Seas of space; or, vessels

Hitoshi Dehara
Curator, Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art

The works that Mr. Tatsuo Ebisawa has released, and that I have seen, since he took up his post in Hiroshima City University’s Faculty of Art nine years ago amount to just five: “Caffé Macchina as Method”, “Sea of Madness”, “Soul’s Vessel”, and the components “__” and “__” of “White Cloth”. Add to these the works he has contributed to the teachers’ exhibition that is put on each year at the university, and we have practically all of the works that he has made public in this period. The works he has shown at the teachers’ exhibitions are said to be prototypical, and “White Cloth” itself is just one part of a vast work currently in preparation. Thus his finished works are not numerous. Yet it is not that his is a meager oeuvre. Rather, the opposite is true since each of the individual works is a vast structure made up of combinations of a large diversity of elements, requiring huge amounts of time and labor to create. One could say such works are intermediate between a single piece of painting or sculpture and an entire edifice. Or it may be better to call them a form of composite art.
In the exhibition to mark the opening to the public of the old Bank of Japan Hiroshima Branch Building after it was put on permanent loan to the City of Hiroshima, it was Ebisawa’s work “Soul’s Vessel” that formed the centerpiece (Fig.1). Like his other works this was composed of several structures, installed in locations spread out across the hall, entrance and rooms. The core was a creation resembling a sort of summer house, which was installed in the hall. You might say it was like a building within the building. Its surfaces had been scorched with a blowtorch or something, there were numberless holes in its white panels. It had been rendered fragmentary, so to speak, and liquid lay on its floor, so that it was like an abandoned house. Described like that it may sound like an austerely simple thing, but it in no way offered such a bleak image. On the contrary, what with its numberless holes, the myriad tentacle-like things descending from its roof, together with the diversity of the materials – and not forgetting the spread outwards from the creation to the small pieces in its surroundings – it evokes rather the words “prolific growth”. The impression it gives is a composite one. Walking through this space as if in a garden, the spectator will view and take in the details one by one, trying at the same time to grasp the whole; as he comes to terms with it and leaves be its disconnects, he is likely to arrive ultimately at the construction of an overall image.
Ebisawa’s works fall basically under the category of installation art. Translated into Japanese as setsuei geijutsu, kukan geijutsu or the like, this is a genre that places objects in a particular space and makes a work out of the scene as a whole. The term “installation” originally carried overtones of physical realism. It takes its rise in the U.S.A. of the 1960s, specifically in the thing-itself aesthetic of that time (to express which the term “literal” was used) whereby emphasis was laid on a work’s being in the same time and space as the viewer, that is, being in the “here and now”. Ebisawa’s works do not properly match such a classic conception of installation (actually the same observation can frequently be made about the works of others of his own generation). This is because although his works certainly exist as concrete things, those things are also some kind of what one might call media, and are thereby converted into images that cannot be said to be “here and now”. It is a characteristic feature of his art that it is not completely anchored in the “here and now”. This may be attributable to his possessing so strongly what it takes to be a painter. Because a painter is at bottom a type that to a greater or less extent destroys the planar space in front of the eyes and attempts to create anew a space distinct from it – put in extreme terms, he is an artist of illusion. Even as one discards such illusion (the creation of three-dimensional worlds in two-dimensional spaces) and plants one’s feet firmly in the “sense of real existence” of things, one will find all too predictably that one is trying to make there another world and image just as with painting. As painters generally capture both things and spaces with their eyes, they are widely held to be suitable as creators of installation art, which is an art of spaces. On the other hand another characteristic of painters is a dissatisfaction with existing things and images that leads them to construct other, new images. In that sense it would be true to say that a double set of painterly qualities are hard at work in Ebisawa’s installations.
Having understood this, let us take a look at the development of Ebisawa’s work in the light of it. In the series “Caffé Macchina as Method” (Fig. 2), which he presented to the public before taking up his post in Hiroshima, he made several thick flat surfaces with coffee machines – as per the title – depicted on them, and deployed them in a variety of combinations at the site. Thus he turned these existing objects – coffee machines – into symbols on flat surfaces (whose flatness combined well with the hard surfaces) and moreover exhibited these flat surfaces in a three-dimensional space. This represented a flowing back and forth, from solidity to plane surfaces and from plane surfaces to solidity. Installations of this type exhibiting paintings, sculptures and other conventional pieces in spaces were frequently mounted in that period – the late 1980s and some time after – but Ebisawa can be said to have been their most thoroughgoing practitioner. Presumably by constantly placing individual instances of planar and solid forms in the open, he was seeking after the possibilities for connections between them. While being contained within planar frames, the coffee machines form a mutually concerted ensemble in terms of the space.
