Find time in the ‘Forests of Asoka’

by C.B. Liddell

Like many people, I have an instinctive suspicion of conceptual art, regarding its practitioners in the same league as politicians, lawyers and snake oil salesmen; namely, hot-air artists who rely too much on words to win us over to their dubious concepts. Art should effortlessly speak for itself, but conceptual art always seems to require additional help, usually in the form of over-intellectualized catalog essays or Gnostic hints and pronouncements from curator and artist alike.

Nevertheless, there is something disarming and engaging about Korean conceptual artist Jae-Eun Choi, which encourages an attitude of trust toward her new exhibition, “Forests of Asoka,” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art. Perhaps it’s her quaint-looking spectacles or the musical trill of her voice, or it could just be the slightly naive way she openly uses her iPhone to dig up philosophical gobbets from the likes of Plutarch, Heraclitus and Borges.

Whatever it is, after a few minutes in her company, you relax and slow down, and time itself seems to pass at a more leisurely pace — all of which is rather appropriate, as “time” is very much at the heart of her work.

“If you only see a tree as a tree, it’s not interesting,” she says of the forest-related installations that make up most of her exhibition. “You should also see the time that a tree encompasses and think about all those things that are inside the tree.”

For any artist keen to make us aware of the passage of time in new ways, trees are the perfect device. They form a bridge between human-sized temporal concepts such as days, seasons and years, and something more eternal and transcendent.

One of the most interesting pieces in this context is “Another Moon” (2010). This ironically turns the Hara Museum’s sunroom into a darkroom, where you encounter a stone laver (a basin used for ceremonial ablutions) filled with water and used as a screen for a video installation. In the water, the moon imperceptibly moves across the sky behind a large tree. Not only does this work refer to the lunar cycle and time symbolized by the bulk of the tree, but it also alludes to the eons of geological time through the tree’s setting.

“That’s a massive 1,500-year-old tree near Mount Fuji,” she says. “There is a temple near Mount Fuji that was built to worship the volcano in the hope of calming its eruptions. That tree was planted with that wish in mind.”

Choi’s attraction to using nature in her installations dates back to her first visit to Japan in 1976, when she became interested in ikebana. She later became an assistant to Hiroshi Teshigahara, the filmmaker and artist who was also the third master of the Sogetsu school of ikebana.

“Sogetsu Hall in Aoyama was the place where all the avant-garde cultural events took place under the direction of Hiroshi Teshigahara,” she remembers. “If I had not come into contact with Teshigahara- sensei, I don’t think I would have stayed with the Sogetsu style of ikebana. He was someone who was able to pull out my artistic side. The Sogetsu style was very revolutionary in its expressiveness; it provided a way to create freestyle three-dimensional art through plants.”

Despite Choi’s background in ikebana, the show consists mainly of video or photographic works, the main exception being “Forests of Asoka” (2010), a slanting floor made from timber taken from old Amish barns. In a show where trees are so important, this lack of other mediums, seems something of a missed opportunity, but Choi disagrees. She prefers to emphasize the essential rather than the sensual, something that the visual processes of film and photography aid.

A good example is “Since When Has the Forest Been There?” (2010). This is a 3-minute clip of forest scenery that flits by too fast to come into focus, creating a consistent texture of blurred foliage and light.

“The concept behind this work is that nothing changes,” she says. “Present, past — it’s all the same. It’s me that’s moving. It’s me that’s changing.”

This aesthetic, with its obvious debt to a Buddhist outlook, is even more apparent in the “The Other Side of Illusion” (2010), a series of forest scenery shots taken from a car in motion. Instead of the detail and prosaic beauty that would appear in a photograph taken when static, all you see are unrecognizable blurs with areas of shade and light. One picture represents the dark, lush summer forest, while another reflects the sparser, lighter foliage of winter.

The title implies that our normal view of the forest — meaning framed by a specific time — is an illusion, and that the essence of the forest, encompassing the flow of time and the waxing and waning of life, is the greater reality. An appropriate thought as we in Japan skip autumn and move from summer into winter.

“Forests of Asoka” at the Hara Museum of Contemporary Art runs till Dec. 26; admission ¥1,000; open daily 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Wed. till 8 p.m.), closed Mon. For more information, visit www.haramuseum.or.jp.