The beginning, end and rebirth of sculpture

by

Contributing Writer

The subtitle given to the retrospective of the 60-year career of Osaka-based Michio Fukuoka is oxymoronic: “A Sculptor Who No Longer Sculpts.” He used to, but became frustrated and filled with doubt about creativity and so he made sculpture anyway, often about “doing nothing.”

Fukuoka’s early career works began underground before they rose to the surface, then became suspended above it. Interested in the biomorphic forms of Antoni Gaudi, he found inspiration in a weathered plaster cast that had been left too long on a shelf. He went to a beach and thrust his hands deep in the sand, filled the holes with plaster and then dug up the forms. The “Sand” series was critically received as primitive and grotesque.

His “Miracle Garden” pieces of the late 1950s supposedly cast doubt on what constituted sculpture. The horizontally composed and scattered parts of the works rejected the classical conventions of a pedestal and sculpture’s generalized orientation to monumentality and verticality.

Thereafter coating waste materials in polyurethane, Fukuoka suffered liver failure owing to the toxic vapors he inhaled. Reduced to a life-threatening 38 kilograms and with his sculptural practice frustrated, he embarked on his “Pink Balloon” series in the 1960s. These usually festive decorations represented the artist’s pessimism. His balloons dreamed of soaring to sublime heights, but had swelled from “sighs” and were weighted down by “tragic feelings and romantic dreams.” He mass-produced the balloons until he eventually got bored and quit.

By then, viewed as an artist in the anti-art vein, Fukuoka rebelled with a conservative and figurative turn, yoking art with life. His “Moth” series utilized the insect as a symbol of an anxiety he despised. In “The Carcass of Pink and the Descent of Black” (1972), a moth alights on and squashes a bulbous pink sack, Fukuoka’s symbol of contemporary art.

Next he devoted himself to carp fishing, leading to self-portraits on a lakeshore in his diorama-like “Landscape Sculptures” presented as fiber-reinforced-plastic (FRP) boxes. These were a kind of sculptural diary writing: one was made every day and each reproduced a mundane scene of daily life. He continued this for years, though the works eventually evolved into minimalist representations of calm bodies of water. And these gave way to his coffin-like “Box” series. “My Box (Unfinished)” (1993) was designed with his own body measurements in mind.

In the mid-1990s, Fukuoka embarked on his “Written-Word” works. He embraced devotional mantra-like phrases such as “Should we really not be scared?” and “Nothing to do,” which he inscribed with a power chisel on FRP panels. Writing no more than three lines a day, the phrases were repeated hundreds or thousands of times as a kind of slow motion, self-critical interrogation of how he should create, or not create, sculpture.

Experiencing a “return of the imagination” in the early 2000s, Fukuoka declared an end to his art-making with “Rotten Balls” (2004-05). These deformed little testicles were “uncreative,” and so Fukuoka decided to stop producing art. Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, he started again from 2012 with a seemingly seminal “Seeds” series. Those little finger-rolled clay balls, however, are yet to germinate.

“Michio Fukuoka: A Sculptor Who No Longer Sculpts” at The National Museum of Art, Osaka runs until Dec. 24; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri. and Sat. until 8 p.m.). ¥900. Closed Mon. www.nmao.go.jp/en/