Works by Yoko Nishinarita: Nodal Points of the Multiverse

Shinya Koizumi, Art Critic, Professor Emeritus at Ibaraki University

I was surprised when I first caught sight of a small artwork by Yoko Nishinarita incorporating fake fur at Gallery Ciel in Mito City. This writer had theretofore been impressed with the power of Nishinarita’s workmanship and the energy of her modelling methods. She was always in full command of her materials, bending and shaping them to her will in order to fulfill her artistic vision. At the touch of her hand, whatever material she used was instantly transformed and became an integral part of one of the artist’s works. Hers was much like the hand of King Midas, creating gold from mundane paraphernalia and found objects. And in the same way that Picasso integrated objects in his works, Nishinarita gathered together various odds and ends to make yet another universe, where she was its absolute Creator, her ego reigning over the veritable chaos she had forged from the void.

But it now seemed as if I had been mistaken. In the small artwork before me, fake fur that was given to the artist had been used as it was, with little or no working or shaping. Was this an example of objet trouvé, of ready-made art? Half of the work showed signs of her struggle to control her materials, and yet for the other half she had merely added this piece of fur in the state that it came in. Was Nishinarita a Surrealist? A Dadaist? When describing Nishinarita’s art, such western terms seem to be inadequate.

Nishinarita says that she found the red and white striped curtain used as a material in one of the works in this exhibition when she was helping to straighten out a friend’s storehouse after an earthquake. The curtain is of the kind that is used as a decorative element for various auspicious events throughout Japan, and thus had continued to bear witness from the background to a panoply of minor celebrations over the years. Not being able to bring herself to toss it out, she set to work at using it to create art. Despite the finished artwork’s being something new, it seems to be some kind of historical relic from decades gone by because of the history it is inherently steeped in. To the viewer, it seems that half of the work’s overwhelming sense of presence comes from the manipulations Nishinarita has put it through, while the other half of its power is due to the history its materials embody.

The act of having a historical tale occupy an important position in a work of art basically goes against the principles of modern art. In a painting, the artist concentrates on the effects brought about by the positions of colors and forms in the picture, and in a sculpture the artist brings out volume from the material itself, and the sculpture stands independently as it confronts the space around it. These are the some of the basic rules of modern art. For example, in the three-dimensional works of Frank Stella, cigar smoke or a swimming cap can be used as an original form, and without any particular meaning, the shapes of these commonplace things are modified or altered, presenting to the viewer a “visual” meaning rather than a “literary” one. Leave literature up to literature, and let art devote itself to what only art can do. That is the way things are in Modernism. However, if one faithfully adhered to such principles, wouldn’t art become this sickly, emaciated thing, the product of an overcompartmentalized bureaucracy? Even such early Modernists as Kandinsky and Matisse had a love of music, and believed in their themes as they made meaningful choices when creating their works.

So what exactly is the meaning of modern art? In the first half of the 20th century, artists strove to mold and shape “pure” forms by getting rid of any unnecessary elements, and viewers paradoxically realized that it was indeed a simple picture that best served as a vessel to catch the rich interior elements overflowing from the work. Off-the-shelf stories and history that were meant to serve as a receptacle for a powerful modern ego were conversely seen to be nothing more than a hindrance. By the latter half of the 20th century, major off-the-shelf stories were popularly referred to as being “big stories”, while intimate ones were known as “little stories”, but the problem isn’t in being “big” or “little”. It’s a matter of phase: being a “story” (material for the heart or soul), or being an “object” (material for art).

There is a Buddhist saying that skillfully describes the relationship between the physical and the spiritual: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form”. If you apply this to Nishinarita’s art, her works have an “emptiness” that expresses her inner self as a “form”. “Emptiness is form”. That is the essence of Nishinarita’s paintings. And the essence of her sculptures is “Form is emptiness”, in that concrete physicalities (“forms”) lose their status as entities in this world and are brought together to make sculptures that represent the void (“emptiness”). Now her sculptures are like premodern relics in an upside-down phase, setting loose the time and eras that had been trapped in her “forms”. And in the chaos of her paintings with their pigments creating non-material colors and shapes, the viewer finds writhing entities, dregs as it were, that at times seem to pierce through the canvas as they take on their colors. These things that appear in Nishinarita’s works don’t come from a place inside the artist’s imagination, but rather seem to be strange creatures invading from some other universe.

The viewer discovers places like holes opening to this world, holes that connect with another universe on the other side, and as if to make sure that they don’t close up, objects from our universe have been stuffed into them. And by means of phase converters, something appears. Used as phase converters, Nishinarita’s works are connected with all kinds of universes. It is only natural that her works reveal a different space-time continuum to anyone who takes a look at them, and at times objects that are being sucked into them are seemingly sent to spirits in other far away places. That is perhaps why it’s difficult to tell when the works were created, and even whether they are old or new. Apparently it is not Nishinarita’s physical strength that makes her works so engrossing, but rather it is her ability to reveal in them the fraying edges of this world.