The question of air: its fluidity and relativity | Kataoka Mami
“‘Air’ is a ghost with a truly immense absolute right.”1 So wrote Yamamoto Shichihei in “Kuki” no kenkyu (The study of “air”) (1977) in explaining the extent to which Japanese make all sorts of judgments based on “air,” illogical reasons, as one might put it, such as the atmosphere or circumstances of a place. “We are constantly living according to a kind of double standard consisting of logical judgements and judgements based on air.”2 Yamamoto’s argument that “In a manner of speaking, it is the actual exchange of words in the argument rather than the substance of the logic of those arguing that foments a kind of ‘air,’ and ultimately it is this ‘air’ that forms the basis of our decisions”3 does not feel out of place even now, thirty years after it was written. In fact, of all the abbreviations that became fashionable among young people several years ago, perhaps KY (meaning kuki yomenai, or “can’t read the air”) is the most symbolic, reconfirming that judgements based on air still carry weight.
If these judgements based on air are a Japanese phenomenon, to what extent is the concept translatable? According to Yamamoto, “If we say this kuki corresponds to pneuma, ruach, or anima, then the meaning should be clear.”4 Because these Greek, Hebrew, and Latin words refer to things akin to what we would call in Japanese reisei (divine nature) or tamashii (soul or spirit), they convey a sense of the Japanese understanding that “air” is not an emptiness where nothing exists, that there is a spiritual presence of some kind there. The Latin anima is the root of the word animatus, meaning “breathed into/endowed with life,” and also of the English verb “animate.” It is also the source of the word “animism,” and of “animation.” One could also note in passing that the origins of the word “animal” lie in the Latin word animalis (living/breathing). The Sanskrit word prana also means “breath” in the sense of the thing that sustains life, and is similar to the Japanese “kuki” as used here.
If we think about this presence of “air” by substituting it with sound, then we can make a fascinating comparison with the attitude to silence adopted by John Cage, who came under the influence of Zen through such people as Suzuki Daisetsu. Says Cage, “Formerly, silence was the time lapse between sounds, useful towards a variety of ends, among them that tasteful arrangement … Where none of these or other goals is present, silence becomes something else—not silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds. The nature of these is unpredictable and changing. These sounds (which are called silence only because they do not form part of a musical intention) may be depended on to exist.”5 Silence is not nothing, but the sounds, including noise, of our living space, and the fact that there are sounds we can only hear by being aware of silence is consistent with the view that invisible air is not empty space, but that there is some kind of existence or presence there that can be felt.
It would seem that MAM Project 014 artist Taguchi Yukihiro has consistently addressed this existence or presence in invisible “air” since the very start of his career. In tension (2003) [fig. 1], a performance piece he presented while still a student, he gives visual expression to the space surrounding his own body, and to the sense of distance between himself and the walls that define this space, by interposing a number of rafters between himself and the walls. Likewise, in Untitled (glass) (2003) [fig. 2] he inserts thin strips of wood into a standard glass to draw attention to the small space, and to the air, inside the glass. He later moved to Berlin, and in the series Gift [pp. 68-71], which he began in 2006, the very themes are “air” and “breath.” Taguchi places his head in a plastic bag and invites people to breathe air into it. In return for receiving this air, he pedals a stationary bicycle with a propeller attached, thereby providing air to others inside a large inflatable- plastic space. The result is an exchange of “air.” As well, by inserting plastic bags filled with air between slices of bread or cars, or arranging them on train seats, in toilet bowls, or on station benches, he focuses awareness on the invisible vibrations or energy that surround visible bodies or objects, and on the qi that passes back and forth between the inside and outside of bodies [fig. 3, 4, 5]. At the same time, with the projects that involve sucking air out of the plastic spaces surrounding bodies or objects to form a vacuum, he makes us appreciate anew not only that the oxygen people need to breathe is scarce, but that unless people are surrounded by air they cannot even move, or in other words that bodies and objects rely for their existence on the support of this invisible presence.
Furthermore, in cave [pp. 33-35], which Taguchi presented in 2010 in a basement gallery space in Tokyo, everyday objects and pieces of furniture gathered from around the city were arranged and shadows created by lighting skilfully incorporated into the installation and animation to transform the entire space into something resembling a cave. The result is reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s description of the Lascaux cave paintings: “gazing at these pictures, we sense that something is stirring, something is moving. That something touches us, we are stirred by it, as though in sympathy with the rhythms of a dance; from this passionate movement emanates the beauty of the paintings. They are, we recognize, the individual’s free communication with the world around him, they are man’s reaching out to touch his kind whose inner wealth he is just discovering.”6 This resonates uncannily with and echoes in an extremely suggestive manner the process whereby in that gloomy underground space Taguchi manipulated shadow, air, and other phenomena to bring to life everyday objects and furniture, transforming the installation from day to day. This, too, is a question of “air.”
