Snapshots of precariousness: Mono-ha artist Kishio Suga’s “Situations” at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan

The Japanese artist’s research on the universe of things, time and space is on show at Pirelli HangarBicocca.

Japanese artist Kishio Suga’s retrospective “Situations” reflects on the notions of uncertainty and relationship through the eye of Mono-ha compositions.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

“Situations”, running until 29 January 2017, is the first large retrospective of Japanese artist Kishio Suga outside of his native land. Curated by Museum of Contemporary Art Tokyo Chief Curator Yuko Hasegawa and Pirelli HangarBicocca Artistic Director Vicente Todolí, the exhibition showcases a selection of historically relevant works discussing the universe of mono (things), while reflecting on the industrial architecture of Pirelli HangarBicocca.

The title of the exhibition “Situations” has a multilayered reading when it comes to explore the Japanese artist’s practice. The noun ‘situation’ literally means the way in which things are related to their surroundings as well as site, thus stressing the mutual support among objects. Simultaneously, the term semantically recalls the notion of time and space, in which a complex of conditions, facts or events affects people and/ or things.

The relation ‘object-space’ in Suga’s installations references earlier researches by Minimalist Robert Morris on the notion of ‘meaning-as-context’, thus contributing to disseminate the understanding of the artwork in relation to its display. A typical L-shape, or the vertical and horizontal axes crossing each other, can be seen more or less evidently throughout the entire exhibition, both in works like Separating Dependence (1973/2013), Square Metal Pond (1985/2016), Exposed Realm (1986/2016), and the way pieces are arranged in the space. Suga’s installations recall the Morrisian matrix of crux both visually and conceptually. As PhD candidate in Art History at University College Cork Jp McMahon explains that Morris’ Untitled (L-Beams) (1965) demonstrates

that a division existed between our perception of the object and the actual object. While viewers perceived the beams as being different shapes and sizes, in actuality, they were the same shape and of equal size. In direct opposition to Modernism’s focus on the internal syntax of the object, that is, how the object can be understood as something “self-contained,” Morris chose instead to examine the external syntax; the theatricality of the object—the way an object extends out from itself into its environment.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016.
Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga’s site-specific installations occupy the mammoth spaces of the city’s hub for contemporary art. Mounted across the Navate, Suga’s constructions reveal an immediate sense of peaceful impermanence and instability that contrasts with the solid dark monumentality of the space.

Such temporariness underlines the performative dimension of the Mono-ha’s exploration into the changing life and function of things, while emphasising the artist’s investigation on the essence of objects. Thus, such materials as iron, zinc, concrete, paraffin, grass, wood and stone the artist carefully picks on site are rearranged into compositions and settings that dig into the physical presence and the properties of the matter. This matter transforms, changes its status and volume, and appears as much fragmentary as the artworks in the show. As one can see crossing the Navate, Diagonal Phase (Shaisō) (1969/2016), Soft Concrete (1970/2012) and Perimeter (1985/1989) are open structures, which flood out their own borders to continue in the proximal space. This openness stresses the idea of ‘unfinishedness’, while proposing a comprehension of precariousness as a means of mutual support.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016.
Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, 'Condition of Situated Units', 1975/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, ‘Condition of Situated Units’, 1975/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Suga’s creations embrace the vastness of the hangar, charging the space with a spiritual power that derives from the metaphysical qualities of the pieces, appearing fragile in their rigidness, frozen in time and space. The rough and thick bramble of branches and metal components in Condition of Situated Units (1975/2016), the white fortress-like Parallel Strata (1969/2016), along with the lines of concrete blocks filled in with grass in Units of Dependency (Izon’i) (1974/2016) show this idea of things reborn into different shapes and functionalities.

Kishio Suga, 'Parallel Strata',1969/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Pinault Collection and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, ‘Parallel Strata’,1969/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Pinault Collection and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

As the press release (PDF download) of the exhibition states,

Their works were often the result of direct, interactive actions, such as suspending, dropping, breaking and stacking. Mono-ha is therefore centered on both the material properties and the performative dimension of the artwork. […] Through a process of tension and release, the artist creates what he calls a “situation,” highlighting the existential links between the materials in the work and the space around it.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016.
Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Further explaining Suga’s relationship to objects, in Taro Nettleton’s essay Kishio Suga, published in ArtReview Asia 4, no. 2 (Spring 2016), curator Yuko Hasegawa expands thus:

Suga’s ‘sozaishwgi’ (his ideas of elemental existentialism) is not simple existentialism – while his stance toward existence is straightforward, his ideas are based on an extremely sophisticated cognizance. It is a zen-like, philosophical cognizance that explores the furthermost depths of existence, transcending the physical existence of its objects.

