FEATURE STORY ‌ Articulated Impermanence 

Translating the "Force of Nature" into art

click to enlarge (L-R): Ihiro's oiled ashes; Yamamoto's salt labyrinth; Ambe's scissor work; Shibata's powdered kudzu
  • (L-R): Ihiro's oiled ashes; Yamamoto's salt labyrinth; Ambe's scissor work; Shibata's powdered kudzu

Something seems terribly amiss on the second floor of the Halsey Institute. Every oil painting by recent artist-in-residence Junko Ishiro has been set ablaze, leaving only an occasional plum blossom or tree branch discernible among the charred canvases. At the room's center, surrounded by ashy remains, stands an impressive wooden structure, almost gate-like. A tiny niche in the framework beckons the visitor to gaze through. Inside, a television screen plays video of an oil-on-canvas salt marsh, mounted on an easel in an outdoor marsh setting identical to the painting. Suddenly a small hole forms in the fabric, expanding rapidly outward. A boat enters the scene, becomes obscured by the painting's frame, then appears in the growing hole just as flames burst visibly above the easel. It's a devastatingly beautiful destruction.

The culprit here is not a vandal, but Ishiro herself. As one of the Force of Nature artists-in-residence, the ambitious exhibit on display at seven institutions in the Southeast, Ishiro hopes to portray nature as more than landscapes, believing that the "only way to see invisible threads of nature is to perform an action that disrupts the natural flow." By burning her paintings in the place that inspired them, she perpetuates a natural "circulation" between her actions and nature around her.

Bringing Nature Indoors

Co-curated by Mark Sloan of the Halsey and Brad Thomas of Davidson College, the unprecedented Force of Nature exhibition brought 10 Japanese artists to several Carolina universities for seven-week residencies this fall, challenging them to employ locally available materials to illustrate natural forces. The artists lived and worked within the communities, enlisting the help of students at Davidson College, UNC-Charlotte, Winthrop University, the McColl Gallery, the Clemson Architectural School, and the College of Charleston. The results are staggeringly beautiful, and overwhelmingly meet the old artistic cliché of "raising new questions in the viewer's mind."

Force of Nature encompasses the human body, circulation, and weather patterns, converging on nature's transience and the inevitability of change. At Davidson, artist Yuri Shibata collected organic material such as kudzu and a deer hide and ground them into powder. After painting a layer of clear glue onto canvas, she sprinkled the powder over it and blew away the excess, producing a realistic image of the destroyed objects. The colorfully textured pieces are "memorials" of sorts for their source, further emphasized by her choice of subjects in kudzu ("the Japanese plant that ate the South") and the indigenous, ubiquitous white-tailed deer. "These objects no longer exist," says Shibata in her written explanation. "They have become a transmitter that tells about them."

On each of her 45 days in residency, Shibata collected dust from different parts of Davidson's Visual Arts Center, creating a series of daily "dust prints" now assembled in a ladder formation across the gallery. "Dust is the identity of what time you were here," she explains, due to the residual dermal cells that all living things constantly shed. "We all return to dust."

For another piece, Shibata held a performance during which she publicly cut her hair, then ground it to powder to "paint" the missing hair onto a photograph of herself. A tiny microphone was mounted on the scissors, amplifying the crunching sounds as she clipped. "My hair is a growing part of me. Each time it is separated from my body, it becomes material for art."

Just across the hall from Shibata's exhibit is a dark room pulsating from a van-sized white sphere that sits illuminated off to the side. Three blurred, black-and-white images flash on the opposite wall in an infinite loop. Artist Takasumi Abe went into a meditative trance for 20 hours each day for three consecutive days, feverishly drawing images of clouds as he stared out a second-story window. At nearby Lake Norman, Abe attached his iPod to helium-filled garbage bags, allowing it to rise silently into clouds 1,000 feet above, where he recorded their sound. In the exhibit, viewers crawl through a small entrance into the steel and toilet-papier-mâché "cloud," where the amplified sounds play in the deceptively large, glowing white space.

"Abe created a chamber where you can capture the essence of daydreaming and staring at the sky," says Davidson's Thomas. "It's a structure where visitors can go inside his imagination."

Japanese Roots

Unparalleled in its combination of artists-in-residence at seven physical sites, Force of Nature is the product of casual "What if?" conversations between co-curators Thomas and Sloan that began in the fall of 2002 when artist Rikuo Ueda conducted a brief residency at CofC. He built a two-story tea house from bamboo, out of which he produced his "wind paintings." Davidson's Thomas drove down to view the exhibit, and, with Sloan, was impressed by the body of work Ueda created in a short time period. The idea of a multiresident project from Japan was born.

click to enlarge Above: Halsey director Mark Sloan; below: viewing the burning paintings
  • Above: Halsey director Mark Sloan; below: viewing the burning paintings

Sloan and Thomas soon began the process of finding artists. Letters to international curators returned over 300 names. After whittling that number to 30, they traveled to Japan to interview and boil the pool down to 10 who could best illustrate their concepts. "There was really no time to rest and catch our breath," says Thomas. "In the heat of battle, it's strenuous and you lose sleep and work hard, but it's all worth it once it's complete and you have the opening."

