They Are Looking Down


YEAR: 1999



The artist

Collection Nagoya City Museum, Nagoya


Permanent installation at the Shirakawa Park Sculpture Promenade, 26 Mar 1999


The installation was made for the park in Nagoya, Japan, on order from the city municipality and it is located in the section of the park where the Museum of Modern Art is located. In this place, the entire surface of the ground is covered with gray cement tiles and forms a rather large surface restricted on one side by the stairs leading up to a large build – ing. On the other side is the entrance to the Museum.

The installation represents a very large drawing that is executed in ceramic tiles that have been laid in the same plane as the covering of the square. The dimensions of the decorative field of such ‘ceramics’ are 11.5 x 8.5 meters. First I shall describe the drawing, so that it then becomes clear how and in what way it interacts with the viewer’s eye when he is walking in the distance from this ‘drawing’; what happens when he looks at this ‘drawing’ from beyond its borders; what are his reactions when he transects the drawing while walking quickly minding his own business; and finally, what does he feel and see when he is standing inside the drawing. But first, before describing all these varied reactions, I’ll say a few words about the depiction itself.

The Plot of the Drawing

A large drawing depicts people bending over a barrier and looking downward with great interest. We see all these people from the crowns of their heads. Judging by the fact that they are all arranged in a square, one might think that they are looking into a deep well; that is, into a place where there should be darkness and absolute blackness. Instead of that, they are looking into ‘whiteness.’ But ‘whiteness,’ absolute light, cannot be down below, but only up above, in the sky. So it seems as if the people should be looking upward, not downward. This paradox appears as a riddle addressed to the viewer of such a drawing: ‘How can people looking downward see the sky?’ The solution of such a drawing is equivalent to the answers to the ‘koan’ – the tasks that the Buddhist teachers assigned to their pupils to invoke ‘Sattori’ or sudden enlightenment. (The drawing we are talking about here was not done specifically for this installation, but was taken from the album The Decorator Maligin.)

Now let’s examine how this installation ‘works’ for the viewer as a result of the positions of both the viewer and the drawing.

From afar the installation looks like an enormous piece of white fabric that was unexpectedly left here on the square by someone but it is not clear who left it here or why. This ‘accidental’ nature of the drawing’s presence here is emphasized by the fact that the edges of the tiles do not run parallel to the building or stairs near it, but are arranged at an angle. Hence, not only does the strange object not fit into the overall layout and architectural design of the place, but rather it looks alien, a confusing and accidental blotch that for some reason has wound up here.

What does the viewer experience, what does he feel when he transects this large rectangle while walking past, minding his own business? This question doesn’t have an answer, because, even though I stood for a long time and observed passersby, both solitary ones and those in conversation, I saw that each of them tried to walk around the drawing insofar as possible not stepping on it at all, but I don’t know the reason for this.

When the viewer approaches the picture, he stops at its edge and turns into a viewer. He sees before him a strange, large, colored frame that for some reason has been made by people to be very large. He most likely associates what is in front of him with some strange type of stone carpet, with some strange ornamentation around the edges. He begins to surmise that this is some strange kind of square for some sort of games, perhaps children’s games that he hadn’t heard of before this, or maybe it is for some sort of performance. But none of these hypotheses provide an answer, and I also saw people just standing in such confusion near the ceramic – they simply didn’t know how to take what was before them. Having stood for a little while, some of them would leave, but many people would actually step ‘into the drawing,’ perhaps to find out and understand just what it was doing ‘here.’

From the moment that any person wound up inside the space of the drawing, its effect would begin, and it must be said that this effect was unique and strange, and to a degree, even psychedelic. The person would find himself surrounded by some sort of cloud, in some strange and unusual space and even though his feet were firmly on the ground, mentally he was not at all on the surface of the earth, and for some reason, he would begin to be swayed by something. And the heads that are visible all around the edges look inside this cloud in a very strange way. They, these people, appear as giants, and what is particularly important, they belong to this strange white world. Two factors affect the viewer’s psyche most intensely: standing on a large white surface that creates a strong sensation of having no foundation, of instability, of the loss of equilibrium; and the large number of strange and enormous people along all four edges who are peering into this swaying world from all sides; that is, they create for those standing inside the situation of a mandala from which, like a circle, there is no exit. Of course, one can experience all of this only when standing inside this magical rectangle. As soon as a person passes beyond the edge of the mandala, as soon as he leaves this magical world, the effect of the optical trick stops working and he again becomes a common passerby in the park, busy with his own affairs. But if he takes a step inside the drawing, then the trick, the mental mirage, arises again.



1999Megan BartonComment