Sculpting the Invisible: Hidden Landscapes

by Emily Lawhead

Yasuaki Onishi's Hidden Landscapes

Yasuaki Onishi is interested in the invisible – time, air, gravity, and space. His upcoming solo exhibition in Flagstaff, Arizona - entitled Hidden Landscapes: Yasuaki Onishi - explores the invisible forces that drive our experience of the physical world.

As an installation artist, Onishi works in a medium unlike traditional painting or ceramics. In many ways, Onishi’s medium is space. His large-scale sculptural pieces accentuate the negative space in a room, and he often works to “sculpt” emptiness. This can be achieved with everyday materials – plastic sheeting, cardboard boxes, fishing wire, and glue. A quick trip to the hardware store will provide everything needed to create an expressive landscape. For his Reverse of Volume installations, Onishi piles cardboard boxes to create a profile of the work. The boxes are covered with plastic sheeting, and black hot glue is dripped from fishing wire until the thousands of glue strands hold the sheeting in place. The cardboard is then removed, revealing a footprint of negative space in its absence – or the “reverse” of the sculpture.

Onishi's Reverse of Volume

Conversely, Vertical Volume installations feature plastic sheeting formed into cylinders, which are suspended by fishing wire and “float” from the ceiling to the floor. Together, these two works create an experience of mountains and clouds, invoking viewers to experience a sense of “seeing and attaining emptiness.” Both a Reverse of Volume and a Vertical Volume work will be installed in the Flagstaff exhibition this September.

Many artists have sought to represent invisible phenomena in material form. In the 1950s, renowned Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi wrote, “if sculpture is the rock, it is also the space between rocks and between the rock and a man, and the communication and contemplation between.” In other words, the space surrounding a work is just as important as the work itself.

Onishi at work

This concept gave way for installation art to develop as a distinct medium. Installations are site-specific, meaning they are designed precisely for a unique space, and are often time-based, limiting display length to a definite period. They are also experiential: many installation artists believe that a viewer’s presence is the “missing link” that completes a work of art.

Anyone who has walked through one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms or experienced Chiharu Shiota’s threaded installations will know how essential the experience of an installation is to its life in a gallery. Yasuaki Onishi’s work is no exception – especially because it has a definite lifetime. At the conclusion of the Hidden Landscapes exhibition, the work will be dismantled. Never again will this particular installation be seen in the same way. There’s something valuable about this finite expression of time – another unseen force that guides our experience of the world.

Reverse of Volume 9 photo Nash Baker 2012.jpg

Hidden Landscapes: Yasuaki Onishi will be held in the Flagstaff Arts Council’s Coconino Center for the Arts’ 4,000 square foot gallery. It will run from September 18 to October 27, with a Member’s Preview, artist talk, and Taiko drumming performance on September 15 and a Public Reception on September 22.

Emily Lawhead is an independent curator and PhD Candidate in the History of Art and Architecture at the University of Oregon.

For more information on Yasuaki Onishi’s work, visit