How has Ryuichi Sakamoto been able to harness melancholy so skillfully? How has he created such desperately sad music, and then managed to get up in the morning and do it again and again, over several decades?
Perhaps the beauty and delight of the journey to and from that particular wellspring is enough to keep the 65-year-old musician going. The exhibition “async” at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art is an amalgamation of tracks from Sakamoto’s latest solo album, from which the exhibition takes its name, and visual material contributed by artists Neo Sora and Albert Tholen (who work together under the moniker Zakkubalan), Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Shiro Takatani. The content of the various video material is tightly focused, but in combination with the diversity of moods evoked by the music, it’s possible to travel great emotional distances in the smallest of details.
Sakamoto’s album, which comes after a long break, which included being diagnosed with throat cancer, was conceived as a soundtrack to an imaginary film, and Sakamoto uses the poem “And this I dreamt, and this I dream” by Arseny Tarkovsky (1907-89), father of filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, as spoken word in the album and printed text in the exhibition.
Thai filmmaker and artist Weerasethakul’s video accompaniment to Sakamoto’s music features three main elements: footage of a crowd in front of an outdoor cinema screen that blazes in the dark like a portal into another universe; traveling down a mundane country road at different times of the day; and people sleeping. The quality of the video is low-tech, raw and eerie; fantastically evocative of how dreams might appear if they could be taped and replayed. As Sakamoto moves between soundscape, synthesized noise and harmonious melody, the images become alternatively nightmarish, comforting and archly self-referential.
On the floor below in the museum, Zakkubalan’s static video shots of Sakamoto’s studio and home are displayed on several smart-phone and tablet screens in the blacked-out gallery space. The different views of the uninhabited spaces together form a vision of order and grace, luxury, calm and the sensual pleasures of unhurried looking and listening. A curtain sways in a gentle breeze, images on a TV screen light up an empty sitting room, rain darkens the paving slabs of the patio. The piece is an avocation for the life of the cultured gentleman — like it or not, the gender is historically implicit — secluded in his studio in quiet contemplation of the cosmos. It’s seductive, but also exclusive and slightly retrograde.
The last exhibit is prefaced with text taken from Paul Bowles’ travel novel “The Sheltering Sky.” Takatani, who provided the visual direction for Sakamoto’s 1999 opera “Life,” has taken close-up panning shots of musical instruments, electronic equipment and pot plants on Sakamoto’s garden patio, then digitally edited the images so that they become reduced to flowing lines of pure color. When this process is shown in reverse, fairly mundane objects re-emerge from the abstract stripes.
The transformation of the everyday to the incorruptible and back again, is a return trip to Plato’s world of ideal Forms. In other words, a very fitting work for a musician who has been supremely adept at providing soundtracks to personal and mortal drama, but whose avant-garde work suggests transcendence and a glimpse of an eternal universe unfolding according to its own logic.
“Ryuichi Sakamoto: async” at the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art runs until May 28; 11 a.m.-7 p.m. ¥1,000. Closed Mon www.watarium.co.jp