Gestural Vocabularies

Closing in on the interrelationship between everyday activities and forgotten, sculptural developments, Kishio Suga (b. 1944) at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan, examines the impact on the intuitive, gestural vocabulary of matter. In recent decades, his practice has become increasingly important as a means of formal balance.

The artist is one of the leading figures of Mono-ha (School of Things), a group of artists who radically redefined Japanese art during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Mono-ha artists explored the encounter between natural and industrial materials, such as stone, steel plates, glass, light bulbs, cotton, sponge, paper, wood, wire, rope, leather, oil, and water, arranging them in mostly unaltered, ephemeral states. The works focus as much on the inter-dependency of these various elements and the surrounding space as on the materials themselves. Suga’s ongoing investigation of situation and the activation of existence is a crucial aspect of this legacy. Many of his works are – thus – characterised by these delicate but arresting visualisations of horizontality, suspension and gravity.

Situations is the first retrospective exhibition of the artist’s work organised outside Japan. It brings together installations produced by the artist since 1969, which have been re-created and adapted specifically for the spaces of HangarBicocca.

Composed of materials found in situ, and conceived as temporary installations, the works take on new qualities and characteristics, forging an intense relationship with the Navate’s internal and external spaces, and rendering the installations different from any of their predecessors. The exhibition opens with the only suspended piece in the show: Critical Sections. Hanging from a height of over 20 metres, the work consists of portions of black and white fabric stretched and braided into a single rope, intersected by branches and dropping to the floor, where it connects to sheets of zinc arranged on the ground.

Through the process of tension and loosening, the artist creates what he defines a “situation” (jōkyō) in which he underlines the existential interrelationships between the materials that compose the work and its surrounding space. Central to Suga’s practice is the concept of “interdependence” among “things” (mono) as a way to create a unique entity that enables the visitor to observe, on the one hand, the surrounding space in its wholeness from the ceiling to the floor, and, on the other, to perceive an invisible space that is created by the presence of the work.

One of the most intrusive (as well as magnificent) pieces set into Navate is Soft Concrete, (1970/2012), composed by tons of concrete, oil and steel plates. By this work, the artist investigates the transformation processes of matter and compares the physical properties of materials. Four metal plates, set in such a way as to form a rectangle, contain a pile of gravel onto which a mound of soft concrete, a substance composed of cement and oil, has been poured, enveloping and partly submerging the metal surfaces while simultaneously holding them up. The chromatic uniformity of the artwork counterbalances the quality of the materials, revealing Suga’s interest in creating a unitary structure in which the presence of each element is mutually highlighted by another’s.

Moreover, Situation, in its ephemeral monumentality, also offers installations such as Abandoned Situation (Hōchi Jōkyō), (1971/2016), as Units of Dependency (Izon’i), (1974/2016) and Exposed Realm (Rokai), (1986/2016), a work composed of a corridor of wooden panels. In this particular piece, Suga subverts the modular structure, inserting a large stone that seems to anchor the entire installation.

But one of the most poetic works on display is Condition of Situated Units (Ikyō), (1975/2016): a sort of a synthetic bramble composed of steel rods partly hidden by a throng of surrounding branches. The artist combines natural elements with industrial materials, bringing out their differing physical characteristics in order to contrast the rigid verticality of the metal with the horizontal tangle of branches. The exhibition space seems to disappear, becoming part of the intricate ensemble, the aim being to create visual and physical interdependence between the objects and the space to dissipate all distinction between them.

As Suga explains, they seem to fuse into a single entity and alter the way we perceive them: “Mono (things) and places used to be treated separately at the level of recognition but for me they were the same when seen within the horizons of internality.”

Ginevra Bria

Situations runs until 29 January at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca, Milan. Find out more:

1. Kishio Suga, Condition of Situated Units, (1975/2016).. Courtesy of the artist, Tomio Koyama Gallery, Tokyo and Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan. Photo: Agostino Osio