At the Abyss of Perception: The Work of Nakanishi Nobuhiro
Osaka Contemporary Art Center
Even in looking at the same object, it is not uncommon to find that each of us notices something slightly different. For example, when we attempt to remember the shape, material and color of a single chair that we have seen, there can be differences of opinion. Yet, without touching on questions such as whether the chair was solid enough to properly support a person's weight or whether the seating surface was suitably level and smooth, it is possible to share some perceptions. In a "common sensation" of this sort, there isn't likely to be such a marked difference of opinion between one person and another.
But what exactly is the link between "individual perception" and "common perception"? What kind of mechanism can be used to perceive or understand an object? Even in a field like science, there are still many theories and questions without precise answers. In regard to the difficult problem of perceiving and understanding an object, those individuals who are known as artists attempt a variety of approaches, both consciously and unconsciously. In determining how much individual or common perception should be referenced in dealing with a particular subject, there are as many methodologies as there are artists. For example, in Western painting, the law of perspective has played an important role in establishing a "common perception." But by the late 19th century, some artists had begun to feel dissatisfied with depicting a subject using a descriptive expression in a homogeneous space that was dominated by perspective. By distorting and destroying the perspective, and depicting the subject as the artist saw fit, individual perception was brought to the fore and a movement to capture the essential qualities of a subject accelerated rapidly. Eventually, this culminated in the contemporary view that our way of looking at things varies according to each individual or era, and that there are no absolutes - tendencies that have only grown increasingly stronger. In the detached method that prevails in the present era, as they consider expressions that are based on an artist's extremely personal perceptions, individual viewers piece together fragments of some kind of story in order to grasp and understand the era they are living in.
In this environment, Nakanishi Nobuhiro has chosen instead to train his focus on common perceptions, continuing to produce work which makes us directly aware of the places where these perceptions exist. Nakanishi's works convey the "feel" of a common sensation using a variety of methods such as offering an unknown angle on things we are overly familiar with and have come to take for granted, discarding them in an ambiguous manner, and occasionally amplifying them excessively, daring in the process to draw a common sensation out of the depths of our bodies and make us aware of it.
"Polka-dotted Cavities" (2003) consists of a group of variously shaped objects that were created with acrylic resin, on the surface of which a polka-dot pattern has been applied using sandblasting. In some instances, the dots look opaque like polished glass, while the rest of the object is transparent; in others, only the dots appear to be transparent and the rest of the object is opaque, producing a positive-negative relationship between the objects. The positive objects appear to have the form of a hardened mass, while the negative objects are the exact opposite. The contrast is a vivid illustration of the basic conditions for a common perception which recognizes a mass as a mass. The negative element doesn't merely exist as a shadow to emphasize the positive nature of the object, but rather suggests the possibility that the sensation which is activated by the positive may disclose a previously unknown essence that exists in the mass. Though it would ordinarily seem obvious that the positive is the overwhelmingly "normal" element, by encouraging interchange between the positive and the negative, and suggesting that the negative is of equal worth, the work highlights the experience of coming face to face with an object.
Produced during the same period, "Garden of Blank" (2003) reverses the ordinary relationship between the viewer and the sculpture, and by offering us an extraordinary sensory experience, conversely exposes the foundations of a common sensation. In contrast to traditional "sculpture," which is formulated as a consolidated mass that is cut off from the surrounding space, in this work the entire interior of the gallery is covered with the "skin" of the sculpture, allowing the viewer to go inside it. Though we might imagine that we have "come to see" a work, the instant we open the door to the gallery, we are "shut inside" it and deprived of the opportunity to survey the work as a cohesive whole. Because a reversal has occurred in which we are forced to view the convex form that originally existed in the space as a "cavity" or concave form, our normal perception has been deeply distorted. Experiences that fundamentally reset the perceptions which we have been physically imprinted with, force our senses to confront an object all over again. Nakanishi's gaze, as an artist who presents objects and spaces that shake up the viewer's ordinary perceptions, is also trained on his own actions in which a quantitative mass towers above a space. Uncomfortable with sculpture of the past that was formulated as a three-dimensional object by slowly adding clay and other materials to an axis, in the "Boundary Model" series (2003), Nakanishi created "sculpture" by making use of a vector that reverses the normal equation. Are objects created when a consolidated mass determinedly rises up within a space? Does the surface of an object function as an area that ensures the independence of the object?
