Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Sadashi Inuzuka: Natural Beauty through Order -
Susan Jefferies

As with thoreau*, it is the natural world and our place in it, which Sadashi Inuzuka¹s has been exploring over the course of his career. Working visually on such an important and complex topic, his installations explore biological diversity and, by extension, challenge our cultural values. It is in this arena where human endeavour touches and disrupts the natural world that he finds the greatest inspiration for his work. Titles used in recent exhibitions in Canada, the US and Japan illustrate his interest in ecological and human systems. They include: Dear Lake, River, Maple, Nature of Things, Exotic Species, Y/East, Substrate and Decayed, to name a few.

Dealing with an emotive topic such as the environment and its impact on man, and visa versa, is fraught with difficulties. The greatest is a tendency to seem to be preaching. Inuzuka avoids this problem by maintaining a certain detachment or distance from the topic. He does not challenge the viewer with grotesque imagery nor does he dictate answers, an approach which destroys the impact of art, a visual intellectual discipline. Rather he focuses on the serene qualities of a natural order based on harmony. This beauty through order seems to transcend death but does not exclude solitude, loss and destruction.

These two dissimilar realities, change and harmony, provoke important questions which are the basis of his thinking and work. How do we maintain balance in a life full of change and still protect the systems which sustain us biologically? Biological and cultural change foster disruption if not chaos. Played out over time and space, the ability to adjust amid biological and cultural transformations is the question at the core of our existence.

Ironically, for an artist to tackle topics so complex and far reaching, the ceramic focus has to be tight and yet suggestive of larger forces, provoking questions beyond the objects and the space itself. How can an artist do this? Inuzuka achieves this by setting up a group of repetitive, mutating and sexually charged objects which mimic the evolutionary process itself. In an atmosphere of silence and timelessness, he eloquently shapes ideas about fragile and complex interactions far more significant than the simplicity of the installations suggest.

The famed biologist, E. O. Wilson writes that ³the creature at your feet dismissed as a bug or a weed is a creation in and of itself. It has a name, a million-year history and a place in the worldŠ The ethical value substantiated by close examination of its biology is that the life forms around us are too old, too complex, and potentially too useful to be carelessly discarded.²

Inuzuka, now a professor at the University of Michigan, started his career working on outdoor installations in a land-art tradition. Manipulating the landscape, sometimes with trenches and grassy knolls, Inuzuka contrives to draw our attention, as in the case of Bug Dreams, Bug Dreams II and Hana in 1989-91 to the smaller inhabitants of our universe, presenting a humorous, inflated bug¹s perspective vis-à-vis the viewer. By magnifying the scale of the bugs (and also flowers) these gentle, respectful installations drew attention to our tendencies to diminish the significance of smaller life-forms, a viewpoint shared with Wilson who issued the dire warning that ³as many as a quarter of still-existing plant and animal species could be gone or committed to early extinction within 30 years.² What is clear is that we are neophytes in terms of understanding the interdependence of all organic beings. He challenges us to consider the loss of any life as irreplaceable.

In recent years, Inuzuka¹s work has moved indoors with installations in antiseptic white-walled rooms with cement floors. Inuzuka excels in these spaces. His keen sense of scale, an ability to transform space in a simple but stunning display of Japanese quietude is a feature of his work. Every object stands out cleanly with strong outlines around the various components whose balance and harmony are of utmost significance. His work helps us develop a sensibility to the intricacy and beauty of art and the natural world. It creates a desire to find a harmony within ourselves and within our various cultures, which will provide a way forward.

At the invitational exhibition at the annual NCECA conference, held in March 2002, Inuzuka had an arresting installation, Substrate, at the Kansas City Art Institute. In a darkened room, small jewel-like porcelain crustacean, cocoon and shell forms circled a layer of dried and cracked slip. Travelling across this surface, a hidden video projected a steadily flowing stream. This pond, fragile but still pristine without any of the suggestions of algal bloom or other destructive man-made interferences in our lake and river systems, suggests the original creative soup from which the surrounding creatures (and humans as well) originated. This subterranean world is one we little understand and one which is endangered along with so many of the earth¹s diverse ecosystems.

Not content with only working in clay, Inuzuka¹s fossil forms have been created in earthenware, porcelain, glass, iron and even bread dough. These media, also representative of the earth¹s resources, introduce other material associations such as strength, fragility, tenacity and translucence which broaden and add to the discussion in various ways.