Force of Nature's abstract body of work is nearly the antithesis of the anime and manga animation styles most typically associated with contemporary Japanese art. "We were looking for artists who were working in the mainstream, but not necessarily in the trendiest of veins," Thomas explains.

Japan's densely populated, urban society has produced a generation of youths who spend prolonged periods surfing the Internet, playing video games, and watching anime and manga cartoons, presumably as a means of detachment. "The resident artists are all looking to reconnect not only with the natural world but with themselves," says Thomas. "Their work illustrates their own personal journey, but because it's such a universal idea, viewers inevitably get swept in. It transcends cultural, economic, and political boundaries because we all breathe, we've all lost, and we've all lain in the grass and stared up at the clouds."

Exchanging Culture

Each artist arrived at their residency with detailed ideas, minimal supplies, and limited English. While some nuances of meaning were undoubtedly lost in translation, the artists were still able to involve students in their projects.

College of Charleston art management graduate student Alix Refshauge worked with Noriko Ambe to assemble her elaborate cut-paper landscapes. "She was so meticulous. It was very important to do everything perfectly," Refshauge says. Ambe's art is always a work in progress, seeking to "collaborate with nature on its own terms." Several slivers of tree trunk hang in the Halsey, with Ambe's tracings along the exposed rings often trailing off onto the wall, providing a human extension to nature's dialogue.

click to enlarge CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Shibata's powdered deer and kudzu "paint"; using hair to paint hair; Brad Thomas inside Abe's pod; entering the cloud
  • CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Shibata's powdered deer and kudzu "paint"; using hair to paint hair; Brad Thomas inside Abe's pod; entering the cloud

Halsey director Sloan describes Ambe's, and all of the artists' methods, as "completely non-American," if not uniquely Japanese. "They bore a hole through an idea and look at it from every side before they lift a finger to begin. It's not like jazz improvisation; it's a very deliberate form of art."

Wind artist Rikuo Ueda, whose 2002 CofC visit spawned the idea for Force of Nature, took up residency this year at Winthrop University. Ueda approaches art as a "middle man" between the canvas and nature, inventing elaborate mechanical devices that enable inanimate forces to create visual art by transferring wind energy to a surface. He constructed a 30-foot, pivoting seesaw-like arm that reaches far out of a window, where a plastic "sail" is stretched taut to capture and be manipulated by wind. Inside, at the arm's "hand," paint "fingers" move freely about, drawing a picture without any human interaction.

At times, Ueda's work is as simple as attaching paper to one branch of a tree and a pencil to another and waiting for the wind to blow them together. He hosted a tea party at Winthrop, during which students donned kimonos and brewed tea, while a nearby tree drew them pictures. When they departed, Ueda presented them the drawings, saying, "This is your wind."

After the Storm

When the 10 installments come down in December, cleaning the galleries will be no small task. Motoi Yamamoto used 2,500 pounds of salt to create his labyrinths at Davidson and at CofC's Addlestone Library. Like each Force of Nature piece, the work itself is impermanent, and someone will sweep away the result of many meticulous hours before returning the salt to the ocean, per Yamamoto's request. Noriko Ambe's tracings on tree rings often meander off the wood and onto the wall, at one point into a significant gash in the drywall that travels to the ground and one of her stacked paper landscapes.

The memories and effects on the artists, curators, and students are lasting, whether it's the squid pancakes stomached by Sloan, or the lessons grad student Refshauge gave to artist Ambe in dancing the Charleston. Those pieces able to survive transport will be displayed beginning in April at the Sumter County Gallery of Art in Sumter, S.C., in an exhibition that will allow viewers to witness Force of Nature's entire scope in one location, and Sloan and Thomas are at work on a pictorial book.

Co-curator Sloan hopes that the greatest residual impact will be in people's understanding and appreciation of nature. "Nature is more than just landscapes and the trees or the forest and birds. It is a series of systems, a sort of whole ecology, hurricanes and weather patterns, fire, violent things as well as pastoral things. What's so interesting to me is to hear people say, 'Why does Ishiro burn her paintings?' By setting it on fire in that landscape she's creating another layer of optical perception, and it draws our attention through."

"What happens behind the eyes is more important than what happens in front of them," says artist Aiko Miyanaga, resident at Charlotte's McColl Gallery.

