The camera obscura is an optical device that was occasionally used by Dutch painters of the 17th century to help them achieve a superlative level of technical proficiency. Literally meaning “darkened chamber” in Latin, it is a room with a small hole in one wall that lets in light from outside and casts an upside-down image of whatever surrounds the chamber on to a screen inside. The three-dimensional scene from outside thus loses a dimension in its reproduction on the inside, making it easy to trace and suitable for picture making.
Like the camera obscura, Yukio Fujimoto’s (b.1950) most recent installation “Shadow-Exhibition Obscura” at the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art, concerns the subtraction, and also the addition, of dimensions to the experience of art.
Museum visitors do not usually get to be touchy-feely with the objects around them, but this exhibition, which is shown annually, originally catered specifically to the sight-impaired. Now in its 20th year, this show retains visual games such as Fujimoto’s “ECHO (WATER)” (2001), in which an LCD display of the word “echo” is capitalized and reflected in water in a way that seems to defy physics, but has also expanded its range of artworks, paying more attention to touch and sound.
Fujimoto adapts the term “camera obscura” to the exhibition title and also the exhibition space. It can take several minutes for the eyes to adjust in a room-sized camera obscura and about the same in Fujimoto’s dark installation. On entering, you are asked to remove wristwatches and rings, and in a mostly unlit room you are invited to grope several of the exhibits nearby, including a few sculptures by Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) and one by the modern French sculptor Emile Antoine Bourdelle (1861-1929).
The emphasis is on bringing in a tactile dimension to the usually beyond-reach surfaces of sculptural works and adding a more literal feel to the tactile-oriented nature of moving around free-standing sculptures. Fujimoto’s own contribution to this conception is “18 x 18” (2002), a work that allows touch to resonate. Spectators are beckoned to by the little knobs of wind-up musical contraptions set in a large transparent acrylic sheet. When wound, the contraptions release their melodies one at a time or all together in gentle cacophony.
Added to Fujimoto’s works are selected pieces from the museum’s collection that further the artist’s intent. One of his art prankster precursor heroes is the French artist Marcel Duchamp, who famously rallied against the purely retinal emphasis in art and the phrase “be^te comme un peintre” (“as stupid as a painter”), an obviously disparaging denunciation that positioned the artist as an unthinking agent who merely recorded visual experience. Duchamp’s presence is keenly felt on entering the exhibition in a duplicate print if his silhouette by poet and art critic Takiguchi Shuzo (1903-1979). The silhouette is, of course, the two-dimensional apparition of a three-dimensional body, and so the image cast is complicit with the flat surfaces of prints and paintings that, until the early 20th century and the advent of abstraction, had conveyed an illusionistic sense of three dimensions on two.
A large painting by Jiro Takamatsu “Shadow #394” (1974-75) continues the thematic premise. Takamatsu, using black on large white canvases, painted the ephemeral shadows of passersby that conjure two senses of the shadow as an apparition: that of simply shade and that of a phantom of a former presence. The silhouettes themselves are only two-dimensional but, depending on the proximity of the bearer of the shadow to the light source, the intensity of the cast shadows thickens or thins, creating the seeming paradox of space emergent in two dimensions.
In need of some explanation is the inclusion of prints by Odilon Redon (1840-1916) and Yasuji Inoue (1864-89), which, though dark, do not readily appear to continue the conceptual themes in the exhibition. The somber black mezzotint print by Kiyoshi Hasegawa (1891-1980), the French term for which is “maniere noire” (“black image”), however, continues the murky theme, though palette restriction is here a technical, not a conceptual, concern. Other works include sound-themed ones, such as Fujimoto’s oft exhibited “Ears with Chair” (1990) and a new work “Time-Line” (HPMA) (2009) — 200 little clocks arranged along the exit corridor of the exhibition hall that hurriedly tick away as spectators move back into the light-flooded lobby.
While the exhibition is small, consisting of a few more than a dozen works, it provides an attractive conceptual counterpoint to the Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art’s main autumn exhibition, “Trompe-L’oeil — Visual Deception.” In one sense, all competent painting from the Renaissance to the late 19th century contrived to show three dimensions on two-dimensional surfaces, just as the French term “trompe-l’oeil” emphasizes, fooling the eye of the viewing subject. Fujimoto’s concern lies less in seeing three dimensions than in paring one away and turning the lights down, drawing on the spectators active imaginative participation with sound and touch to bring further dimensions to bear on our apprehension of art works.