Communion with the spirits of wood

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

When you first encounter the sculptures of Koji Tanada, you might get the initial impression that he’s being facetious or whimsical, and assume that his sculptures are all part of an elaborate practical joke, designed to drive home some droll but not very profound point. And why not? After all, this is the rather low emotional and spiritual level that most contemporary art seems to operate on.

Tanada’s creations — brought together for “Rise,” a major retrospective of his work at the Nerima Art Museum in Tokyo — definitely have that tongue-in-cheek quality. The exhibition is full of comically skinny figures, with hard-to-decipher facial expressions, dressed in underpants, with quaint and unfashionable haircuts or headgear.

Sculpture is usually considered the most monumental of the arts, but there is nothing grand and imposing about these fey, anorexic mannequins with their sad eyes or coy looks.

It would be comparatively easy to dismiss Tanada’s works with a glance and a shrug, but when you are in their presence this is not quite so easy. Although his early experimental works have a cursory quality — banged together, nails sticking out, roughly finished, striving to shock — his more mature sculptures are a different story. These have a subtle, anthropomorphic charisma as if, walking through a forest, you felt the trees looking at you.

You soon realize how much work and craftsmanship has gone into these works. Odd-looking as they are, they are clearly not the work of some flippant artist. A large amount of wood has been removed, much of it with great delicacy and sensitivity going by the graceful and fragile forms revealed, and the surfaces, especially the faces, have been tenderly and patiently worked. In other words, they have the craftsman’s touch.

Museum curator Hiroko Ono highlights the differences between sculpture and painting, referring to the French poet, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire’s 1846 essay, “Why Sculpture is Boring.” In Baudelaire’s view sculpture has “a certain vagueness and ambiguity, because it exhibits too many surfaces at once,” and that any beauty discovered by the spectator “is not at all the one the artist had in mind.”

These criticisms have validity, but, according to Ono, the first one can be redefined as a strength rather than a weakness, while the second problem can be offset by allowing the artist control of how the works are exhibited, so that the beauty discovered by the audience is much closer to that intended by the artist. This has been done in this case, with Tanada carefully arranging the details of the exhibition.

The museum’s central lobby, or atrium, hosts “rise-boy” (2012), a vertiginous, upside-down figure clutching a rope suspended from the ceiling, which symbolically connects it to the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake, as it was woven by students at Tohoku Seikatsu Bunka College High School in Sendai — one of the areas worst hit by last year’s earthquake and tsunami. As such, this work joins a growing list of artworks made in response to the tragic event that are increasingly becoming visible at exhibitions in Japan.

Other aspects of the exhibition dictated by Tanada are having one all-white room and one all-black room, and of course, the exact placement of the sculptures in each. The white room is dominated by “Nagi” (2011) and “Nami” (2011), a pair of figures — male and female — aligned horizontally and suspended a short distance from the floor, almost as if they are suicides jumping from a great height and frozen at the instant before they hit the ground, an impression that adds poignancy to their beauty.

A powerful presence in the black room is “springing up boy” (2011), a figure that I couldn’t help perceiving as Christ without a cross. This also highlights the most important influence on Tanada, seven months he spent in Germany in 2001, and the tradition of German woodcarving. In particular, the artist says he was struck by the asexual realism of a statue of Christ by the Late Gothic sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531). This is clearly something that has fed through into his highly androgynous figures with their sense of spiritual detachment from the world.

Putting things this way, however, makes Tanada sound too derivative. Of course, this is a danger for any artist who is strongly moved by artistic influences from a culture or tradition outside his own; but in the case of Tanada this is not the case. Rather than the showy German piety of Riemenschneider, Tanada’s works are infused with Japanese animism and sensitivity to nature.

This is not always obvious. Some of the figures unwittingly evoke the wimpier examples of Japan’s soshoku-danshi (herbivore men). But closer examination reveals the artist’s close communion with the wood. Rather than expiring messiahs or androgynous geeks, Tanada’s figures are delicate dryads and sylvan sprites — in other words, the spirits of the wood given human form.

Koji Tanada “Rise” at Nerima Art Museum runs till Nov. 25. 10 a.m. — 6 p.m. ¥500. Closed Mon. www.city.nerima.tokyo.jp/manabu/bunka/museum/tenrankai/tanada2012.html (Japanese)