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The Pioneers series aims to head new light on artists who have created truly innovative work, trailblazers whose legacy lives and reverberates in the current generation. In this issue, Mika Yoshitake looks back to the art of Nobuo Sekine.
Can you explain the beginnings of your career? I am especially curious about your primary sources of inspiration, as well as your interest in topology—a major theme that defines your early practice, distinguishing it from the trend of optical distortions initiated by the “Tricks and Vision” exhibition in 1968.
I began to think at the time that one of the major themes within contemporary art should be a “new awareness and interpretation of space.” So I became interested in topology, a subset of non-Euclidean geometry. Within topology, forms are stretched, compressed and treated very freely.
Questioning how it would be possible to make topological space experiential, I began to work on a group of relief sculptures (which I initially considered paintings) titled the “Isō” series (Isō means “Phase” in Japanese)—or, as it became known, the “Topology” series. As you mentioned, I exhibited this work in the 1968 exhibition “Tricks and Vision,” held at Tokyo Gallery and Muramatsu Gallery in Tokyo. For this reason, this body of work is often referred to as “tricky” (optically, as with Op Art), but the original impetus behind the work had always been to enable viewers to experience topological space.
Could you talk about the shift between those works and the subsequent series “Kusō (Phase of Nothingness)”?
You are asking me why I began titling my works “Phase of Nothingness (Kusō)” instead of “Phase (Isō).” Personally, I thought “Phase” was just fine, but as I began to make works with truckloads of raw oil-clay, or by levitating stones weighing several tons, I started to feel a disconnect between the title and the works, which by then were heavily engaged with matter. As conditions surrounding my work changed, the word Isō felt limiting. I began using the term “Kusō” to denote a liberated state of phase, in the topological sense of the word, and to imply that it is infinitely variable. Of course, I was also aware that there is the concept of Kusō in the Heart Sūtra in the Mahāyāna branch of Buddhism.
Can you tell us about the phenomenon of Mono-ha as a movement, and your encounters with Lee Ufan in particular?
About one week after I made Phase—Mother Earth in 1968, I ran into Lee Ufan at a gallery in Shinjuku. He had published interpretations of Phase—Mother Earth that fundamentally differed from the impressionistic reviews common at the time. I thought they were amazing. I also thought that without a theorist like him in our clique (an informal group of art students, some (like me) just out of graduate school), we wouldn’t be able to establish a new art movement. So I invited him and my friends to meet regularly at a Shinjuku coffee shop called Top (it’s still there), where we spoke tirelessly about art. That continued for about a year and a half, and looking back, I think we are all the better for that happening.
Lee’s discovery and subsequent theorization of Phase—Mother Earth eventually came to cement Mono-ha’s interpretive framework. One could even argue that Mono-ha came out of his response to your work.
I think your interpretation is right in many ways. There was a lot of dialogue at the gatherings I just mentioned on the theory and framework you’re pointing out. Intuition is of course indispensable in making work, but so is the language surrounding it. I think it’s an interdependent relationship.
Lee’s essay “Beyond Being and Nothingness” (1971) offers insights into philosophies as a model for how direct experience can be activated through three conditional modes: Gesture (the reciprocation of action between man and matter), Corporeality (the ambiguous structure of the body as both self and other), and Tòpos (the situational engagement of perception). Did you agree with this model?
You are asking me to explain the notion of “encounter” using Lee Ufan’s three philosophical terms, but this would be difficult for me. I customarily speak another language. But what I can offer is my own initial reaction to the very moment Phase—Mother Earth was completed.
I took off the straw rope holding together the plywood mold and made an incision with a saw. The mold fell off smoothly, revealing packed earth. It was wonderful. Nobody knew what to say; silence permeated the air for some time. The sheer presence of the dirt mass appearing before our eyes was powerful. Its existence felt abnormal. The combination of the positive and negative cylindrical earth forms, a hole and a clod sharing exact dimensions, stood in proximity to one another. It seemed their precise relationship activated the “being of matter.” Essentially, to me, materiality, an activity engaging with it, and Tòpos defined as “a place,” becomes requisite.
Intuition is indispensable in making work,
but so is the language.
How do you think Mono-ha can be distinguished from Minimalism or process-based practices of post-Minimalism? I’m thinking particularly of works like Phase of Nothingness-Water and Phase-Mother Earth.
Within my own interpretation, I think Mono-ha and Minimalism are very similar. It could be that the act of minimizing expression may have brought us close to each other. But one drastic difference is that where Minimalists tended to reduce forms conceptually, Mono-ha’s efforts were to absorb and transplant nature.
For example, Phase of Nothingness—Water (1969) is comprised of rectangular and cylindrical containers of the same volume, each filled to the brim with water. They are lacquered black, making the water unnoticeable at first glance. Getting closer, as the water picks up the vibrations and shifts in airflow caused by people moving around, it faintly ripples, allowing the viewer to detect that the works are not solid. Through that process, the viewer is able to acknowledge the water, to feel the autonomy of nature. In Phase—Mother Earth, with the coexistence of the positive and negative minimal forms, we can glimpse the physicality of earth, hitherto overlooked.
Can you tell us about your experience living in Italy after exhibiting “Phase of Nothingness” works at the 35th Venice Biennale in 1970? How did your experience affect your later practice?
Living in Italy, I was very interested in its urbanism, which was very distinct from what’s found in Japan and something I hadn’t experienced. I became very interested in the historical relationship in Europe between civic life and the city, and the position of art within that. So when I returned to Japan, for many years I did a lot of public/environmental work. But it was an incredibly demanding and social way of working, so now I have limited myself to an individual art practice.
How do you see your role as an artist? As an intermediary to expose nature? Your famous phrase “to wipe the dust off things” refers to an artistic process exposing fundamental structures through which matter is revealed.
In the beginning, I purposefully made work that could be returned to its original condition. Phase—Mother Earth can be returned to the ground, and basically it’s the same with Phase—Sponge (1968), as well as Phase of Nothingness. Each work can be discarded. It’s possible then to explicitly see the differences between their before and after states, what ostensibly stays the same, and understand blatantly what the carried out activity “was.” I thought that if I were able to extract from the works a sort of basis of artistic activity, I would be spared from carrying out egocentric activity as an artist. So now, I feel more aligned with the importance of coexisting with nature as opposed to investing in a “creative” practice.
Your work has been revelatory for both art historians and younger artists today who seek new ways to engage the actuality and phenomenality of matter. Given recent tendencies toward an anthropological interest in art, what do you feel is your legacy to younger generation of artists?
My biggest hope is to distance myself as much as possible from the subjectivism followed by artists of the 20th century. Fully taking in the wonders of nature, to understand its abundance, is to leave your own subjectivism for an objective world outside of yourself.
Nobuo Sekine (Japanese, b. 1942) is an artist who lives and works in Tokyo and Los Angeles. He is represented by Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo. Sekine will have a solo exhibition at MOCA Pacific Design Center, West Holly-wood, from September– July 2016.
Mika Yoshitake is Assistant Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 2012, she curated “Requiem for the Sun: The Art of Mono-ha” at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, which traveled to Gladstone Gallery in New York
Interview translated from Japanese by Robert Becraft.
Images: Nobuo Sekine, Phase No.10, 1968; Artist portrait, La Bertesca, Genoa, 1970; Phase of Nothingness—Black, Yokohama studio, ca. 1977. All image courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, New York/Los Angeles/Tokyo