2013 “Katsuhiro Yamaguchi – Imaginarium” by Jasia Reichardt


Katsuhiro Yamaguchi – Imaginarium

Jasia Reichardt

Yamaguchi’s ‘Imaginarium’ was a project he developed gradually from the 1950s. It is an updated version of Malraux’s “Le musée Imaginaire” (1947) , a museum of an infinite number of reproductions. What Yamaguchi wanted to achieve with his ‘Imaginarium’ was to enable the visitor not only to see all the works in the world, but also to interact with them. He wanted art to be seen very much like everything else in our natural environment, something that can be touched, moved, addressed, and changed.
Like Malraux, Yamaguchi was in advance of his time.

The 21 works in this exhibition represent the early period of Katsuhiro Yamaguchi’s creative life. They belong to the 1950s and 1960s, an important moment for experiment in the history of Japanese art. For Yamaguchi this was the beginning of his progress from illusionistic Vitrines, light sculptures, constructions with stretched sacking, structures with fluorescent plastics and photographs, to video, to installations and finally to multimedia works. Since the 1950s, using whatever technology was available, his work has concentrated on two specific ideas: the spectator’s intentional or unintentional interaction with the works, and fluid exchange between the past and the present.
By the 1970s, Yamaguchi was already known in Japan as the father of video and media art, gradually becoming one of the most admired and influential artists in the country.

The 1950s was a significant period of experimental art in Japan that left the conventional concerns of painting and sculpture behind. The new art set out to embrace movement, music, dance, unconventional materials, lighting effects, photographic collages and synchronized audio-visual presentations with multiple screens. Leading this departure from convention was a group of young artists and composers, who belonged to Experimental Workshop (Jikken Kobo) so named by the poet and critic, Shuzo Takiguchi. Yamaguchi was one of its 14 members. Among them were: Kuniharu Akiyama, Shozo Kitadai, Toru Takemitsu, Hideko Fukushima, Hiroyoshi Suzuki and Joji Yuasa. Like the other members of Experimental Workshop, Yamaguchi had no conventional art education. He had trained as a lawyer and when he joined •he group in 1951, he was 23. The group had neither an office nor a studio – during the seven years of its existence, the Experimental Workshop was portable, and its members worked where they could, individually or in small teams. They were responsible for some memorable exhibitions, animated environments and experimental stage designs for ballets.

Yamaguchi’s works of that period, 1950s and 1960s, anticipate his later development because they already deal with ideas he continued to develop throughout his career. What are they?

First of all, he emphasizes that any single three-dimensional work, con be seen in several different ways. ‘When I took pictures of my work,’ — wrote Yamaguchi — ‘I would light it with Kiyoshi Otsuji and others, and then shoot a certain port of the work. Things look completely different depending on the way you light them.’ His Trial Objects (cat. nos. 9-11), for instance, yellow forms in fluorescent acrylic, when suspended from above under a rotating light, perhaps even an ultraviolet light, will change their appearance for each of the visit was looking at them.
The same is true of the Magnetic Reliefs (cat. no. 12) that look different every time someone changes the positions of the colored pieces on the vertical black surface. When we look at the work we see what was done lost time, we don’t see, we don’t know, the history of the movements of the magnetic pieces that had token place before. The post hos gone, what we see is just the present.
What had been seen once becomes virtual, a memory. And that is central to Yamaguchi’s thinking. That is what he wants to capture – the history of the piece, the history of what it looked like at different times.

Time, movement and transformations are the themes Yamaguchi tackles in the Vitrines (cat. nos. 4, 14, 15), which he started making during the years of the Experimental Workshop. These are paintings covered with layers of patterned and/or opaque glass, which impose a texture on the painted surface. The texture, in turn, becomes affected by whatever is reflected in the gloss such as the fragmented faces of the viewers. As one walks in front of one of the Vitrines so one experiences on illusion of the painting in motion. Their appearance changes. No photograph token of the work from a given angle, however carefully positioned, will be quite the same as others. Artists like Soto and Agam, have used a similar principle of walking in front of the work to see it change, often quite radically, as one continues to move. With the Vitrines, however especially the large ones, the changes tend to be subtle, small, but sometimes quite unexpected however many times one undertakes the journey in front of the picture.

The Vitrines ore the beginning of Yamaguchi’s journey following the moment he first marveled at making something that defies our grasp. How to combine the past and the present? How can a work of art absorb all that is going on around it? It doesn’t matter if the visitors to the gallery do not stop to contemplate the objects on display — their presence costs a shadow, and the work is affected by their presence. These thoughts led Yamaguchi towards several significant works, which placed him right in the centre of the art and technology movement in Japan.

One particular work intended to combine the past and the present is called Reflection 1958, 1994. It was exhibited at Satani Gallery in 1994. On one side of the gallery hung Vitrine – Landscape, 1958. Opposite this was installed Video Passage, 1994, a construction of transparent acrylic columns with eight video monitors. A hand-held camera, in the shape of a small sphere could be held by a visitor and pointed at any detail on the Vitrine. That detail then became transferred to the Video Passage and combined with other reflections. In that exhibition the viewers’ attention was directed towards reflections in the Video Passage, some of which they could control. The physical reality of the work faded as the viewers themselves joined the images gathered inside the work. Yamaguchi’s inspiration for the works that combine the old and the new, the past and the present was the story by Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel. In it, Morel creates a machine that replays ad infinitum scenes from the life of a group of characters. Whoever is watching cannot participate because the sequences replicated by the machine are locked into the moments when they were recorded. And so, in the book, the world consists of those virtual lifelike images going about their business, and the viewer, a young man who tries, but cannot, join them.

The Vitrines are not the only works through which the ethos of Experiment al Workshop has continued in Yamaguchi’s work. Jikken Kobo was a collective enterprise in which composers, photographers, and lighting designers collaborated, improvising with whatever means were available. Yamaguchi has continued to work with groups of artists, musicians, architects, dancers, students, and has continued to invent means to realize their common ideas. He organized performances, teams working with video, displays, exhibitions, and operas. The ethos of Experimental Workshop was never far away, but in the 1990s the ideas underlying experimental art in Japan found their new home on Awaji Island in the Art Village organized by Yamaguchi. This too was intended to tread unorthodox paths of combining and redefining ideas outside the current mainstream.

Today, Yamaguchi is not able to undertake and organize big projects, but he continues to work. He now paints vibrant animated gouaches that continue to reflect his view of the changing world unfolding before him.one of his most moving recent exhibitions was his Sanriku Requiem at Tamagawa University in Tokyo. This was a requiem in memory of the devastation inflicted by the tsunami on Sanriku,the beautiful northeastern Tohoku region, in 2011.

Yamaguchi’s work continues to emphasize Shuzo Takiguchi’s dictum for the Experimental Workshop, that in experiment nothing can be, or should even attempt to be, fixed and made permanent.

August 2013

Exhibition Catalog
Annely Juda Fine Art, London
11 September – 26 October 2013

Yamaguchi Katsuhiro Imaginarium Exhibition Catalog