In a work of the same title that he presented after coming to Hiroshima at the first “Resonance of Historical Buildings and Art” exhibition (in the old Exhibition Hall of the Hiroshima University School Education Faculty) however, changes could be plainly observed (Fig. 3). The work took the form of three tiers of zig-zagging folding screen-like surfaces that vertically criss-crossed one another. Japanese folding screens have a spatial thickness such that they cannot be termed fully flat surfaces in the western sense. It was as if the work stressed this aspect. And precisely because of this it is paradoxically the flat surfaces that are the matter of the work. Meanwhile the images of coffee machines have almost disappeared, and their remaining depictions are close to being daubings. Moreover the small dots that had been depicted together with the coffee machines and served as shading have turned into holes that let real light inside the work. Thus we should, it seems, say that the illusions of pictorial art have made a retreat and the artist has made the flat surfaces into the matter of the work as being more real spaces. This work finally reached completion at the second exhibition (in the old Hiroshima Army Food Storehouse, Fig. 4). It used L-shaped panels or simpler single panels as it basic units, and the whole was composed of three structures of differing types. Specifically, in addition to the work shown at the first exhibition, it had solid bodies that completely enclosed the space, plus groups of (opened-out) panels that loosely segmented the expansive floor surface. While each of these took up space in a different way, they had coherence by virtue of being made up of the same units, so that the work as a whole formed a single structure and constructed a space with a single hierarchy. It looked to me like a model of a city.
The work “Sea of Madness” shown at the third exhibition, which was sited in a warehouse near Miyajima, was similarly composed of several structures (Fig. 7). But this time they all had differing forms. The space was occupied by a loose deployment of the objects that nonetheless maintained the independence of each. A particular feature was the use of the long, sidewise-oriented structure called ”Marking Fence” as a boundary dividing the space into a light and a dark region; the light passing through the holes made in this structure into the foreground seemed like light shining through the surface of water. It was an underwater world, as the title suggested. Partly because of the differing forms of the structures, the work’s presence as an image was stronger than at the previous exhibition, so that it felt as though it were even further detached from the “here and now”. This work raised the expression of the numberless holes, which had started with “Caffé Macchina as Method”, to the level of an experimental quest. This was a point that particularly caught my interest – it involved pieces of string or glass passed through the holes, and surfaces with holes in them piled layer-like over each other. No doubt these features have expanded the terminology of molding technology! Passing strings through the holes made the forms variegated and enriched the images; these however could also be said to have rendered into objects and made evident things whose nature it is to permeate (such as light and air). Therefore what this – and also the scorchings in the subsequent “Soul’s Vessel” – represents, is surely a process of physical things gaining strength over pictorial things. Seeing Ebisawa’s works in this way we come to understand that in parallel with this strengthening of their character as things, the images that they present – hitherto sealed within picture planes – progressively become realized in the work as a whole. Intertwined with the work’s character as object there is an elaborate image that one could justly term baroque. I think that the superfluity of detail is there in order to cause this image, vision or whatever to materialize. Prior to Hiroshima the superfluity of pictorializing was balanced by the restraint, as regards form, of containing the images within flat surfaces; over recent years it would be apt to say that this balance has been exposed in a variety of different contexts. The imaginative conversion of matter and objects is adequately executed, and thanks to their synergism the whole metamorphoses into another world. (Of course the manual work that these details entail is doubtless a delight for the creator.) Furthermore what maintains the balance with this superfluity is the structural quality of the works themselves. An exception in that regard however is “White Cloth” (Figs. 5 and 6). This work bases itself on conforming to the place, and yet I sensed something of weakness in it. For Ebisawa it is indispensable for the whole to have a structural quality that will absorb the superfluity of detail. Perhaps one should say that what he particularly has within him is a will to render concrete a vast vision. Hence I believe that a thread in his work whose ordering was material substance – image – detail – construction, has formed itself into a circle that penetrates throughout his current works. It is probably only by grasping this thread that one will be able to adequately savour the elaborateness of his art.
Given this nature of Ebisawa’s art, our approach should be to enjoy it intently on several different levels going from the details up to the whole. Levels of this kind have always been present in pictures and other single pieces of art, but in installations they take on prominence. Let us find out to what regions these images that integrate such levels can ultimately take us. There will lie the essential worth of his art.
In the foregoing I have merely set forth one reading of the works, and that in rough outline. But I felt that grasping this approach was of paramount importance for understanding his art. There are many things left to be debated. Concerning his period of study in Italy, for example – what kind of issues did the gap between that country and Japan throw up for his art? Or concerning his choice of materials – the meaning of using cheap ones like plywood, and in what manner they are transformed. Or his work as an educator. But I have no more space and must reserve such matters for some other opportunity.
Last December I paid him a visit in his studio built alongside his residence in northern Hiroshima Prefecture. I saw there in progress the vast installations measuring 4 meters in height by 5 meters square that I touched on at the beginning. I was told the work will be complete when 16 of these are arrayed together (Fig. 8). Creating this will surely demand great quantities of thought, time and labour. Finding a place capable of exhibiting it will be no easy matter either. But there is no doubt that one day the project will reach fruition. We shall just have to wait patiently. My eyes have been opened to the fact that such a mode of creation exists – progressively building a single work through prolonged expenditure of time, as he does. It may be that his time flows at a leisurely pace matching the size of the work. Despite the strenuous labours of creation involved, it is of course a happy way of living for a creative being. A thought which made me envious.