When it comes to giving us a handle on the world we live in, science no longer cuts it. In its latest incarnations — superstring and M-theory — it postulates 10, 11 or even more dimensions, only three or four of which we can perceive. Science’s explanation of matter is equally unsatisfying. Since the atom was proclaimed the basic unit of matter in the optimistic days of the 19th century, it has progressively unraveled into smaller and less substantial particles until it almost seems as if nothing really exists.
This failure to give people a palpable sense of their world, however, has been an opportunity for contemporary artists, as the exhibition “Primary Field: Art Today — Discussion with Seven ‘Places’ ” at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama till Jan. 14, suggests.
“They talked about physics a lot,” says the show’s curator Hiraku Kore-eda, referring to the interviews he conducted with the seven contemporary artists brought together for the exhibition. Not only is the title “Primary Field” a term associated with the world of physics, but each of the seven seem to be striving for something primordial and essential, while using forms that mirror and express cosmic structures.
Taking a cue from the title and viewing the exhibits as quasi-science produces interesting results. Yoshio Sakagishi, who is also showing at the current “Roppongi Crossing” exhibition at Mori Art Museum, creates works by depositing tiny droplets of clay, one at a time, from a syringe, to build up mini-sculptures that look like clusters of atoms in an old textbook.
Noe Aoki’s metal sculptures, by contrast, seem to evoke the void that exists within each atom. Her “Water of the Sky — XIV” (2007) is perhaps the most awe-inspiring work at the exhibition, possibly because the metal structure looks quite capable of collapsing at any time. Around 5 meters tall, the sculpture is made from small discs soldered together to create a weblike frame that captures space without enclosing it.
Tawa Keizo’s dense blocks of metal, with surfaces heavily worked and burnished by hammering with a burin, give a sense of gravity and heaviness. Each indentation on their surface emphasizes the compression of already dense matter, and the way light is both refracted and absorbed by the surface mimics the nature of a black holes.
The heaviness of these works contrasts sharply with the sculptures by Hiroyuki Omori in the next room. Made from porcelain and plaster, their rippling surfaces convey lightness and energy in a refreshing contrast.
Through both science and art, humanity has sought to reduce the surrounding universe to more manageable proportions. This common function is probably more evident in Asian cultures, where the gap between art and science has always been narrower. The work of Hirotoshi Sakaguchi makes this point. He uses elements of Zen gardening to create concentrated aesthetic forms that represent, reflect and refer us outwards to the environment surrounding them.
A perfect example is “For the Garden of Pascal — Hayama 1” (2007), which has been placed in a room with views to the outside. The sculpture embeds a marble shelf, which bears a bonsai pine tree, in a kogetsudai, or a moon-viewing platform. The three elements of this work poetically embody the site of the museum. The bonsai and the marble relate to the Chinese characters for Hayama — “leaf” and “mountain” — while the cone-shaped kogetsudai is a reference to Mount Fuji, which stands majestically across the bay from Hayama on clear days.
Sakaguchi’s work also has resonances with the world of physics, not least in his apparent obsession with the 17th-century French mathematician and scientist Blaise Pascal. He speaks of his art as “trying to connect to the world cycle of nothingness-existence-nothingness where primordial beginnings arise from an empty space.” This is apparent in the two paintings “Pascal’s Garden 07-5 & 07-6” (2007). Both feature grids made by burn marks and dabs of paint occupying the same linen panels. Just as it is theorized that the universe has an equal amount of antimatter and matter, so the “negative effect” of the burn marks seems to balance the “positive effect” of the paint to create a perfect zero.
Although it is the quasi-scientific elements that make this such a fascinating exhibition, Kore-eda is also keen to emphasize another key link between the artists. “I think their performative aspect is very important,” he says, referring to the repetitive acts that several of the artists use to create their works. “Simple actions are very important for them, because they can achieve a more solid sense. They are not interested in conceptual art or looking at what other artists are doing. Each one is following their own road through the actions they use to create their works and a dialogue with their materials.”
The performative aspect — whether it is Tawa repeatedly hammering his blocks of metal or Omori creating abstract ripples in porcelain — allow the artists to escape from the pressures of conscious creation and access primordial forces of chance and the subconscious. Art may be a poor cousin of science in mankind’s struggle to understand and control the universe, but as long as science speaks a language few of us can understand, art like this will always have an audience.
“Primary Field: Art Today — Discussion with Seven ‘Places’ ” runs till Jan. 14, 2008 at the Museum of Modern Art, Hayama, 2208-1 Ishiki, Miuragun-Hayamacho, Kanagawa-ken; open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. (closed on Mon., except Dec. 24, Jan. 14); admission ¥900. For more information, call (046) 875-2800 or visit www.moma.pref.kanagawa.jp/museum/.
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