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The City Of Sapporo As Social Sculpture: A Report On The Sapporo International Art Festival 2014

By Anna Dickie  |  Sapporo, 9 September 2014

In what is recognised as a defining event for many of Japan’s leading art figures today, Joseph Beuys toured Japan for eight days in 1984. The tour arose to coincide with an exhibition of his work, including installations and performance pieces, at Tokyo’s Seibu Museum of Art. That Beuys' influence continues to reverberate in the context of Japan’s contemporary art today is signaled in the curatorial approach to Sapporo International Art Festival 2014 (SIAF2014). 

Acknowledging the influence of Beuys, and specifically his ideas on ‘social sculpture’, guest director Ryuichi Sakamoto focuses SIAF2014 on the theme of ‘City & Nature’: plugging art into the daily lives of those in Sapporo, while raising questions about modern civilization, our current state and suggesting ways of moving forward.

The exhibition takes place in three central exhibition venues: Moerenuma Park, the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art and Sapporo Art Museum. It also infiltrates into the daily lives of the people of Sapporo: including in the occupation of two slices of underground tunnels connecting the major commuter paths in Sapporo, and in the installation of Sakamoto’s Welcome Sound at various points around the city—at Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport its liquid sound punctuates the soundtrack of the airport at spacious intervals.

Sound as a material is explored throughout the Festival; which is unsurprising given Sakamoto is one of Japan’s leading musicians and composers. At Takeo Arishima’s Old Residence within the Sapporo Art Park, Soichiro Mihara’s subtle sound piece, bell, quietly questions the relationship between nature, science and humans by chiming whenever an embedded microchip detects natural or human-made radiation. In the forest of the Sapporo Art Park Sculpture Garden, Susan Philipsz’ sound installation, The Cuckoo’s Nest (2011), features the artist’s voice singing a medieval English canon called “Sumer Is Icumen In”. At Sapporo Art Museum, Aiko Miyanaga presents a sound installation employing ceramics from her Soramimimisora (Hearing Things) series to produce faint and unpredictable sounds emitted by fired vessels. The work draws inspiration from the geography of Sapporo, and specifically the springs that well up from deep underground in the upstream section of the Toyohira River, one of Sapporo’s primary waterways. Like many of the works in the exhibition, it is intended to evoke multiple layers of associations surrounding the rise and evolution of the city.

Sapporo’s location on the alluvial fan of the Toyohira River is inextricably linked to the city’s development, and the exhibition Sensing Streams curated by associate curator, Yukiko Shikata in the Sapporo Ekimae-dori Underground Walkway (Chi-Ka-Ho), references both the flow of water beneath Sapporo and also the flow of people through the walkway. In the work, Semi Senseless Drawing Modules (2014) created by Japanese duo So Kanno and yang02, sensors are used to collect data about the number of people passing by, and the humidity and temperature of the nearby environment. This information is then converted into programming signals that culminate in endless coloured lines being drawn by a motorized device across twenty metres of the walkway’s wall. Ultimately as more and more information is produced, the lines will build up culminating in a brightly coloured myriad of horizontal lines. This interest in the intersection between science, technology, and art is reflected in a number of other works in the Festival, most obviously in the two major works situated inside the glass pyramid known as “HIDAMARI” in Moremuera Park, which also use sensors.

Moremuera Park is a sprawling sculpture-as-municipal-park designed by Isamu Noguchi, the Japanese-American artist and landscape architect who sadly passed away before his vision for the Park was realised. Noguchi wanted the park to be considered one complete sculpture and in many ways Sakamoto’s vision for the venue, conceived alongside associate curator Shikata, reflects this concept. Sensing Streams invisible, inaudible, a collaboration between Sakamoto and Daito Manabe and Forest Symphony (2013-14), a collaboration between Sakamoto and YCAM InterLab, a technical production team in Yamaguchi Centre for Arts and Media, both abdicate authorship to electro magnetic technology, which works to draw the outside environment into the glass pyramid. Sensing Streams - invisible, inaudible is displayed on a 7.2m x 3.9m high resolution screen that sits within the atrium of the building; its backdrop the monumental glass of the pyramid structure and the green landscape of the park beyond. The work is created by sensors that collect electro-magnetic waves from the site of Moerenuma Park, as well as from around Sapporo city which are then coded into the visual and sound patterns that are presented on the screen. Forest Symphony (2013-14), likewise uses sensors to pick up bioelectrical data from trees and this is then converted into sound and transmitted in real time to audio speakers that hang from the ceiling. The subtle sounds that are emitted from these speakers creates a type of quiet symphony of nature, the individual voices of the trees being audible, as well as their combined sound.

