THE UNBEARABLE LIGHTNESS OF BEING
By OOI KOK CHUEN
STEEL rods stood ramrod straight or fixed from ceiling crevices, curled or bent or arranged like a scaffolding. Reams of unfurled paper in cascades. Odd-shaped metal vessels big and small or polished stone monoliths, some in rune-like inscriptions. Leveled mounds of earth in bogs left to the elements.
These are typical works of Mamoru Abe previously done all over the world inside the antiseptic confines of a modern gallery space or planked outside in open spaces with or without grass carpet.
And in his Malaysian and Southeast Asian debut, Abe reprises his mock ‘Nature’ contraptions, acting like an unsolicited shaman, in striking a coherent collaboration between the artist and the kampung environs of Juhari Said’s Akaldiulu in Hulu Langat, where Abe is billeted, with its patches of cleared land and rustic vegetation, fruit trees and an adjoining river.
The change to tropical humidity on the ‘Equatorial’ hotspot and within the placid enclave of Juhari’s Malay-styled all-wood house presents new vistas and stimuli.
It’s been Abe’s modus operandi in his journey of creation – a penchant for using materials indigenous and intrinsic to place wherever he goes.
Here, he has quickly latched on to the metal alloy, pewter, of which Malaysia has arrogated a patriarchal ownership and finesse in production, supplemented by what is found in the natural surroundings – earth (soil), tree branches (strapped tightly together with ropes and varnished white), a large dry leaf ensemble, pebbles and man-made stools stacked up like display stands reminiscent somewhat of the high stacked chairs of Tadashi Kawamata, perhaps.
It also evokes his childhood growing-up in a thatched-roof farming community in Machida, a suburb on the fringe of Tokyo – an ambience not so unlike Akaldiulu.
Pewter is made up predominantly of tin, some 85 to as high as 99%, of which the ores are found in abundance and mined mainly in the Kinta Valley during the 19th and 20th centuries. The other alloy components are copper, antimony and bismuth.
How the 100 miniature pewter disc/dish is presented would be interesting, for the meaning could take on a different trajectory if supported by extraneous props or whatever suits the space and intent.
Each shallow disc measures either 10cm or 13cm in diameter and then polished metallic sheen like armour sets it apart in a rustic scenario. So, there is the imperative and tension, of interfacing the two different spectrums of work.
Abe is an on-site installation artist who establishes an affinity with the strange land and terrain where he is invited to, touching the earth as it were, with the Malaysian earth of tropical raw grating a contrast to the more spartan, austere Japanese Zen gardens although different types of soils would show different properties.
His works can be gauged as a form of ‘Land Art’ sometimes, with surface reconfigurement of the landscape like temporary sandcastles that succumb to the ravages of wind and water.
This exhibition called Occurrence: Installations and Drawings, is a follow-up of Galeri Chandan’s 2nd Kembara Jiwa (Traveling Soul) exhibition at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum last year in Fukuoka, where Abe is based since 1984 when he moved over from Tokyo.
‘Occurrence’ is an apt catch-all word that typifies Abe tenor of work for it can be a reference to a phenomenon, an experience or circumstance, or even a development or an eventuality. It is also about a happening, an event or incident, and also about matter.
The works are all lodged in the enigmas of time and space, installations that are second ‘Nature’ and reflecting facets of life – with the illusion of being and nothing, of memory and loss.
Quaint extractions from a reality that is temporal and transient.
Abe explores such changes, or the lack of it, forged by advancing time, in a modified stage in its natural habitat, or transported into a new setting – the gallery with all its foreboding primness or amidst artifacts in a crusty museum.
They are all manifested in a new visual language of symbolic lines, ambiguous forms and covering a large area of space, and yet with a ‘Minimalist’ framework.
In his works, Abe confides that he is concerned with the paradox of ‘disappearance’ – of the invisible ‘Self’ and the things around us – the rivers and forests, the earthwork terrain, objects of veneration and sentimentality – all things that can define one’s existence. Here, yet not here. There, yet not there. Just like something lodged in a persistence of memory in a singular or a multitude of hosts. There in their invisible and elusive forms. In the voids. The silence.
It’s a ‘Zen Position’ – with an intimate affinity with ‘Nature’, as an engagement as well as manifestation – a monument to something that is both mysterious and sacred, with dollops of Shintoism with the ritual observances of the Japanese folk practices. Balance and the power of the kiyome – purity and clarity.
