The ‘big bang’ at Echigo-Tsumari

Antony Gormley brings theoretical astrophysics to Japan's countryside

by Danielle Demetriou

It is a picture-book perfect shrine. Tiny and tranquil, it is framed by a red gateway at the top of a winding forest path. But there is one surprising intrusion on the scene: a shiny Coca-Cola bench matching the vermilion hue of the shrine sits under its roof.

It is here that the British artist Antony Gormley — who bounds energetically up the path while talking nonstop — declares is his favorite place to talk about his latest artwork.

Sighing as he eases himself onto the bench, he says: “It’s so peaceful here, I love this spot — particularly the Coca-Cola bench. It’s where I like to sit and talk about the ‘house.’ “

The “house” in question is at the bottom of the path and at first sight resembles one of thousands of traditional wooden buildings that pepper the landscape of Niigata’s Echigo-Tsumari region.

But this is no ordinary domestic residence. One of 350 artworks currently scattered across rice fields, empty houses and closed schools as part of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial, it is home to Gormley’s latest creation: “Another Singularity.”

Gormley, 58, is as high-profile as he is prolific. The sculptor is renowned for a string of creations in Britain, from Gateshead’s epic steel “Angel of the North” to the 100 cast-iron figures gazing out to sea in “Another Place” at Crosby Beach, Merseyside.

Testimony to his appeal was the immensely popular sell-out exhibition at London’s Hayward Gallery in 2007 — the gallery’s most successful at the time — and a flurry of shows since in Mexico, Australia, France and Spain.

The artist most recently whipped up a frenzied art-versus-theater debate with “One & Other” on Trafalgar Square’s empty fourth plinth involving members of the public moving in for an hour at a time.

But his latest project is in Niigata: in the confines of an old wooden house dating back nearly nine decades, the artist has created an ambitious interpretation of the origins of the universe.

The house is set in a sleepy rural village more famous for its heavy snowfall, cascading rice fields and dwindling elderly population than its contemporary art credentials.

Visitors slip off shoes in the genkan entrance hall before stepping into the still, dark space. Illuminated by shafts of light through several open wooden shoji sliding screens, the emptied interior shell is sliced with the sharp lines of hundreds of taut white cords.

And the central focal point of the dazzling constellation of lines? The barely-there outline of a male figure hovering weightlessly in the rafters.

Astrophysics in rural Niigata may seem as unlikely a discovery as a Coca- Cola bench in a Shinto shrine.

However, Gormley — a tall, articulate man dressed in cool white linen and wearing small round spectacles — explains: “I have tried to put the big bang inside a domestic arrangement.

“The idea was to reconcile in the most domestic of interiors this cosmological principle of the beginning of space and time with the place of the individual.

“I wanted to raise questions about where humans fit into the world at large while reconciling the human body to the idea of a home, a habitat, a house.”

The entire house was digitally mapped to pinpoint locations for the starlike constellations of 482 cords, while the ethereal outline of the man — based on a cast of the artist’s body, doubled in size — consists of 2,000 components.

Central to the work was the artist’s new software he calls “Bubbler,” which unlocked the geometries of the human body to redefine it as an open structure.

“It is a body without its anatomy,” says Gormley. “It is about being free, like in space, not tied to gravity, a condition of weightlessness. It is about deep space versus domestic space and the location of the individual within space.”

The artwork’s astrophysics element is grounded by the traditional craftsmanship that has long defined rural Japan: a dozen local carpenters created the shell interior and removed all inner walls.

“I wanted to expose the basic post and lintel structure of the architecture in the most traditional way,” says Gormley.

“This house was made nearly 100 years ago from six big trees 20 meters long that were brought down the mountainside on sleighs in the winter. Every single piece of wood was hand cut, hand fitted.

“I wanted to make something that accepts the mass of the building and connects its status as a structure of straw and mud and wood with its absolute opposite, the most abstract thing.

“It was a privileged journey to be able to make — to reconcile astrophysics with traditional Japanese mountain architecture.”

But the ultimate test? The reaction of locals who inspected the artwork on the eve of its opening — with fortunately positive results.

“One 83-year-old woman who was born in the house lay down on the floor and stared at it for a long time, before declaring she liked it,” smiles Gormley.

“I can’t imagine what I’d feel if it was my own home and someone from the other side of the world did something like this. They have been very generous in allowing me to do this.”

The context of the artwork — and its acceptance by the locals — is an important element of Echigo-Tsumari’s art festival, which aims to breathe life into communities stagnating due to a decline in farming, lack of opportunities and the urban exodus of youngsters.

“Art is a catalyst for transformation,” says Gormley. “The organizers have shown the most extraordinary imagination — to conceive the idea that you can mix Japan’s deepest rural communities with the most ground- breaking contemporary art. And it works beautifully.”

Later, heading down the path back to the house, Gormley waxes lyrical about the area’s beauty and the “loveliness” of the locals.

And judging by the smiling faces of the motley mix of locals and visitors already emerging from the house, they feel just as positive about the presence of his artwork.

Antony Gormley’s “Another Singularity” is a permanent new artwork at Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial (which runs until Sept. 13) and is open from 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. during the festival. For more information on the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial call 025-585-6180 or visit www.echigo-tsumari.jp