The Space of Floating Images
Curator, Fukuoka City Museum
1. Between things and signs & the planar object
Ebisawa Tatsuo’s decade-long series Caffé Macchina as Method, reveals the espresso maker from a host of angles and depths—from directly above it, to right beside it, to cross-sections of it. In his systematic, geometrical representations, the machine is more akin to a sign than a painting. Smoothly and homogenously rendered in translucent pigments, with no trace of brushstroke, the works feel like shadows. The artist’s eye projects the macchine da caffè onto its base (here, plywood boards covered with multiple layers of marble powder) like an image onto film. He returns the machine to a blueprint, turns the cube into a plane.
Without knowing the title, however, you might never realize that you were looking at espresso makers. Instead, you would think of novel geometric forms or round robots at play. In the context of contemporary art, Ebisawa’s painting represent an “encoding of the object.” The works are geometrical, but at the same time they are playful, almost ephemeral—qualities that defy this “encoded” notion. They appear en route between the thing and its symbolization, like an afterimage of an object that has just lost its shape.
From a distance, however, these mechanical, yet playful and fleeting images suddenly take on a wholly different appearance. As details vanish, the coded nature of the works comes to the fore. What begins to stubbornly appear, on single sides of the plywood boards, are quietly composed images of ornamental patterns. This phenomenon is a distinctive trait of Ebisawa’s work.
One factor of this work that gives rise to the abovementioned shifting impression is its support. If you step back after studying the surfaces up close, you will find the support mediums begin to assert themselves as solid rectangular forms upon whose surfaces the iconography has been embedded. This sensation, however, is soon supplanted by another transformation. You realize these supports are longer plastic solids. In the same way that his images reside somewhere between things and signs, Ebisawa’s support media can be located between planes and solids. Of course, I am speaking metaphorically here. As they are solid forms composed of planes, they are perhaps best described as “planar solids.” The artist himself likes to refer to them as “thick planes.” With its iconography lying between thing and code and its support media between planes and solids, Caffé Macchina as Method has a doubly neutral character.
Setting aside this “in between” quality of the work, we can follow with interest the new imagery arising out of a process in which a manmade solid is transformed into a perfect plane that is then restored to its solid origins. If we assume this process to be the expressive import of the work, the seemingly in-depth deployment of two-dimensional imagery serves to heighten the drama of the work’s return to a three-dimensional construction.
My interest is drawn less to the new imagery resulting from the work’s return to its solid origins than to the process of back-and-forth conversions between two and three dimensions. Caffé Macchina as Method offers us both newly defined images and this curious act of transformation. The espresso machine functions simultaneously as symbol of Ebisawa’s stay in Italy and as source of imagery in his work. Thus, here the caffé macchina is not simply a motif, but truly a method.
2. From planar object to a space of floating images
In the beginning of the Caffé Macchina as Method series, works consisted of individual pieces on individual supports. His subjects were the images arising out of configurations of planar objects. In order to acquire its newness, this imagery needed to begin not only to extend outward, like pedipalps from the surface of the works, but also to penetrate into its support medium, transforming it into imagery as well. Achieving this, the caffé macchina becomes reborn as a wholly new object and Ebisawa’s ultimate plan is fulfilled. The artist must have felt the surety of response as the images permeated their support structures and turned them into imagery. Although he managed to create objects-as-painting, however, he was likely dissatisfied with the wholly self-contained results.
This in turn led him to begin deploying these stand-alone works within the exhibition space. For an artist used to working two-dimensionally, this switch to installation must have been accompanied by much trial and error. But it also provided him with a new space for self-discovery. It was not simply a task of transporting the micro world of Caffé Macchina as Method into the macro world of the installation space. It was more about how to actively project the delicate movement of the painted images permeating their supports into the wider space around them. Considering the nature of the works as discrete pieces incapable of escaping the instability of their half-object realm, the shift to installation seems only natural.
Seen from the outside, Ebisawa’s installation might engender comments like “hollow and unsatisfying” or “shallow and trivial.” This may be because the support structures that constitute its main elements have the neither-nor quality of peeled walls. The exposed instability of the supports, however, is perfect for the delicate images that cover them. After you enter the space, engage the details of the imagery at close range, and sweep your gaze across the installation as a whole, you discover that this complicated room has became a realm of floating images. You also gradually encounter the overall playful motion of all of these gently reverberating images resonating with each other. Here, in this cheerful zone, the caffé macchina images flip back and forth between things and signs, while the supports shift between planar and solid forms.
Thus, Ebisawa’s “thick planes” float in a playful, mechanical world that comes to resemble an ephemeral amusement park of afterimages. It evokes the large-scale presence of contemporary life, where we spend our days as “thick planes” roaming only a short distance upon the vast, wafer-thin surface of the earth.