Kishio Suga, 'Critical Sections (Setsu no rinkai)', 1984/2016. Photo: the author of the article.

Kishio Suga, ‘Critical Sections (Setsu no rinkai)’, 1984/2016. Photo: the author of the article.

The exhibition path commences with Critical Sections (Setsu no rinkai) (1984/2016), a suspended 22-metre high installation made out of a rope of natural fabrics, branches and sheets of zinc placed on the ground. As a key member of the internationally renown Mono-ha art movement, the Morioka-born artist proposes an arrangement of artworks bonding natural and industrial materials that create cold minimalist landscapes, within which visitors wander and perceive the surroundings as both an embracing and rejecting entity.

Critical Sections sets the tone and the contents of the show, which will be treated by all the exhibited works: the issue of proportions as well as the relationship with the venue are accentuated as well as neatly expressed in the theme of precariousness. While the vastness of the hangar allows the works to familiarise with the space and fully develop their scales, the maxi proportions provoke in visitors a feeling of alienation and subjection, thus underlining the state of uncertainty. This is represented by the momentum of the installation, which appears ready to unroll under the effect of the forces of the two ropes, tight in the central part, and left loose at the top of the piece. On the ground, thin sheets of zinc are barely able to keep the edges fixed on the ground.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, “Situations”, exhibition view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, 2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

The exhibition presents multiple readings, among which a close connection of the pieces with the identity of Pirelli HangarBicocca. The building, a vast industrial complex which belonged to AnsaldoBreda – an Italian rail transport engineering company, now owned by the Japanese Hitachi Group Corporate – was reconverted to a space for contemporary art in 2004. The space is now owned by Pirelli HangarBicocca of the multinational company Pirelli, which has always supported the promotion of culture with enormous investments in fashion, cinema, sports and art.

Kishio Suga, 'Law of Multitude' (detail), 1975/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, ‘Law of Multitude’ (detail), 1975/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

The dialogue between the natural and the industrial, dear to the artist, finds interpretation on a large scale in the reconversion of AnsaldoBreda from an industrial spot to a cultural site, thus returning to its natural habitat, the city of Milan. The exhibition closes with Law of Multitude (Tabunritsu) (1975/2016) and Left-Behind Situation (Shachi Jōkyō) 1972/2016, the largest site-specific installations in the show, combining both natural and industrial materials, such as wood, stone, steel, concrete and plastic sheet. The two works sharply sum up Suga’s interest in the interdependence between objects, space, and the public.

Kishio Suga, 'Left-Behind Situation', 1972/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Glenstone Foundation, Potomac, Maryland and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, ‘Left-Behind Situation’, 1972/2016. Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Glenstone Foundation, Potomac, Maryland and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

These assemblages of objects are constructed in a way that the space becomes an equally crucial element to the composition, changing their volumes and display according to the site they are installed in. Confirming the relevance of spatial dimension in Suga’s body of work, as quoted in Professor Thomas R. H. Havens’ Radicals And Realists in the Japanese Nonverbal Arts: The Avant-garde rejection of Modernism (2006), the artist explains:

Outdoor sculpture depends on boundaries, not space itself. My system starts with borders, defining them as well as breaking through them. Then I think about the relationships of the objects within borders. Indoor sculpture works with fixed walls as borders, so the variable I work with is vertical space. My thinking starts from the top down. I also think about horizontal vision, how we see though things as we look straight across.

Kishio Suga, 'Unfolding Field',1972/2016.Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

Kishio Suga, ‘Unfolding Field’,1972/2016.Photo: Agostino Osio. Image courtesy the artist, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan.

These installation are purposely left suspended in representing the tension between the object, time and space. In their being unfinished, the works search for a meaning, for their own peace and conclusion in the body next to them, as if they were claiming the incapability of individuals of having a meaning on their own and finding their completeness only through universal sharing.

Kishio Suga’s interest in the social value of art and the importance of the viewer’s recognition is further explained in Thomas R. H. Havens’ book, in which Suga states that

Even in you are creating things as art, it cannot become ‘art’ until it has been exposed to public view. This is because ‘art’ is something that communicates your symbolic language or meaning or opens up a process of recognition to a third person… Although ‘art’ is something that depends on your process of consciousness, if it does not also involve the process of recognition of another person, it is not possible for you to even verify your own self-expression.

Carmen Stolfi

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Related topics: Japanese artists, installation, museum shows, events in Milan

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