There is an emerging trend in town: slipper art, and it has nothing to do with the new Speaker in Federal Parliament. At two venues this week the viewer is asked to slip a protective covering over his or her shoes, so as not to soil the art. This is slightly at odds with the fact that one is also being invited to walk all over these installations.
No slippers were ever required with Carl Andre’s floor installations of metal plates, such as the one in the Kaldor Collection at the Art Gallery of NSW, which we can trip over in any kind of footwear. The difference is that Andre’s minimalist sculptures present themselves as obdurate things in a material world. The work of Tokujin Yoshioka and Shen Shaomin is highly theatrical, seeking to transport the viewer to an imaginary realm. Consequently, it’s best to keep the muddy footprints off the art.
This is particularly important with Yoshioka’s Waterfall at the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation. Although better known as a designer rather than an artist, Yoshioka’s work cannot be assigned to any obvious category. Many of his installations have been described as “achromatic”, denoting a complete absence of colour. When he has employed colour, as in a piece called Rainbow Church, shown last year in Korea, he drew on the natural colours of the spectrum refracted through a screen of crystals.
The lack of colour prompts a more visceral reaction to Yoshioka’s work. Waterfall consists of two large benches made from optical glass and stainless steel, surrounded by 500,000 clear plastic drinking straws. It is a variation on two previous installations held respectively in Japan and the United States, but the aim is the same: to create a sensory experience that makes the visitor think of water, of cold, of snow-covered landscapes.
Yoshioka says that his main aim is “to make people happy, to move their emotions”. It might be more accurate to say that he hopes to create a sense of wonder. When we stand in the central gallery at the SCAF, we are dazzled by the prevailing whiteness on all sides; by the way the light plays on the straws and benches. The two massive slabs of glass are rippled in a way that suggests running water, if one can imagine the paradoxical idea of water snap-frozen while in motion – an effect possible only in photography, not in nature.
In a fascinating catalogue essay, Mami Kataoka, relates Yoshioka’s work to the Japanese concepts shinrabansho (the whole of creation) and tenchbanbutsu (all things in the universe). For the English-speaker it’s hard enough to imagine there are words to describe such sweeping ideas, let alone fine distinctions to be made between one term and the other. It’s no revelation that Japanese attitudes towards nature are more complex and finely tuned than western ones, partly through the influence of the Shinto religion, which is more like a form of animism than a system of beliefs dependent on a supreme deity.
Followers of Shinto believe there is a spirit in every part of nature. It’s a congenial religion for a world that is gradually acquiring a new ecological consciousness, albeit one driven largely by fear of the consequences of further degradation. Shinto posits a continuity between humanity and nature, not an adversarial relationship.
This sort of holistic thinking is implicit in Yoshioka’s installation. We are immersed in an environment that conjures up powerful impressions of nature, even though the materials – glass, steel and plastic – are artificial. This also reflects a Japanese pattern of thought. Instead of creating a window onto an imaginary nature, as with a landscape painting, the artist emphasises the unbridgeable gulf between the natural and the manmade. We attain a more complete appreciation of nature by contemplation of that which is emphatically not-nature.
There may be a spirit in a river or a mountain, but not in a plastic drinking straw. The Korean-born artist, Lee U-fan, who was a leading figure in Mono-ha, the Japanese conceptual art movement of the late sixties, would make this point by juxtaposing a stone and a slab of metal. Yoshioka does it in a more elegant way in his immersive installations. There is a moment of realisation when we understand that the sensation of nature may be artificially generated, but the essence of nature is something unique that has to be experienced first-hand if one is to undergo a true communion.
If there is a green message to be extracted from Yoshioka’s achromatic environment, there is no political soapbox. It is more like a polite reminder that nature and the spirit are to be valued and respected.
When one turns to Shen Shaomin’s installation, The Day After Tomorrow, at Gallery 4a, the difference between the Chinese and Japanese sensibilities is brought home with a jolt. Shen came to Australia shortly after the Tiananmen Square events of 1989, and spent a decade in the suburbs of Sydney. During that time he never felt at home, and made little impression alongside some of his more celebrated peers, notably Guan Wei.
Everything changed when Shen returned to live and work in Beijing. Within a year or two he had risen to the top of a well-populated hill – the Chinese contemporary art world. It was as though Shen had been stockpiling his ideas and energy, waiting for the opportunity to reconnect with his homeland. Today his work may be seen in museums and galleries around the world. He was one of the stars of last year’s Sydney Biennale.
Shen’s work is extremely varied, but one may spot recurrent themes such as memory and mortality, the tensions between tradition and modernity, our strivings to control and order nature. Like many Chinese artists there are avenues for political reflection, both overt and oblique.
Anyone who has ever been discomfited by Patricia Piccinini’s hyperreal silicone figures will find The Day after Tomorrow positively creepy. Where Piccinini’s mutants have a Disneyfied feeling, Shen creates a darker, more sinister scenario.
Visitors to the exhibition are initially confronted with a ring of temple bells made from different materials – steel, wood, rubber, and so on – which all give off a different sound when struck. It is a neat one-liner that satirises a surprising uniformity in the structure of religious belief. While belief is non-negotiable, with one group fiercely opposed to the next – dare I say the Catholics and the Protestants? The Sunnis and Shias? The ALP and the Coalition? – from a distance it all looks remarkably similar. At the very least it looks similar from a vantage point in Beijing.
The real challenge lies at the top of the gallery stairs, where one is confronted with a life-like silicone figure of a naked, ancient crone sunning herself in a deck chair. This is not a sight for the gerontophobic.
The chair sits on a field of salt that substitutes for a beach and necessitates the use of slippers. Down the other end of the gallery are a series of birds and animals curled up on mounds of salt. Each of them has shed fur or feathers, which lie like dismembered wreaths around these naked, vulnerable creatures. There is a deathly atmosphere in the room, but every figure seems to be clinging to life. The elderly sunbaker is enacting a gruesome parody of popular leisure, echoing those advertisements that encourage tourists to relax on a tropical beach. The birds and animals are apparently nesting, some of them with offspring.
It is a picture of a world in which any authentic relationship with nature has disappeared but humans and animals still go through the motions. Like Adam and Eve in reverse, they have become accustomed to their nakedness, even if it offers no protection whatsoever from an environment with plentiful radiation but little moisture.
If this piece of science fiction is too terrible to contemplate, one may become reacquainted with the sense of wonder with the Korean artist, Chun Kwang-Young at the Conny Dietzschold Gallery. Although this show has officially concluded, it’s still possible to see a series of works that evoke natural forms through an ingenious technique of wrapping small pieces of polystyrene in mulberry paper covered with Chinese calligraphy. These ‘aggregations’ as Chun calls them, are as malleable and varied as any landscape. If not for the calligraphy one might see each work as the result of some geological upheaval rather than the patient activity of the human hand.
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, December 3, 2011
Tokujin Yoshioka: Waterfall, Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, until 17 December.
Shen Shaomin: The Day After Tomorrow, Gallery 4a, until 10 December.
Chun Kwang-Young, Conny Dietszchold Gallery.