If Pythagoras, Aristotle or any of the other axial luminaries of the Classical World were alive today, they might just be working as conceptual artists in the mold of Hitoshi Nomura, rather than philosophers and scientists. This is because the science and philosophy that these intellectual giants practiced were infused with a mysticism and metaphysical side quite at odds with the strict criteria and dry agendas of their modern equivalents, and much more in keeping with the interests and artistic methods of Nomura, whose career is the subject of a major retrospective at the National Art Center Tokyo (NACT).
As “Nomura Hitoshi: Perceptions — Changes in Time and Field” shows, the 64-year-old artist has attempted to reveal and encapsulate the unseen forces of nature that move and shape our universe, often with the same kind of mystical bent that drove the greatest minds of ancient thought, in his 40-year career.
The exhibition is also notable because of the museum’s attempt to make contemporary art accessible to the wider public. Nomura is the subject of volume four of NACT’s free bilingual booklet, “Door to Contemporary Art,” a series that is carefully written to explain art to general readers.
The best starting point for the exhibition, and the works that begin the book, are Nomura’s “Tardiology” series (1969/2009), for which the artist constructed large towers from corrugated cardboard that were then left to the mercy of gravity and time (and occasionally the weather) to sag, bend, and topple. For this exhibition, a 7.15-meter-high tower has been constructed inside the exhibition space, with earlier towers presented through photography. Using this remarkably simple method, Nomura has effectively demonstrated the power of gravity over time.
Time is Nomura’s frequent refrain, with photographic installations featuring the astronomical rhythms of sun, moon, stars and comets. But some of his most thought-provoking pieces are more down to earth. “The Ten Million Years Tree Graft” series (2000-2009) breathes new life into fossils by grafting fossilized trees, with the wood grain still discernible, into freshly cut blocks of camphor wood.
More often, however, the exhibition feels like a crash course in science. “The Brownian Motion of Eyesight” (1972-1982) references the random movement of microscopic particles suspended in gas or liquid, first discovered by the Scottish botanist Robert Brown in 1827. This is thought to be generated by the “kick” of the atoms that compose the particles. For this work, Nomura put himself in the shoes of a microscopic particle afflicted with Browning motion. Using a camera with a time-elapse function, he randomly and continuously took photos over a 10-year period, with each snap symbolizing a jerk of “Brownian” motion.
Although the results are incredibly boring to look at, this is a thought- provoking work. Also, you may enjoy sitting down at the special table and being handed one of the many volumes to peruse with a set of white gloves to don so that none of the “precious” photos are damaged.
Much more effective, as an artwork, is “The Sun on Lat. 35° N” (1982-1987). Initially, this looks like a large pair of eyes made from some kind of coil. The wonder increases when you realize that this actually consists of 365 photographic images of the daily trajectory of the Sun across the sky. These have been laid side-by-side. In each photo, the curve of the Sun’s trajectory varies slightly. By perfectly aligning these trajectories and joining them together, Nomura has revealed the pattern the sun creates over the year: The vernal and autumnal equinoxes create relatively straight lines, while summer and winter are represented by ever tighter spirals.
An equally interesting artwork is “Moon Score” (1975-1979). By photographing the moon at fixed times and places on film marked with five lines — like music paper — Nomura effectively turned each image into a single item of musical notation. This then provided the basis for him to perform and record these “moon scores,” creating sounds that seem to have properties of composition.
While it is easy to criticize this constant search for an underlying pattern in the universe as mystical mumbo-jumbo, it should be remembered that some of the greatest scientists have been inspired by similar notions. In his book “The Sleepwalkers” (1959), Arthur Koestler points out that the 17th-century German astronomer Johannes Kepler arrived at his laws of planetary motion via an esoteric belief that the orbits of the planets were related to the six perfect solids; while Isaac Newton was well known for dabbling in alchemy.
The beauty and appeal of Nomura’s art is dependent on evoking a sense of awe and magical wonder for the universe around us. Without this, the exhibition would just be a random collection of photos, cardboard boxes, random recordings, fossils, meteorites and assemblages. Luckily, for the enjoyment and enlightenment of visitors, Nomura proves to be something of a sorcerer.
“Nomura Hitoshi: Perceptions — Changes in Time and Field” runs through 27 July National Art Center, Tokyo