Just as nature destructs and recreates, many of the pieces will unavoidably be destroyed when they come down. The visions and ideas behind them remain alive in the artists and the viewers, from Yamamoto's purifying salt to the breezes that will always paint when given the opportunity. Nature was long viewed in our society as something to be conquered. This spirit is embodied by a vintage video produced to celebrate the building of Lake Moultrie, that exclaims, "Once again the persistent determination of man has triumphed over the patient resistance of nature." The Carolinas were spared a hurricane in 2006, but the works of these 10 intriguing minds from Japan serve to remind us that nature is indeed patient, but forceful beyond our control.


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Noriko Ambe: Dialogue with a Tree
On view through Dec. 8
Free
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
54 St. Philip St., 953-6675

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Even though she talks to trees, there's something cold and clinical about Noriko Ambe's installation. It could be the exotic nature of her work – carving intricate shapes into paper isn't exactly a popular pastime around here. It could be the empty space that surrounds much of the art, which is connected by thinly drawn threads running across the Halsey's first floor. Maybe it's the crisp white material she uses when she digs her patterns. But the sense of detachment is most likely caused by the meticulous way that she's traced the rings in her chosen tree, brightening some, enlarging others in a still projection.

Precarious piles of paper lead to the projected photograph, the most effective element in the show. It contains a large, energetic swath of subtle colors that contrast the stark vectorscopic patterns that surround another segment. The artist's intentions are subtle if not obscure, but it's possible to follow the tree from its life in a forest to its fate as a paperback (represented by a copy of

Charleston Blacksmith: The Work of Philip Simmons). Other than that courteous acknowledgement of local art, this project really is a dialogue – a conversation between two people, with little room for others to join in the ecocentric debate. –Nick Smith


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Junko Ishiro: Manyo Wandering in the USA
On view thru Dec. 8
Free
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
54 St. Philip St., 953-6675

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In this age of $140 million Pollock paintings, it might seem rather witless for Junko Ishiro to set fire to her art. In their pre-destroyed state, her tasteful green landscapes show a shifting sense of scale and attitude, blending the commonplace (such as a treeline) with omniscient points of view.

Junko knows that, eventually, even the most assiduously preserved Pollock will turn to dust, and her pieces don't really matter in the grand cosmic scheme of things. Her attempts to come to terms with that ultimate loss – and her own mortality – drive the show and engage the viewer. But her paintings still look a lot better without holes burnt in them. The damage is controlled, and the process is most effective in small doses; the marks in one delicate sheet of paper resemble teardrops.

Junko's work is accompanied by excerpts from The Man'yoshu, a primary example of Japanese poetry. The lettering looks especially ornate when juxtaposed with English translations, clogged with clumsy Western characters. For lazy readers there's a video to watch, showing the burning paintings mixed with animation. Just one niggle – perhaps the Halsey's anticipating an influx of circus midget visitors, but the viewing portal is set at an awkward angle that's too low for regular-sized critics to look through for long. –Nick Smith


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Motoi Yamamoto: Labyrinth
On view thru Dec. 8
Free
Addlestone Library
205 Calhoun St., 953-6675

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If you went into the posh new Addlestone Library and poured salt all over the floor you'd be dragged off as primo Blotter fodder. Motoi Yamamoto does it and he's a genius. But then, he's an artist with a predilection for "drawing with salt," and he spent weeks creating the maze-like structure in the Addlestone rotunda. Every line is meticulously straight and uniform, covering an impressive space that's best seen from above.

From the second floor, you can look down and truly appreciate the intricate structure of the labyrinth. It's an effective merging of modern-day attention to detail and archaic art (labyrinth-building is regarded as one of the earliest forms of creativity).

From the third floor, it's easier to see how natural light falls on the installation, accentuating different parts as the sun shifts – far more effective than trying to control the light artificially. It's from up here that "Labyrinth" looks most like an urban sprawl of white walls and doorways, with a few dwindling stretches of water. Is the artist making a comment on our dwindling natural resources? Or is he replicating the elaborate circuitry of the human brain? Whatever his intentions, there's plenty to meditate on here. –Nick Smith


The Force of Nature Artists

Davidson College

»Takasumi Abe - Sound artist and sculptor

»Yuri Shibata - Powdered-pigment reincarnations

»Motoi Yamamoto - Labyrinths of salt

Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art

»Noriko Ambe - Meticulous paper cutter

»Motoi Yamamoto - Labyrinths of Salt

Clemson Architecture Center - Charleston

»Junko Ishiro - Fiery oil painter

College of Architecture at UNC-Charlotte

»Ayako Aramaki - Landscape tattoo artist

»Akira Higashi - Hut builder

McColl Center for Visual Arts

»Aiko Miyanaga - Evaporation sculptor

Winthrop University Galleries

»Rikuo Ueda - Wind harnessing inventor

»Yumiko Yamazaki - Metaphorical nature prints


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