Forest Symphony is the culmination of Sakamoto’s continuing interest in extracting the living energy of trees in audible form, but also reflects his own environmental activism. Since 2006 the artist has been engaged in the Stop Rokkasho campaign to close a nuclear reprocessing plant in Rokkasho, Aomori Prefecture, but his advocacy took on a stronger tone after the Great East Japan Earthquake, pushing him to become more vocal about nuclear issues in Japan. He also formed the company called “More Trees”, which works mainly on cultivating Japanese forests. In a nod to Beuys most ambitious art project, 7000 Oaks – City Forestation Instead of City Administration, where the artist instigated the planting of 7,000 trees throughout the city of Kassel in Germany, Sakamoto has introduced a satellite project to SIAF2014 whereby 10,000 Japanese ash and maple trees will be planted at Baratogawa Ryokuchi. The project represents a basic concept that both nature and city, two natural and yet oppositional qualities, can be complementary and coexist harmoniously. It also reflects Sakamoto’s shared belief with Beuys that “art can be linked to activism”, and in this particular approach SIAF2014 has undertaken an extensive artistic and ecological intervention that ultimately and enduringly will alter the living space of the city.

Directly related to, and parallel to this feeling of activism at SIAF2014, is a call to reflect upon the impact of modernization. This is most apparent in the central exhibition, City and Nature, curated by associate curator, Shihoko Iida, which takes place at Sapporo Art Museum and at Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art. Visitors to the Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art are asked to enter a tunnel like structure that foreshadows Masao Okabe’s installation, YUBARI MATRIX (1992-2014), a frottage work that occupies the first room. Okabe began producing frottage rubbings in 1977, and in 1979 when he stayed in Ivry-sur-Seine, Paris, he produced 169 frottage works entitled Membrane of a City that recorded the embedded marks of history from the streets of that city. In 2007, he represented Japan at the Venice Biennale with a presentation created out of the remnants of the Hiroshima atomic bombing. That his influence upon young artists is still acutely felt is reflected in two works by young Hokkaido artists that are situated in the Sapporo Odori 500m Underground Walkway Gallery: a work by Ken'ichiro Taniguchi which was created by taking a mold of cracks in the pavement; and a work by Hidemi Nishida which features a life size image of discarded railway sleepers created by the artist collating hundreds of A4 scanned impressions of the site.

At Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, Okabe presents a frottage of a now defunct coal mine that exists on the outskirts of the city, but which at one time would have been fundamental to the modernisation of Japan in the late-20th century. For the first time, Okabe’s work is presented on the floor and underneath reinforced glass enabling the viewer to walk across the work evoking an experience of the actual site and serving as a reminder of the artistic process, while evoking a consideration of the evolution of the energy resources that underpin modern life and the history of urbanization.

The walls that surround the floor-based work are dominated by another work, The ruins of the rooftop of Yubetsu Colliery Hospital (2009), which represents the culmination of a community project that the artist undertook with students to record the floors of the hospital. In contrast to the blackness of the work on the ground, the work on the wall is created in red, evoking both blood, and as the artist states ensuring it leaves an impression on the viewer. The red from the wall work is reflected in the reinforced glass creating a perhaps not unintentional overlapping of the works that have come to define a practice aimed at embedding a city’s memory and traces of its history in visible form. 

