Confusing the categories

Wakiro Sumi's works invite quiet contemplation

by C.B. Liddell

Maybe it’s just as well that the Museum of Modern Art, Kamakura was as deserted as it was, because the sculpture of Wakiro Sumi is art that whispers rather than shouts. At one of Tokyo’s busier museums or galleries, with your head still abuzz with the screech of traffic, the blitz of advertising, and the hustle and bustle of the crowd, Sumi’s art could quite easily be drowned out.

As it is, before encountering it, you can enjoy a calming walk through the streets of the charming old town of Kamakura, where jinrikisha still ply their trade, and spend a refreshing moment in the cherry-tree gardens of Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, where the museum is located. Relaxed, with mind emptied and mobile phone switched off, Sumi’s sculptures have a chance to work their delicate magic.

“The point of my work is not to enjoy it through photographs,” the 57-year-old artist tells The Japan Times. “You need to look at it in the place. You need to be in the same atmosphere, just looking at my work face to face.”

The museum is showing Sumi’s sculpture in its lower galleries and courtyards as part of the 11th installment of the “Artists Today” series of exhibitions, which aim to introduce active contemporary artists to the general public. On the upper floor is the photography of Naoya Hatakeyama. While Hatakeyama’s prints of the deserted aspects of cities bring a minimalist aesthetic to the Japanese urban environment, Sumi’s sculptures create their own unique sense of space by positioning themselves between artistic categories.

“My work is between painting and sculpture, figurative and abstract,” Sumi explains. “I called my work sculpture, but everybody thinks it’s not sculpture because my technique is to make works look like painting.”

Although this is a simplification, there is much in Sumi’s sculpture to cause category confusion. “Kamakura Veil” (2006) is an excellent example. The piece presents the viewer with a 3-meter x 6.4-meter object that exists uneasily between two and three dimensions. On a bright red board, the artist has brushed on a mixture of melted wax and paraffin, just as if he were painting. The wax, dribbling down, has hardened, creating a kind of abstract frieze of solidified droplets and rivulets that sometimes mask the board, and sometimes they translucently transmit the under color. Sumi raises additional questions by cutting a door through the middle of the board and having the right side of the wax surface — supported by hidden wires — peel away from the board. By presenting you with what is in effect a veil or a barrier, the work allows you to turn down your “mental volume,” so that you notice little things, such as the tiny random patterns made by the wax before it solidified.

Other effects in Sumi’s works are equally subtle. “Evidence” (2006), with its slightly anthropomorphic, feminine mass of bronze is more obviously a classic piece of sculpture, but by setting an upright fluorescent tube a discrete distance from it, Sumi delicately offsets the cozy one-to-one relationship that the viewer normally seeks with a statue. Instead you are now forced to bring the neon tube — an inconvenient third party — into the equation. Moving to the side brings the two elements together in your field of vision, but only by looking at it from the front, as with a picture, does the piece have any aesthetic balance. Though this is sculpture, it is unusual as it prefers to be viewed from a single vantage point rather than in the round.

From this position the artist’s intention ultimately becomes clear. Instead of switching uneasily between the two discrete and difficult to integrate elements, he wants you to reach a synthesis by focusing not on the objects, but on the void between them, and then by focusing on the light traveling through that space from the tube to the bronze. Encountering this work at a quiet, publicly funded art museum helps the viewer get the most from it, so how does the artist feel about appearing in more trendy venues?

“Of course, if they want to exhibit this at the Mori, that’s OK,” Sumi responds. “But my work is very quiet, so placing it in a simple and quiet place helps.”

The enjoyment of Sumi’s subtle sculptures takes time and patience, and it is at odds with much of the sensory overload of modern life and contemporary art. But taking the trouble to listen to the whisper sometimes helps you escape all the noise.