Taguchi calls these works whose exhibition form or state changes over time “performative installations,” and produces animations of them with the series of still images. In contrast to this, he uses the term “field work” to refer to his mostly outdoor works that unfold more with improvisation. His first performative installation and stop-motion animation incorporating still images capturing the changes in the work was Moment (2007) [pp. 50-51]. Since that recording using a digital camera of the removal of floorboards from the gallery in Berlin, this has developed into Taguchi’s primary mode of expression. His performances and installations both have in common the characteristics of temporary, short-lived instability and fluidity, but one could say that while the former rely on the relationship between human physical movement and space, the latter rely on the relationship between material and space. Furthermore, when they take place in the urban spaces or public spaces that Taguchi often chooses as the location for his works, the temporary nature and fluidity of these performances and installations become synonymous with a kind of improvisation or contingency on account of the need to adapt to changing circumstances, and the conscious or unconscious participation of passersby is also absorbed in this fluidity.
Media art pioneer Yamaguchi Katsuhiro, who witnessed the happenings of Allan Kaprow et al. and various events in New York in the 1960s, states the following in Pafomansu genron (Principles of performance) (1985): “In the 1980s, the two words ‘performance’ and ‘installation’ came into common usage. As suggested by the alternative meanings of ‘equipping’ or ‘setting up,’ ‘installation’ refers to spatial configuration using various materials or the display of equipment incorporating media. In a sense, installation and performance are two sides of the same coin. By this I mean that when a space is transformed into an environment that is continuous in terms of its form and when equipment, material compositions, or media are incorporated into it, the people inside this space break out of their everyday spatial experience and are caught up in a hybridized spatial experience. As well, every locus of action/process within one’s own space takes on an interactive relationship with the installation. In this sense, installation is an act of the artist bringing to bear a formative intention in preparing a performative space within a space.”7 In the same book, Yamaguchi presents Dennis Oppenheim as a example of an artist who stages “performances that deal with the interaction between equipment and the people who operate it,” pointing out that such performances “give visual expression to consciousness people usually repress. Within a hard social system, he stages performances that resemble festivals in which jesters appear.”8 The jesters Yamaguchi refers to here are reminiscent of the tricksters that often take the form of rogues in the world of myths, folklore, and religion mainly in North America. Says Trickster Makes this World author Lewis Hyde, “In short, trickster is a boundary- crosser. Every group has its edge, its sense of in and out, and trickster is always there, at the gates of the city and the gates of life, making sure there is commerce. He also attends the internal boundaries by which groups articulate their social life. We constantly distinguish—right and wrong, sacred and profane, clean and dirty, male and female, young and old, living and dead—and in every case trickster will cross the line and confuse the distinction.”9 One of their roles is to bring fluidity to any situation, to bring a new, dynamic energy to society. And for this fluidity to exist, air is essential.
That Taguchi carefully plans the stop-motion animations—whose form this passing of time and space and processes of change ultimately take—is clear from his drawings, but at the time of implementation improvisation or contingency are also admitted. The manner in which things are brought together through a combination of design and planning on the one hand and improvisation or contingency on the other appears to be consistent with what in Buddhism is called engi (superstition), according to which everything including spiritual behavior is the result of various causes and turns of fate. Or perhaps it is a manifestation of the various cause and effect relationships alluded to in the Japanese proverb, Kaze ga fukeba okeya ga mokaru (lit. If the wind blows, bucket makers profit)10, meaning that the world is interconnected even though it doesn’t seem to be. The images often seen in Taguchi’s drawings showing arrows or spatial wavelength also seem to suggest a kind of qi or energy arising from continuous space or interactivity, and certainly seem to represent a superstitious worldview11 [fig. 6]. At the same time, in Domino [fig. 7], an installation created in 2006 using a collection of books belonging to a scholar in Rotterdam, Taguchi literally toppled like dominos books that had been arranged in order of the birthdates of the authors. By putting the first book the scholar read first and the book he was in the middle of writing last, Taguchi established a kind of lineage of intellect and knowledge as a passage of air.
