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Isamu Wakabayashi at the Kenji Taki Gallery

by Monty DiPietro

            It didn't mater much to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government that Ome City residents were opposed to the destruction of a large part of Hinode Forest for a landfill site. Plans to knock down both the objections and the trees were progressing slowly but surely, with only the appearance of consideration given the locals' concerns in a series of perfunctory public forums. From back in the early 1990s, when the project was first announced, even as the protests were listened to and noted, it became increasingly apparent to the concerned citizens that the bulldozers were waiting, that it was only a matter of time before the green space became a garbage dump. Only when sculptor Isamu Wakabayashi and a poet named Gozo Yoshimasu took up the cause in 1996 were the authorities faced with an unanticipated problem -- destroying the forest now also involved destroying a work of art.

"The Green Constellation of the Unicorn," a site-specific copper plate and earth art piece by Wakabayashi, was installed on a piece of land situated in the middle of the planned landfill site. Although expropriation of the plot was probably a fait accompli, riding roughshod over a work of art by a respected sculptor (a Tokyo University of Fine Arts and Music alumni, no less), was another matter entirely. It was argued in a dozen court hearings that the piece could not be moved, and, improbably, the residents engaged Tokyo's Santama Regional Landfill Association in the age-old "What is Art?" debate. The locals buttressed their arguments with support from both Japanese and international experts such as Frank Stella, Bill Viola, and dealer Leo Castelli. But in the end, judges decided that the bureaucrats knew best and in October 2000 the bulldozers went in and that was the end of both the forest and Wakabayashi's piece.

The inspired resistance may have effected Wakabayashi's whole approach to art. The 65 year-old sculptor, who once designed Subarus and is known for his large, brutal, copper and iron pieces, has, in his latest exhibition, brought us seven pencil on paper drawings and three tranquil pieces made of gently carved and softly dyed paulownia wood.

Now showing at the Kenji Taki Gallery in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward, "Tree Bark and Vacant Land," is a sentimental exhibition, evoking a sense of loss and the wisp of memories. The drawings see straight green pencil lines dividing the pages into sections, these filled with penciled shapes and charcoal smudges. The effect is one of shifting perspective, something like a dream world in which seemingly disparate realities coexist and coalesce.

The wood pieces form the core of the show. For these Wakabayashi has hollowed out geometric shapes, usually square and rectangular boxes, in the center of split tree trunks. He has stained the exposed wood with a wash of light blue ink, and as such the works appear at first glance to be unearthly, weird, yet somehow still possessed of their natural weight and dignity. The impression here is that Wakabayashi has worked with the wood, not against it, that the relationship between artist and material is based on understanding and respect.

Still, Wakabayashi's feeling about sculpture is that it should somehow seek out its own place: "I believe it is dangerous for the sculpture to fit harmoniously with the surroundings in which it is placed. The surface is an important problem for sculpture. It is necessary to concentrate one's attention on this point and avoid harmony."

And as such in Hinode, Wakabayashi's "The Green Constellation of the Unicorn" acted as sort of garden from which viewers could regard not the remaining forest, but rather the already clear cut parts of the surrounding landscape. It was left to the artist's 36 large copper sheets, etched with pictures of the disappearing trees, to embody the spirit of what Hinode was losing.

It could be argued that those attempting to block the Ome landfill project never had a chance, but in a country where artists have rarely gotten involved in social protests, it was the spirit that mattered. The strains of this spirit live in Wakabayashi's new work.


Notes: The Isamu Wakabayashi exhibition "Tree Bark and Vacant Land" is at the Kenji Taki Gallery (3378-6051) to November 30. The gallery is located a 10 minute walk from Hatsudai Station.

Notes: Anne Daems is at the Taka Ishii Gallery (3915-7784), Gallery Side 2 (5771-5263), and Points des Suspension (3770-1737) to February 10. Her work is also featured in the group show "Encounters" at the Tokyo Opera City Gallery (5353-0756) to March 18.

Pictured is Untitled (Woman at bus stop) 1996, C-print mounted on aluminum, 38 x 57 cm, by Anne Daems.
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