Topological Microcosmos:from “Phase-Mother Earth” to “Phase of Nothingness–Skin”

Asia Art Center
Feb 21, 2019 10:30AM

By Tomoki Akimaru, Ph.D. Art History/Art Critic

Exhibition View, Phase of Nothingness—Skin: SEKINE Nobuo Solo Exhibition, 2019, Asia Art Center Taipei I

The newest body of work by Nobuo Sekine, “Phase of Nothingness-Skin” (2014–) is nothing but an advanced form of the artist’s early work “Phase-Mother Earth” (1968). It is so because of an unchanging theme that underlies Sekine’s works from the beginning to now, the spatial recognition in terms of topology.

Sekine started his career in his mid-20s, with a conviction that the main focus in his art-making is to present a new notion of space to the contemporary art field. Sekine specifically focused on topology, then-emerging mathematical discipline, and its non-Euclidean notion of space.

In topology, variants of a single form, no matter how deformed, are considered to be of the same “phase.” Many must have seen an animation of a coffee cup transformed into a donut shape. It shows that those two shapes are of the same “phase” with a hole in the center. Sekine looked into topology to bring his own reality and tradition to a universal level, to find a connection between East and West. Topology, the avant-garde theory of spatial cognition in the West acknowledges the world as fluid, whereas Taoism teaches the ideal way of human being comparing to the quality of water.

In the topological way of thinking, one aspect in a transformation of a“phase” is called “topology.” When a “phase” in a three-dimensional form expands as thin as possible, it becomes a plane. From this point of view, the difference between three-dimensional sculptures and two-dimensional paintings merely are difference in “topology.” For Sekine, painting is a sculpture in a form of membrane, and there is no discontinuity between sculpture and painting.

Sekine first started with a series called “Phase” in 1968. It was a series of semi-three-dimensional relief made with plywood and paint. Through this work, Sekine displayed a transformation of a “phase” through the relief whose form changes depending on one’s viewpoint. The success of this series brought the artist to 1st Kobe Suma Rikyū Park Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition, held in the same year.

Here, Sekine enters “Phase-Mother Earth”, the monumental work in the post-war Japanese art history. The work consisted of a cylindrical hole, 2.2 meters in diameter and 2.7 meters deep, accompanied by the cylinder of dirt of the same size. For Sekine, this “Phase-Mother Earth” was another thought experiment concerning topological spatial cognition. In other words, this work in a way was a conceptual art showing the transformation of the earth as that of a “phase.” The idea is that “By making a hole in the earth and digging out the dirt endlessly, the earth would become like an eggshell. Further, pulling the bottom skin out would make the earth in reverse.”

However, in its completion, “Phase-Mother Earth” was rather about the physical impact coming from the mass of soil and the large hole. This moving experience with one’s whole body led a group of artists to the pursuit of existence, hence the birth of “Mono-ha,” a new movement diverging from the popular school of the time “Japanese Conceptualist” led by Jiro Takamatsu whose interests was to pursue ideological matters.

Phase—Mother Earth, 1968, Production shot. 1st Kobe Suma Rikyū Park Contemporary Sculpture Exhibition, October 1 - Novermber 10, 1968. Photo: Susumu Koshimizu.

Subsequently produced was “Phase-Sponge” (1968). Here, Sekine added the question of physical existence to his primary concern of topological space. This work displayed the formal transformation of sponge as that of a “phase,” as well as the physical impact of a giant sponge of 1.2 meters in diameter and 1.3 meters in height pressed down by a thick steel plate. “Phases of Nothingness-Oilclay” (1969) with 2.5 tons of oil clay and “Phase of Nothingness-Water” (1969) with 1 ton of water were presented in the same manner. “Phase of Nothingness” (1970) presented in Japanese Pavilion at 35th Venice Biennale carried the massive physicality of 16 tons of rock soaring over the head, while the transformation of a “phase” was displayed as a transition of material from stainless steel with mirrored surface to marble. In “Phase of Nothingness – Cloth and Stone” (1969–70), the physical existence of the material was displayed with tactile wrinkles and creases caused by a rock hanging down with gravity. Transformation of a “phase,” here, was shown by a transformation of the canvas considered to be a membrane. Sekine started titling the works as “Phase of Nothingness” from when he produced “Phases of Nothingness – Oilclay.” For the artist, this title reflects Eastern philosophy that perceives “Nothingness (空)” not as mere “emptiness (虛)” or “lack,” but as “reality (實)” that is feasible.

