Sometimes it can be irritating visiting an exhibition of video-based art. You come in halfway through one of the videos or near the end of another, and you feel that you’ve missed something and wonder if you should stick around to watch it from the start.
This is something that the London-based, Japanese video artist Hiraki Sawa is very much aware of. Accordingly, the design of his exhibition at the Tokyo Opera City Art Gallery is aimed at getting round such problems, providing visitors with an immersive experience where every moment can count, and where you don’t necessarily have to stay until the end.
“Under the Box, Beyond the Bounds” is an extension of a show that has just closed at Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) in the Scottish city of that name. That show was built around a work called “Lenticular” (2013), which the artist made after a visit to Dundee’s famous Mills Observatory, the only full-time public astronomical observatory in Britain. “Lenticular” is also one of the main works at this Tokyo exhibition.
Taking his cue from the observatory’s planetarium, Sawa has created a sizable dome inside the confines of the Tokyo Opera City Gallery. This serves as a screen for one of his dreamlike films, which runs alongside another, showing an astronomer at work, using the classic apparatus of the observatory, which was built in 1935.
Although you can choose to watch this part of the video in its entirety, it is essentially designed, like all the other works in the show, for visitors to walk in and out at any time.
In an interview he gave in connection with the Dundee show (available on the DCA’s website and YouTube), Sawa explained his approach, pointing out that as a video artist he has to be aware that a museum is not a cinema, which has a timetable of starting times for films.
“I have to work with space, because I cannot really control the people. People would come to the space anytime and then leave anytime, so every moment is really important for the work and for the viewer,” he says. “The work needs to stop the people. The work, the piece, every sequence needs to grab the audience and then make them stay to watch the film. I don’t know how long the audience will stay, but if it’s five minutes I have to try to say something within five minutes.”
“Saying something” is perhaps the wrong expression, as it implies he has a concrete message that you can pick up and take home with you. Sawa’s work is more poetic and associative in the way that dreams are, and wandering around the darkened museum — most of it is in darkness or half-light — is rather akin to being in a dream. You constantly encounter images constructed out of the familiar but with surreal twists: toy planes fly between doors and windows, a bathroom basin is made into a watering hole for miniature goats, potatoes grow legs and walk around.
In another work, “Envelope” (2014), debuted at this exhibition, ghostlike images of a woman running from one side of the room to other are overlaid on each other, creating in their movement a hypnotic wave effect.
All this gives his work a psychological resonance, as if we are somehow plumbing the depths of the mind. In doing so it also raises issues of time, memory and identity. These are encapsulated in a motif that runs throughout the show, namely that of a line that, instead of stretching out, coils in on itself. This is analogous to the way that memory coils the linear narrative of our lives to construct a sense of identity.
This theme is most explicitly explored in the other major work in the exhibition, “Lineament” (2012), in which a man awakens in a bare room representing a state of amnesia. Various things happen: a record player unspools a line of thread, small threads climb the rough walls, entering and exiting tiny holes, and cogs and gears appear. Exact meaning is hard to pin down, but the appearance of the coiled line hints at how we resist the past and the future — and the states of amnesia that characterize the beginning and end of life — to construct the consciousness and identity of the present.
Such grand themes, however, are not laid out over the top of Sawa’s work, but buried deep within it. Perhaps the best way to enjoy this exhibition is just to come in, enter the darkness and allow the various screens and flickering lights to speak to your subconscious mind, because that, too, is a part of your identity.
“Hiraki Sawa: Under the Box, Beyond the Bounds” at Tokyo Opera City Gallery runs till March 30; open 11 a.m.-7 p.m. (Fri., Sat. till 8 p.m.). ¥1,000. Closed Mon. www.operacity.jp