It is as epic as it is arresting. With a gentle whirr, thousands of white feathers are blown into the air in a vast clear space where they proceed to toss and tumble like snowflakes.
The man-made snowstorm is the opening work in a new exhibition that tackles a subject over which poets, philosophers and painters have obsessed for countless centuries: nature.
And perhaps nowhere more so have they done this than in Japan. From haiku to the tea ceremony, the quest for harmony between humans and all-powerful nature has been a theme that has long resonated throughout Japanese culture as well as the Shinto belief system.
The new exhibition “Sensing Nature: Rethinking the Japanese Perception of Nature,” at the Mori Art Museum, is an attempt to offer a modern-day perspective on the forces of nature in a technology-weighted 21st-century world.
Among the strongest features of the exhibition is the careful curation of only a small selection of works by three creators — Tokujin Yoshioka, Taro Shinoda and Takashi Kuribayashi — enabling each work to appear on a more epic scale than space might normally permit.
Testimony to this is the opening piece, “Snow,” by the designer Tokujin Yoshioka, who is usually referred to by his first name only. Standing at one end of a vast, white empty space illuminated with a wall of white light is a 15-meter-wide clear container, inside of which up to 400 kg of feathers are churned into the air every few minutes by a fan, before settling again as gently as snowflakes.
Describing his work, Tokujin says: “I first created a similar piece in the window of an Issey Miyake store in 1997. But since then, I’ve always wanted to do something on a much larger scale.
“This is not about replicating nature. I’m not trying to re-create nature. What I’m trying to do is explore how nature affects people and what moves people.”
The designer’s exploration of light and textures is taken further in a piece made from crystal — which was grown organically over the previous year — and two others constructed from optical glass normally used in space-shuttle production.
“Waterfall” sits in a small, white, brightly lit room of its own, and is a long narrow cut of optical glass whose shimmering light-refracting texture is as dynamic as fast-flowing water despite the solidity of its structure.
Peering playfully into one end of the artwork, Tokujin adds: “This is the biggest object in the world you can make with this material.
“I like translucency. I like the light that goes through it. A clear material can become a distinct object when light passes through it.”
The atmosphere changes instantly upon encountering the work of Taro Shinoda, as Tokujin’s white minimalism is replaced by a galaxy-dark room with a vast three- walled video installation.
Against a humming electronic soundtrack, the three screens flicker with footage of urban Tokyo — crowded crossings, empty parks, subway escalators — offering glimpses of nature (sometimes via crowds of people, other times via a tired patch of grass between buildings).
Inside the screens is a small room containing “Model of Oblivion,” in which a visceral red liquid is clinically pumped across “white cliffs,” creating a vision as sinewy as human muscles on a white table.
Explaining his approach, Shinoda says: “In my mind, waterfalls are connected to oblivion. When I stare at a waterfall, I go into a daze and forget reality. But the essence of myself is always there, even when I forget everything. I tried to express that here in an abstract sense.”
His final piece can be smelled before it is seen. Inspired by Tofukuji Temple’s Hojo Garden, the artwork “Ginga” — meaning Milky Way — is set in a peaceful futuristic-style room and consists of 50 plastic bottles continually dripping milky white water from the ceiling into a still round pool (the sweet smell is caused by the bath salts used to create the milky effect, according to the artist).
Entering the world of the final artist, Takashi Kuribayashi, involves a further shift in tempo — as well as the lowering of heads — with a work made entirely from a mix of traditional Japanese washi paper and tree pulp.
In an atmospheric exploration of the boundaries of life above and below ground, visitors walk into a space beneath a low ceiling of organically curved and flowing paper.
It is only by sticking heads through a handful of small cutout holes — just like an insect sticking its head out of the ground — that the view above unfolds: a beautiful forest of white trees.
The theme of boundaries takes on a different role in Kuribayashi’s final piece: Against a wall of windows, several wooden yatai (portable food stalls) constructed by the artist are on display, each as independent and inviting as little houses, complete with the odd pot plant and mismatching stools.
Meanwhile, a screen shows a film of Kuribayashi and friends taking one of the yatai on an unlikely journey to the borders of North and South Korea, charting their encounters along the way.
“My work is about boundaries,” says Kuribayashi. “For me, nature is a power that can be terrifying and overwhelming. We are a small part of this.
“When a human being stands with nothing before him, there is a distance between him and others. This yatai helps break down such boundaries.”
From snowstorms to the milky way via underground forests and wooden stalls, there is one certainty amid the contrasting works at the Mori Art Museum: Visions of nature can be as singular and open to interpretation as they are imaginative.
“Sensing Nature: Rethinking the Japanese Perception of Nature,” at the Mori Art Museum, runs till Nov. 7; admission ¥1,500; open Wed.-Mon. 10 a.m.-10 p.m. (Tue. till 5 p.m.). For more information, visit www.mori.art.museum/eng