Settling down into Yukio Fujimoto’s “Ears with Chair” (1990) and adjusting the two long tubes on either side to your ears, the drone of the electronic organs on the surrounding walls both intensifies and hollows out. The hushed voices of mingling spectators magnify, as do passing footsteps. You cannot help but feel eloquently isolated, set apart from all else that goes on around you. It is a subtle experience that is pregnant with significance, and partly inexplicable.

“People aren’t listening to music,” says Fujimoto, “they’re listening to space.” He has also noted that “the ear doesn’t hear ‘there,’ always ‘here.’ “

The 57-year-old artist, who represented Japan with his “small sounds” at this year’s Venice Biennale, is currently enjoying a retrospective at the Otani Memorial Art Museum. “Yukio Fujimoto: Philosophical Toys,” assembles 72 works he has previously shown in the “Audio Picnic” series of one-day exhibitions at the same museum in Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, over the last 10 years.

Fujimoto’s first works in the 1970s, in which he used electronic synthesizers, were spectacularly loud. Dissatisfied with that approach, in the ’80s he became enamored with everyday, meaningless sounds, such as the clink of a cup being placed on a table or a page being turned in a book. It was then he shifted from making sounds to finding new ways of hearing them. This drew his thinking to the particular forms of attention required for hearing “smallness.”

“(‘Smallness’) isn’t easy to hear,” he says, “the minute one turns their attention to something else, (the sound) quickly disappears.”

Gallery visitors normally go to “see” something, and due to the importance of sight, the vocabulary around it is large. There are “looks,” “stares,” “glances” and “glimpses.” With Fujimoto’s sound-art, spectators naturally might wonder if hearing can be as varied and nuanced in auditory equivalents.

There are no general instructions for what to do when at the exhibition, but curiosity is a helpful resource. Picking up one of the little wind-up contraptions from “Hermetic Scale (Diameter)” (1988), twisting the key and placing it back on the tableware provided, you are treated to the release of its little sounds and clinks on the plate as the key unwinds, causing the contraption to roll over on the plate. A more obvious work is the amusingly titled “Broom” (2007), a series of brittle tiles covering the floor which visitors are encouraged to tread on. On exerting enough pressure, the tiles crack beneath your feet, and you cannot but help feeling a little naughty — and a certain satisfaction.

More challenging pieces, such as “Table Music” (1987), replicate the statistical probability of winning the lottery. When the 18 “turn-able” (i.e. turntable) knobs are correctly sequenced, a single recognizable piece of music supposedly plays. But where to start — and which key is next?

A crucial reference for engaging Fujimoto’s body of work is Marcel Duchamp, the early-20th-century artist-provocateur, who famously gave up art in 1926 for philosophy and chess. While there are similarities in motifs — the use of sugar cubes, optical tricks and verbal puns, or the conceptual concerns of chance, time and movement — Duchamp’s central significance for Fujimoto is that the Japanese artist, too, to quote Duchamp, “is interested in ideas — not merely visual products.”

In “Instant Art” (1980), for instance, Fujimoto has painted a transparent substance onto records and then peeled it off. These thin membranes “record” the disc’s grooves, making them tangible forms of auditory experience. Still, though the work casts a record as the conceptual, visual and tactile embodiment of sound, records are already all of those things anyway.

Thus, as with Duchamp, it is often difficult to discern how far the artist is being serious — hence, presumably, the exhibition title. The abundance of little surprises and playful ideas delight, and often enchant, and the upshot is that with this show, Fujimoto has created a vast interactive installation that both gets the audience into the mind-set to make sounds and heightens their attention so that they can hear them.

In “Eat Me” (2001) — a cork-stopped glass beaker containing alphabet soup, behind which is projected a passage from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” — Fujimoto offers up, via Carroll’s quotation, what he would like his audience to come away with: “It seemed quite dull and stupid for life to continue on in the ordinary way.”

“Yukio Fujimoto: Philosophical Toys” runs till Aug. 5 at the Otani Memorial Art Museum, Nishinomiya City, 4-38 Nakahama-cho, Nishinomiya, Hyogo; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed Wed.); entrance 500 yen. For more information call (0798) 33-0164 or visit www9.ocn.ne.jp/~otanimus/

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