What is important here is not only Mono-ha’s emphasis on substantiality against ideality, but also the fact that they are coming from Eastern view of nature that sympathize with the nature. Though visually similar to Mono-ha, western Minimal Art showed little interest to nature. Sekine on the other hand thinks it is important to present the fertility of Nature by distilling and concentrating it.

From this perspective, the “phase” series carry an overarching theme of embodying the infinite breadth and depth of great nature through a condensation of natural elements: dirt in “Phase-Mother Earth,” gravity in “Phase-Sponge,” oil clay in “Phases of Nothingness-Oilclay,” water in “Phase of Nothingness-Water,” rock in “Phase of Nothingness,” and again gravity in “Phase of Nothingness-Cloth and Stone.”

This attitude of implying the true quality of nature through distillation of its part can be found in the aesthetics of Ikebana, traditional Japanese flower arrangement. (In fact, Sekine almost pursued Ikebana prior to contemporary fine arts.) The quintessence of this aesthetic is told in the well-known story of “Sen-no-Rikyu’s “morning glory tea ceremony” in the 16th century.” What Rikyu did was to clip away all the morning glories in the tea garden, but kept the most beautiful one in a vase in the tea room. His intention was to make the guest to embrace the sentiments coming

from the lack, and further fulfilling the lack with one’s fertile imagination. Of course, in the mind of the guest, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, who was the great unifier of Japan, the morning glory was in full bloom. This is the essence of Wabi-sabi, a traditional Japanese aesthetic.

Phase of Nothingness—Black, 1978. Installation View: Nobuo Sekine: Skulptur 1975-1978,
Stadtische Kunsthalle Dusseldorf, July 21 - August 27, 1978. Photo: Yoriko Kushigemachi.

The great originality of Mono-ha as a Japanese art, and the ideological actuality beneficial to the contemporary society with ongoing environmental devastation, resides in Mono-ha’s contemporary expression of such intense unification with the great nature mediated through concentration of physical substantiality. Further, Sekine’s works within the works of Mono-ha artists are characterized by his interest in topology running through.

The newest body of work “Phase of Nothingness-Skin” is a development of such theme Sekine continually held.

In the same vein as “Phase of Nothingness-Cloth and Stone,” “Phase of Nothingness-Skin” is in direct descent from Mono-ha. The wrinkles and the creases on canvas giving the impact of physical existence speak to Mono-ha’s emphasis on substantiality as opposed to ideality. In this sense, it is a developed form of “Phase-Mother Earth.”

Further in “Phase of Nothingness-Skin,” the physical law of balancing the expansive and contractive force is present prominently and variedly. It is more so compared to “Phase of Nothingness-Cloth and Stone” that carries another element, gravity pulling down the stone. Pristine nature appears from a happenstance beyond human control, and the wrinkles and creases that emerge on the surface become the visualization of the laws of nature running through the universe, and yet we are normally negligent of.

The wrinkles and folds running through the canvas of “Phase of Nothingness-Skin” speak of the waves in a spatial membrane in terms of topology. Interestingly, it is said in the current cosmology that there is a possibility of contraction of the universe in the future, despite the fact it is rapidly expanding ever since the Big Bang. In which case, the elastic canvas of “Phase of Nothingness-Skin” truly is a microcosm of the macrocosm. Each wrinkle and fold records a pinch of the universe. Also in this sense “Phase of Nothingness-Skin” is an advanced form of “Phase-Mother Earth,” through which the artist conducted a topological thought experiment to invert the skin of the earth by digging out the soil until the earth becomes like an eggshell.

“Phase of Nothingness-Skin” series is a triple advancement of the artist’s earlier work “Phase-Mother Earth.”

Exhibition View, Phase of Nothingness—Skin: SEKINE Nobuo Solo Exhibition, 2019, Asia Art Center Taipei I

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