As touched on at the beginning of this essay, if we think of “air” as anima (soul or spirit), then given that Taguchi uses animation (which is derived from anima) to breathe life into everyday objects, furniture, and so on and that these things are then personified, it is possible to observe an important relationship between this and the question of air we have been looking at so far. Judging by the frequency with which it appears in both fairy tales and contemporary movies such as Toy Story, I think we can say that the fantasy in which toys come to life in the middle of the night is shared by all of us at some level of our consciousness. In the performative installations and performative spazieren (wandering) undertaken as part of the Moment series and in works like Nest [pp. 60-63] and Ordnung [pp. 64-67], one can glimpse another world, a world outside human consciousness, just like the one in which toys move around in the middle of the night. Taguchi himself rarely appears in the footage, although it is the artist who is constantly in the background filming proceedings while spending hours actually moving the everyday objects and furniture around, like some shadowy figure masterminding things behind the scenes. Here he is like air imposing continuity and fluidity on space and tying everything together, which is none other than the job of the anima, the jester, the trickster.
In his new work for MAM Project 014, Moment: Performative Hills (2011), Taguchi plans to remove wooden panels used for the walls of the project space at the Mori Art Museum and take them outside the gallery and outside the museum, where he will attempt an intervention in urban space. Unlike Berlin where he currently lives, this neighborhood of Tokyo includes very little surplus or abandoned space, so the work will also be an attempt to intervene in gaps in high-rise buildings and multifunctional complexes that are strictly controlled according to unseen rules or codes, in the city of Tokyo itself, to create flows of fluid air. The white gallery wall panels will transform the urban space as they move around it, beating out a rhythm together with Japanese drums, turning into tunnels and walls on which children will paint. Just as Taguchi drew attention to the presence of air in urban space by placing plastic bags filled with air in various locations around it, this new work could be described both as an attempt to draw attention to gaps in the city and gaps in the rules and administrative systems governing them, and an act of releasing fragments of the white cubes where artworks are usually displayed to the world at large. [fig. 8, 9, 10]
Taguchi’s interest in gaps is related to the translation problems arising from differences in the meanings of words. In the same way that the full meaning of the Japanese word kuki cannot be translated directly using the English word “air,” the Japanese titles of his works are rendered in katakana, the angular Japanese phonetic syllabary used for foreign words, so as so draw attention to the ambiguity of individual words in different languages and the different meanings of words with the same pronunciation. One could say that this is again an attempt to communicate using the sounds of katakana the meaning of each word in a dictionary while
retaining the nuanced overlapping of meanings contained in multiple languages by presenting these meanings together.
The “question of air” that has been a consistent theme in the artistic practice of Taguchi Yukihiro is at the same time, to put it in different terms, the question of relations with one’s surroundings or a sense of distance, and also a proposal for fluidity for the purposes of giving rise to new creation. Based on this approach, it would seem that behind Taguchi’s gaze one can detect a cosmologic view whereby the world is connected by the air that envelops all things in the universe—a non- dualistic cosmology. [fig. 11]
Kataoka Mami (Chief Curator, Mori Art Museum)
1. Yamamoto, Shichihei. “Kuki“ no kenkyu (The study of “air“), Bunshun Bunko, Tokyo, 1977, p. 19.
2. Yamamoto, p. 22.
3. Yamamoto, p. 22.
4. Yamamoto, p. 56.
5. Cage, John. “Composition as Process,“ Silence, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, 1961, pp. 22-23.
6. Bataille, Georges. Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux; or the Birth of Art, trans. A. Wainhouse and J. Emmons, Albert Skira, Geneva, 1955, p.130.
7. Yamaguchi, Katsuhiro. “Daiyonji Pafomansu“ (Fourth performance), Pafomansu genron (Principles of performance), Asahi Press, Tokyo, 1985, pp.81-85.
8. Yamaguchi, pp. 91-92. 9. Hyde, Lewis. Trickster Makes this World, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1999, p.7. 10. This saying first appeared in Seken gakusha katagi (The temperament of worldly-wise scholars), a book of popular stories of everyday life in the Edo period. When the wind blows, dust is blown about and gets in people’s eyes, leading to an increase in the number of blind people. As a result, sales of shamisen (often played by blind people) increase, leading to a decrease in the number of cats (whose skin is used to make shamisen) and an increase in the number of rats. Because rats gnaw on wooden basins, coopers profit.
11. Taguchi also sold a postcard featuring the words “Kaze ga fukeba okeya ga mokaru“ at a flea market in Berlin.