Artist Yoshioka channels natural inspirations for ‘Crystallize’ exhibition

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Is art that echoes nature “eco” art? This is one of the many questions that the work of designer/artist Tokujin Yoshioka explores.

In recent years, Yoshioka has made a habit of cleverly and elegantly recreating aspects of nature in his installation works. In 2008 he simulated “clouds” by hanging tens of thousands of thin white fibers from the ceiling of Tokyo’s 21_21 Design Sight. In 2011, the main work that most people remember from the “Sensing Nature” exhibition at the Mori Art Museum was his “Snow” (2010), a 14-meter-long tank filled with millions of feathers, occasionally blown by a large fan.

For his latest show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo, he has brought together a group of works that evokes winter. Titled “Crystallize,” the show presents the visitor with a countless number of white straws piled up to create the impression of snowdrifts. This provides a backdrop and connecting motif for several works made from a crystallization process that, in some cases, resembles what happens under extreme Arctic conditions.

But Yoshioka never slavishly mimics nature. His works, such as “Snow” and “Rose” (2013), one of the centerpieces at the “Crystallize” show, are simulacrum of nature but also something more sublime. They are too advanced and technological, and, with everything looking white and clean, much too pristine. In some ways, his installations can be read as updated versions of Zen gardens.

“I don’t find it appealing to directly replicate nature,” he tells The Japan Times. “Like a painter who uses oils on canvas, I like to take nature into my work, not just copy it. I work to express something that is not realistic in our daily lives — a sense of wonder — and try to touch people’s senses.”

The works in the present show have this quality of the sublime that Yoshioka strives for. These include the crystal works that are almost lost among the artificial snowdrifts, as well as a number of glass prism works, such as the cathedral-like “Rainbow Church” (2010), a soaring piece that fills a large hall with sunlight split into rainbow colors by its 500 crystal prisms.

This need to make an impact is something that was instilled in Yoshioka in the early days of his career, during the more-than-10-year period he worked as part of fashion designer Issey Miyake’s team. During this time, he worked on a wide range of projects, from shop presentations, fashion shows and exhibitions, to designing furniture and accessories for Miyake’s Paris collection.

“I still work for Issey, doing space design for him, so the relationship has been continuing for about 20 years,” he says about his mentor. “He is innovative and has a very free perspective. He gathers many talented designers around him, each of whom has unique original ideas. Somehow he extracts their best parts and brings it all together.”

In addition to the inspiration side, the essence of design is typically to assign lines and proportions to things; in other words, to set limits on materials and decide colors and patterns. It is interesting, therefore, that Yoshioka is drawn to expressions that move beyond the traditional limiting function of design by using such mediums as crystals that grow by themselves, and light, whose countless refractions are hard to plan and control. Each medium has a life of its own.

“For me, creation is something that is very attractive, not necessarily expressing itself as form, but, like art, something that attracts people almost without reason,” says Yoshioka, explaining his aesthetic. “Most art seems to have some kind of theory behind it, but I focus on creating something that attracts people more purely. My design process is not about drawing lines. I concentrate on how to surprise people. It’s a very unique process so it doesn’t start from a sketch.”

He cites one work as an example of how he proceeds. Called “Spider’s Thread” (2013), it is another of his crystal works. Several threads converge to create the merest outline of a chair that is then given form by ice-like crystals growing on the threads. The title of the work is also a reference to the famous short story of the same name by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, written in 1918, in which the Buddha gives the soul of a criminal in hell a slender chance to escape on a spider’s thread because of one good deed he did when he refrained from killing a spider.

“I wanted to capture that same fleeting feeling,” Yoshioka says. “The idea is that it’s almost invisible — the structure of it — and then suddenly it appears to be a chair, so the idea was a kind of transformation.”

Such poetic associations can also be found in his crystal “painting” works, especially a series of works in which he induces crystals to form on panels, and influences the process by playing classical music into the crystallization tanks. The exhibition includes one such tank with a piece of music from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake” playing, as well as several displayed works produced by the process on the walls.

He explains that he is interested in works that explore the transition between different human senses, such as sound and vision. But why limit these sound crystallization works only to classical music? Why not experiment with other soundtracks, like whales singing or heavy metal?

“Maybe one day I’ll use Michael Jackson, but for now I’ll stick to classical music,” he replies. “The reason why I played music to the paintings was to give life to each work and so that the music could become a painting. I also like the contrast between history and the present. What I am creating is more futuristic, so if I use classical music it probably creates a kind of contrast.”

One drawback to further experimentation in this field is that he’s not really sure how music influences the crystallization process.

“I don’t know how they differ,” he admits. “I am not really sure of the actual effects. There are too many other factors, like room temperature and so on.”

The absurdist aspect of pumping music into tanks of liquid to influence the crystallizing of canvases also recalls how Yoshioka got his start back in the early 1990s, at the high-water mark of postmodernism in design, when important influences also included designers Shiro Kuramata and Eiko Ishioka. Some of the same iconoclastic, anarchic, and punning sensibility can be detected in many of his works, such as his “Pane Chair” (2006). Taking its name from the Italian word for bread, the chairs are shaped and then literally baked to fix their final form.

“I remember that period well,” he says. “At that time Issey, Shiro and Eiko were always together, and they were always trying to create something new, so it was an interesting period for design. I was very involved in that, working and participating; so, yes, maybe I was influenced by postmodernism.”

But so much that came out of that period now seems as dated as overalls, snap bracelets and bucket hats. The inescapable problem is that every line that designers draw is inscribed with its own era. By avoiding lines, decoration and motifs, and staying close to the elemental in his ideas and materials, Yoshioka has pioneered a kind of anti-design that seems to step outside the time traps of trend and fashion.

“I want to create something that looks fresh and new, even if times change,” he says. “The secret to this is to study a lot from nature. The lesson from nature is the most important for human beings.”

Japanese traditions of nature, such as Shinto beliefs and Zen gardens play an important part in this.

“Like Zen gardens, I intend to create a space that is very blank, very silent,” he says. “This exhibition space is very large, but the idea is not just to fill up this space with works. I think one strong work filling a large space has a stronger message. After all, in any exhibition the works that remain in our memories are few. That’s why it’s very important to create a silent space that is empty.”

“Crystallize” by Tokujin Yoshioka runs through Jan. 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Tokyo. Admission costs ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.tokujin.com or www.mot-art-museum.jp/eng/2013/tokujin_yoshioka.