Most of his works involve fire and steel – forged, gouged and cast, the fascinating combination that entails danger and a certain vicarious pleasure, like incandescent light attracting moths to their doom. The constant hammering, monotonous and workmanlike, creating what he describes as his “inner space”, which can be a liberating feeling. There is also something sexual about it all. Japan has a tradition of metallurgy that stretches way back to the brief Yayoi culture (ca. 300BC to 300AD) when the finer traits came from the Asian continent, and like all things Japanese, modified, accommodated and ameliorated.
What is perhaps more significant to Abe is the processual, the undocumented, the unsung and the unknown. It is a ritual of sweat and strength, like rites of passage whatever the shape or form of the final product. What Abe terms as a relationship between the body and the space, a synergy of mind, hand and object, and on a broader perspective, a communion between ‘Man’ and ‘Nature’.
The act is the thing: the act of forging the metal into a compliant accessory, to become the subject, the message; the physicality of mind and brute force in transforming the object into another, with a subtext or a different context.
Abe places emphasis on this sensual act of hammering and knocking and then casting in shaping the pewter saucer discs, where the polished final product entails the agony and the ecstasy of creation.
The nature of his installations is such that it will take a life of its own from the reconfigured contraptions and then after having its 15 minutes of fame, lapses or disintegrates into a dismantled tangle that ends up as scrap or junk in some forgotten corner or dump.
The economic factor of a so-called ‘artwork’ is not something that worries him, as he could find sustenance as Professor of Fukuoka University of Education (Fine Art).
In his sojourn overseas, he had had solos at the Gulbenkian Gallery, London (1990); the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago (1995); the Pitt Rivers Museum/University Museum of Natural History, Oxford (2001); and the Silo-Bergen Arkitekt Skole in Norway (2009) – all with site-specific installations relevant to culture, geography and location.
In his early years, he confides to being inspired by the avant-garde poet-dramatist-film auteur Shuji Terayama (1935-1983), who lived in the Tohoku district in Honshu, which is famous for its Jomon pottery which dated back to 10,500 to 300BC.
Born in Tokyo in 1954, Abe has good pedigree in art education. He received his MA from the Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music (1978-80) and BA from the Tokyo University of Education (1974-78) apart from a diploma in London’s prestigious Royal College of Art (1990).
He was also a visiting artist in the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (1998) and Bergen Arkitekt Skole in Norway (2010), a researcher in the Architectural Association School of Architecture (UK, 2000-01), and a visiting professorship in the University of Oxford, The Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art (2009).
In 1995, Abe clinched the Grand Prize jointly with Keita Egami, who is older by three years, in the Asian Art Biennale in Bangladesh for his work, The Hide (forged steel, bamboo, salt and plaster) shown both indoor and outdoor at the Osumani Memorial Hall in Dhaka.
At home, Abe has exhibited in solo exhibitions extensively all over since 1992 – in Sapporo, Tokyo, Kyoto, Fukuoka, Yokohama, Nagoya, Okinawa and Kumamoto.
Abe is not unduly perturbed by attempts to pigeonhole his oeuvre within a Japanese framework, by a tokenism of ‘Nipponrama’ or ‘Nipponesque’ attributions, or trending practices like the vacuous ‘Superflat’ phenomenon of Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, and the ‘Pop Psychedelia Polka-dot’ of the venerable eccentric 85-year-old Yayoi Kusama.
He confides to a preference for the prevailing internationalism, especially in the space-liberating act of installations where media and style are subservient to place, condition, weather, time and an artistic agenda.
His gendai bijutsu (contemporary art) speaks of a contemporary global construct and underpinnings spawned from Japan’s Post-War scenario that started with the avant-garde Gutai (Art Association, 1954). Abe himself grew up in an artistic ferment with saw the emergence of groups such as Kyushu-ha established (1957-1968, founded by the Paris-based Takami Sakurai and wife Junko Nakamura) and more so Mono-ha, with its accent on Minimalism.
His time also marks the end of the Showa period (1926-1989), which corresponded with the reign of Emperor Hirohito, and the ushering-in of a new dawn of the Heisei era under Emperor Akihito.
Like all his works dealing with large-scale abstractions/extractions of ‘Nature’, Abe also opens a conduit of communion as therapy besides the obvious message of creating a balance between ‘Man’s’ needs and infrastructure with the beautiful natural ecosystem around us. Perhaps, his quest is towards that of an Utopia, if still a much blemished one.