This is not merely dabbling in other media; Inuzuka has seriously studied glass at Pilchuck and had arranged to work in a bakery in Paris (unfortunately this internship had to be cancelled). Previously he has worked at Kohler learning to express his ideas in iron. Certainly, it is unexpected to see the use of bread dough but, on further reflection, it makes good sense. Bread has a beautiful surface, pliability and an ancient history. Using this material questions artistic practice and the relevancy of established material norms. Bread also directly addresses questions about the health of our agricultural practices, our ability to sustain the earth¹s natural resources, as well as the paucity of food supplies in large areas of the world.

River, an installation at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia, directly addressed the plight of the Delaware River, a complex river system with saline and fresh-water areas which flow through a variety of habitats, both urban and rural. All of the problems of industrialisation and urbanisation are evident in the history of this waterway.

By means of a catwalk for visitors, viewers are active participants in the installation, observing animal specimens on the walls and staring into the muddy spaces of a river bottom (poured slip) on the floor of the gallery. This poured-slip technique, used by Inuzuka in several installations over the course of his career, is especially effective. When the slip dries, the clay cracks and pulls apart, reminiscent of a dried riverbed. In the handsome blue catalogue for this exhibition, the catalogue cleverly reinforces the topic. With its horizontal layout, the essay meanders in blue and black print, like a river. Inuzuka eloquently explains some of his interests and aspirations. ³I can see the macro in the micro world: I can make small things and see large things in them.²

Inuzuka¹s installation, Offering, at the Gardiner Museum in Toronto, created for the exhibition InsideOut in 1998, continues to attract a variety of visitors. Birds can be seen drinking from the rain-filled depression, skate boarders careen down the Quebec granite slabs, tourists pause for a photo-op. The seasons play their part decorating the installation with piles of snow totally encasing the slender black plinths with their dedicatory white vessels on top. Rain creates a slick glistening surface. This work is not only sensitively scaled to a large terraced area but is also a homage to museum and its mission, the presentation and interpretation of our rich historical and contemporary collections.1 To make a point, the ceramic work is staged in such a way to lead the visitor to the museum itself. The black plinths, white vessels and granite recall the Chinese philosopher/scientists¹ study of the five essential elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These elements, integral to the geology of the physical world, are also part of the ceramic process. In this way, Inuzuka pays tribute again to the ceramic arts, the earth¹s bounty and clay¹s relationship to the formation of the planet itself.

An exhibition at the Canadian Embassy in Japan in 2000 combined themes inherent in Inuzuka¹s work.2 It was as if aspects of Inuzuka¹s relationship to his Japanese past/present and his North American experiences came together in this poignant exhibition. The setting provided the catalyst, the Embassy in Tokyo, designed by Canadian architect, Raymond Moriyama, himself of Japanese heritage, combines East and West in its elegant white structure with Zen garden references inside and outside the building.

Like other Japanese artists who have chosen to leave their country, Inuzuka brings a powerful aesthetic as well as a critical and open attitude to new ideas and processes, evident in the clean, balanced scale of the installation. It is as if all his memories of Japan, many painful and unresolved, combined with his desire to learn and work in other parts of the world (including residencies at the Banff Centre, Canada; Greenwich House, USA; the European Work Centre at s¹Hertogenbosch as well as travel in China), culminated in a profound and content-rich installation.

Along with circular installations of his fossil-like forms in porcelain, earthenware and bread, cracked slip with stream-like projections, he introduced, for the first time, a circular area with rice, combed as if with time¹s eternal wheel. This compelling raked surface was evocative of timelessness and the rhythms of nature. It also evokes the beauty of furrowed tea plantings and Zen gardens. A large section of the installation, 10¹ x 10¹, with individual Maple wood squares, references his Canadian experience (the Canadian flag has a red maple leaf at its centre). Inuzuka uses photo transfer prints of beetles on these squares to illustrate the manifold ramifications of the movement of insects, plants, people and ideas.

Global warming, genetically modified foods, loss of plant and animal habitats are just a few of the questions his work provokes. He identifies the inherent beauty and fragility of nature and it is up to the viewer to take the next step, hopefully recognising the potential loss of beauty, diversity and indeed life itself unless these serious questions are addressed.

In all his installations there is a sense of architectural rhythm, repetitive symbols (in different media and in different contexts), which reinforce and extend themes inherent in the work. The sensual, intricate beauty of the assembled and often thrown parts of various fossil organisms and the sophisticated understanding of architectural space create an atmosphere which is timeless and calm but which, on reflection, challenges us to make good on our responsibilities to the planet.

References: 1. InsideOut: Four Canadian Ceramic Installations, The Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, p. 14. 2. Omoide/Memory: Sadashi Inuzuka, Embassy of Canada, Japan, 2000, Essay and interview by Bryce Kanbara

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