Kotaro, Subaru, April 1910, pp. 23–9