Fura S at the Sagacho Exhibit Space

by Monty DiPietro

Fura S. has sweet childhood memories. The Albany, New York-born artist attributes this to a cultural adjustment he made as a six year-old when his Japanese parents repatriated, bringing their boy to Japan for the first time. "Why," he wondered, "didn’t my Japanese friends have the same sweet smells that my American mates did?"

Fura S., christened Francis Shioya by his Catholic parents, is exploring aroma-awareness in his exhibition, "Sugar Mountain: Ryoanji Pieta," an installation that includes room perfume, a pieta, a field of blue light-emitting-diodes, and about 500 kilograms of granulated sugar. The olfactory sonata is now playing at the Sagacho Exhibit Space in Tokyo’s Koto Ward.

The artist’s 175cm tall pieta is the main visual point of focus – it stands at the far end of the large and airy, rectangular gallery. Fura S. first saw a pieta, or image of the Madonna holding the dead Christ, the day before his family brought him to Japan. And the artist saw a fairly nice one, a Michelangelo that was being shown in Queens, New York. The experience stayed with him, and in this installation he combines the impression it made on him with memories of a family trip to the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto the following year. Ryoanji is a Zen Temple of the Myoshinji school, and it is believed that only enlightenment will allow a viewer to see all 15 stones in the "karesansui," or rock garden, at the same time. (For you and I and the great unwashed, only 14 of the stones are visible from any one vantage point.) The field of white pebbles in the karesansui, provoking perhaps a lingering memory of sugary friends left behind, also had a powerful effect on the then seven year-old Fura S.

A gentle and casual man, the 40 year-old artist now describes himself as an "Independent Catholic." "The last time I went to church was about 15 years ago," he smiles at a very sweet opening party. "When I was a child we went weekly."

The opening party owes much of its sweetness to the ambitious contribution of the Firmenich perfume manufacturers, who developed a scent to Fura S.’s specifications and debuted it at the now New York-based artist’s most recent Lower Manhattan gallery show. Company manager Benoit Blanchard explains, "We wanted an aroma that would be aggressive, provocative." And so the Swiss-based multinational, one of the world’s three largest fragrance makers (which counts Calvin Klein’s CK1 among their creations), mixed up a scent that that I can only describe as sweet toasted vanilla, which the Sagacho then sprayed onto everything they could – including a few opening party guests.

Our sensorium holds a special place for aroma processing – the limbic system, a group of interconnected deep brain structures that also function as the seat of emotion and hold our distant memories. It is for this reason that smell is considered the most nostalgic of our senses. And it may be for this reason as well that "Sugar Mountain: Ryoanji Pieta" is a such an evocative installation.

The Sagacho’s floor has been completely covered with sugar, several centimeters deep, into which 169 pin-point lights have been embedded. They glow in blue waves. The pieta meanwhile, also covered in sugar, shimmers at the far end of the gallery. Visitors watch from a wood platform that extends about one-third of the way into the room. This is an installation that looks very different depending on the time of day – as natural light streams through the gallery’s high Northern windows, the LEDs almost disappear, after sunset, they come out to cast a blue glow on the scene. It is, to borrow a cliché, a religious experience.

The best time to visit this beautifully inspired exhibition would be from 4:00pm to 5:00pm.


notes: Until Feb 14, 1999.
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