Jiro Takamatsu, Temporary Enclosure of Carioca Building Construction Site, 1971. All images © The Estate of Jiro Takamatsu and courtesy Yumiko Chiba Associates / Stephen Friedman Gallery / Fergus McCaffrey.
Takamatsu’s approach to sculpture can be summed up by paraphrasing John Lennon: sculpture is what happens when you’re busy looking at other things. This survey of the artist’s sculptural works made between 1961 and 1977 presents an obsession with the things that objects can do, rather than the objects themselves. Takamatsu starts at the very edge of our acknowledgement of the sculpture’s presence, and then slowly penetrates the layers of observation and the sensual experience of the sculpture’s behavior and its medium in space. There is really never any there there: everything is shadows, perspective, and viscerality—it’s all about us, the viewers, and our reflection in the world.
Hi-Red Center, The Yamanote Line Incident, 1962.
The exhibition commences with photographic documentation of the Hi-Red Center, an artist’s collective active in 1963-64 and consisting of Takamatsu, Genpei Akasegawa, and Natsuyuki Nakanishi, dedicated to injecting surreal happenings into the daily routine of Tokyo’s citizenry. In a series of public interventions that today would have Homeland Security on red alert, in one staged incident, the three intrepid artists tossed articles of clothing off building roofs; in another, they left bags in train stations and mailed the cloak-check tickets for those bags to strangers; and in a third, dragged a 3.5 kilometer rope through the subway, and dangled mysterious objects from straphangers. The object of these efforts seems to have been to force a strain of the surreal into everyday consciousness, changing the ratio of banal to bizarre regardless of whether the results were discernable.
Installation view. Photograph by Jerry Hardman-Jones.
The viewer’s distracted acknowledgment of the aura of a work of art was a point of particular fascination for Takamatsu and this lead him to further experiment with the surreal potential of the everyday, utilizing recognizable objects in unexpected combinations—a major subtext throughout the survey. Very rarely does the artist create a new form, instead drawing out the unexpected from a recognizable material such as a bottle, brick, or chair. The String in the Bottle, no. 1125 (1963-1985), merely coils a thick white cotton rope inside a liter-sized classic Coca-cola bottle, playing off the sculptural possibilities of the Coke bottle with the dumb utilitarianism of storing a length of rope. As an object the composition is both artful and silly.
Installation view. Photograph by Jerry Hardman-Jones.
From ropes, Takamatsu moves to lines and shadows, engineering inversions and other welcome mistakes in the rules of perspective. He plays games with the picture plane and scale-versus-distance: making things far away bigger and objects closer smaller; rather dry and academic experimentation. The subsequent works utilizing trompe l’oeil shadows move from the witty and arresting Shadow no. 241 (1968)—wherein a coat-hook convincingly casts a false painted shadow—to the much more poetic and troubling series of human form shadow-projects. The documentary photographs Identification at Tokyo Gallery (1966) and Temporary Enclosure of Carioca Building Construction Site (1971), depict large scale wall installations in which precisely painted shadows of passersby and gallery goers are painted on the walls at various sizes—presuming a street or room filled with viewers who have seemingly vanished. In the sculptural work Shadows on the Door (1968), two realistic doors, with knobs and crossbraces, open on an illusionistic blue interior. All the surfaces portray convincing, ghostly shadows painted in a satin lacquer. Perhaps it is unfair to find a poignancy to these works bestowed by the radioactive shadows cast by the victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The shadow works are the most historically and emotionally relevant and affecting pieces in the show though and they seem to refer to the traces of the unfortunate observers of one of history’s greatest tragedies. This again returns to the idea that Takamatsu’s work hinges on the idea of the perspective of the observer as the dynamo moving the art forward.
The shadow works encompass a lot; they play with figuration, activate historical connotations, and maintain a conceptual rigor while flirting with artfulness and craftsmanship. The later works Slack of Net (1969) and Slack of Cloth (1970) investigate the behavior of materials largely left to their own devices, after minimal intervention by human hands. Alternatively, the example from the Compound Series, Compound (1972), juxtaposes objects and materials that bear little relation to each other, such as a mass-produced school chair resting on a brick. Like much found-object-based conceptual art, the result is often unexpectedly narrativized and anthropomorphic. We find ourselves feeling strangely sympathetic towards this imbalanced chair and the tensions it evokes with a leg hanging mid-air. Oneness of Cedar (1970), Oneness of Brick (1972), and Oneness of Rust (1972) further nurture the artist’s fascination with the individual properties of the material with minimal artist interference. The viewer feels a certain pride in the visceral honesty of the bricks. They have hollowed-out interiors filled with crumbled brick, or the log of cedar half-stripped and carved into a simple rectangular prism which displays the core, the natural fissures, and the veins of the wood. These carved wood pieces are similar to the work of Giuseppe Penone and Arte Povera happening simultaneously in Italy. They make a statement about the transitiveness of the authenticity or artificiality of the medium depending on the view of the spectator. It may be that Takamatsu’s wholesale intent in the Compound and Oneness series was along these lines; to find the narrative in the parts and materials rather than the artifice that might weave up the whole. Like his witty projects with Hi-Red Center, these later works perch on the edge of the perceptibility of art. They demand the viewer take a second look at something slightly off from normal, to perhaps notice the world around them whilst they are “doing other things.”
Jiro Takamatsu: The Temperature of Sculpture runs through October 22 at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.