In the two exhibition spaces that follow on from Okabe’s installation, artworks by Tetsumi Kudo, Subodh Gupta and Anselm Kiefer operate as stark reminders of how easily the pursuit of progress can be tipped into disaster and regression. Kudo created works through the 1970s dealing with themes that often related to the balance between scientific progress and human survival. His focus on subjects such as environmental pollution and nuclear power now appears as a grotesque portent of more recent events. In particular, his depiction of a box from which an erring green radioactive glow emanates is an unsettling reminder of nuclear power and its negative consequences in a country still reeling from the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Likewise, Gupta’s Line of Control (2008), a colossal work that displays a towering mushroom shape created by bonding ubiquitous stainless, brass and copper steel kitchen utensils together, reads like a nightmare depiction of humanity rushing unthinkingly towards its own implosion. While Kiefer’s monumental Melancholia, depicting a fighter plane, arguably comments on man’s capacity to create machines aimed at his own demise, it is his smaller work, Siegfried’s Difficult Way to Brunhilde (1978) that is more poignant. This work is a photograph over which the artist has splattered and splotched his trademark paint marks, and it features the remnants of railway tracks disappearing into the distance. The reference in its title to Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbel’s former secretary, serves as a chilling reminder of how objects hold the memory and historical trace of their time, even as they fall into disrepair and memories are sought to be forgotten—creating an interesting link to Okabe’s work in the first room. 

If works by Okabe, Kudo, Gupta and Kiefer are imbued with a sense of modernization tipping dangerously close to the apocalyptic, then they are balanced by other works in the exhibition that celebrate both nature, humanity, and technology. This is most apparent in the exhibition space dedicated to the photographs of Ukichiro Nakaya, and in the other artworks inspired by his scientific research. Nakaya was an experimental physicist who embarked on an extraordinary project to research snow and the formation of snow crystals. In 1936, he succeeded in creating the first ever artificial snow crystals, and he then proceeded to take approximately 3,000 photomicrographs of natural snow crystals, which he used as the basis for a comprehensive classification of snow crystals. In the exhibition a selection of these images are enlarged and presented in exhibition format, removing them from their original scientific purpose, and presenting them as an artistic body of work that is a stunning reminder of the beauty of nature, and science’s and art’s ability to extract that beauty.

Carsten Nicolai’s snow noise, which is situated in Hokkaido Modern Art Museum is inspired by Nakaya’s analysis of snowflakes and invites the viewer to manufacture crystals in a pseudo-laboratory. Sealed glass tubes are plugged into slots cooled by dry ice and with the aid of a magnifying lamp, the viewer can observe snowflake formation along the string hanging inside. Another work that pays homage to Nakaya is the video installation Ice Core (2005) by Shiro Takatani, which presents a minimalist image of part of a 2503m ice-core.

That snow is a common thread in this Festival is not surprising in the context of a city that experiences an average snowfall of 630 cm. At the Sapporo Art Museum, a large immersive installation by Takashi Kuribayashi extends Takatani’s work by physically drawing the viewer into an artificial cavity below what appears to be a snow covered forest surface. The work is created using washi paper and represents the artist’s exploration of boundaries: in this instance, those which exist between what is seen and what is not seen, and the physical experience of both underground and surface, and the oscillation between artifice and nature.

Fujiko Nakaya’s FOGSCAPE#47412 similarly investigates the boundaries between nature, artifice, and technology. The work comprises an artificially created fog that intermittently cascades across an external pond at the entrance of the Sapporo Art Museum, as well as across its internal courtyard. In creating this work, the artist uses technology to manipulate nature to create something that otherwise wouldn’t exist; but equally she relinquishes authorship to the atmospheric and environmental conditions of the site. The obviously protruding ducts at the edge of the artwork and from which the fog is created are poignant reminders that the nature we experience in the context of a city, is so often a manipulated version. 

Finally, the exhibition at Sapporo Art Museum closes with photographs taken by artist Taiji Matsue. The photographs feature aerial views of Sapporo City shot from a consistent height, but taken during different seasons—presenting a city that seeks to manipulate nature, but ultimately is at its whim. Matsue’s work serves as a final reminder that it is the city of Sapporo that is the central motif in Sakamoto’s vision for the Festival. It is the City that ultimately exists as a manifestation of what Beuys described as social sculpture—a symbol of society as a great work of art to which each person can contribute creatively. —[O]

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