In "Boundary Model," Nakanishi gradually applied small pieces of clay to the inside of a box, and by burying some foam rubber inside it, built up the quantitative mass within the space. In more traditional sculpture, centripetal force is added to a core of clay or other material and by consciously structuring the quantitative mass, the mass is created independent of the space. But in this work, Nakanishi added force with an entirely different vector. After pouring gypsum into the remaining space and letting it harden into a solid, the work was completed by removing the clay and dissolving the foam rubber. By formulating the work out of negative space in what should have been the remainder of the box, the centripetal quality that the viewer inevitably expects in the work is overturned and our confidence betrayed. The surface, which appears as if it has been hollowed out, shows the traces of where the artist originally piled up the mass of clay inside the box; it is the negative image of a raised mass that conversely seems to be hollowed out, but was originally convex. Looking at this negative image allows us to experience a quantitative mass that could never have been achieved using ordinary construction methods, and as the foundation of the act of experiencing and perceiving the mass has been subverted, the work pulls the viewer back over and over again to the horizon where common sensations arise.
In contrast to sculpture, which is realized by determining a quantitative mass according to a particular method and might deal with a negative image, drawing could be executed in an ambiguous manner without the confines of an outline and is a medium that Nakanishi approaches in a comparatively free manner. Regardless of whether they were intended to be concrete objects or not, the icons that emerge out of the ambiguous outlines and skillfully apportioned spaces place the viewer on the border between freedom and constraint. In other words, though deciding what the drawings resemble or what circumstances they are trying to depict is left entirely up to the viewer, there is definitely something that dissuades us from doing this with a free hand; that is, a hook has been planted in the work that pulls us toward a common perception, and something has been skillfully concealed inside to prevent us from leaping with abandon into a world of individual imagination. Without realizing it, we find ourselves in search of a common perception as we waver between freedom and constraint.
Our visual perception changes depending on whether we make an effort to see something or not, and pictures that produce an instantaneous optical illusion involving a clash between a figure and the background are known to have existed since ancient times. Similarly, Nakanishi's drawing "Stripe Drawing" (2003) was constructed to produce a reversal between its positive and negative elements according to one's point of view. At the same time, in this work, the figures were created with thin lines and because each of the lines asserts its own identity as a picture, a complex dimension arises in the structural relationship between the figure and the background. There are the stripes that serve as the background, the autonomous lines and the plane that is created by those lines; there is the white that acts as an empty space or void, the white that serves as a plane with a centripetal mass, and the expanse of white that has been inserted or intruded itself between the lines. The drawing, which doesn't provide any indication of where it might safely be viewed from, paradoxically evokes a vivid sensation of a safe refuge for perception.
In order to avoid the social implications and messages that are inevitably present in concrete images such as cars and clothing, Nakanishi has stayed away from three-dimensional objects and drawings which include such imagery, producing work that is primarily based on abstract shapes. But in recent years, images with a higher degree of concreteness have started to appear in his work. By making molds of things such as cars, bottles and paper cups, which he collects and piles on top of each other, in the "Pile up Motif" series (2005), Nakanishi created objects out of FRP and painted them. The result is a hollow sculpture that is an accumulation of everyday objects. As the world we live in becomes increasingly complex, the perceptions we share are also undoubtedly changing. The awareness that pervades these works is that without an approach to a common sensibility based on objects we find around us and use in everyday life, it will be difficult to comprehend the situation in which we live. With the abstract approach as one element, Nakanishi is aspiring toward multifaceted work which emerges at the point where various axes meet. To realize work of this kind, our relationship as intermediaries also becomes more complicated and multilayered.
Another element has appeared in recent years in Nakanishi's work, as he has confidently increased these axes one by one. It is "time." In a work titled "Layer Drawing" (2004-2005), by developing a series of objects he shot on 24 frames of film one by one on slide film, Nakanishi created a single work by stacking them up flat in 35mm paper mounts. The images he photographed were many and various: a blot of ink on some tissue paper; melting ice cream; a ship passing an observation station on a river; the process of a cracked egg losing its shape; something burning; sesame being gradually sprinkled; a spinning piece of playground equipment in a park; and clouds drifting in the sky. When the viewer gazes down at the works from directly above them, the various scenes seem to come to life as the changes that occurred with the passage of time emerge in three dimensions. Despite the fact that each of the subjects that have been captured on film is little more than a planar image frozen in time, when presented as layers, the realistic texture of the images springs into a life-like form. The essence of these things, shared by everyone in regard to the objects and actions that are visible, is slowly revealed in front of our eyes. Perhaps, it is because the "time" that is inherent in the work approaches our actual experiences that a common perception emerges. Needless to say, there is no sensation or experience that does not obey "time." In every instance, we perceive the subject within a temporal context, and in a diverse manner, we somaticize every change or lack of change that occurs in time in order to comprehend it. "Layer Drawing" uses a simple approach to shed light on the relationship between our senses and temporality. This may be the reason that people seem to gaze at the work for such a long period of time without losing interest.
The accumulative act of using various methods to find, confirm and share a "common sensation" as one perceives an object is a type of basic research for the senses. In other words, in addition to providing us with new understanding about our relationship with the world, this act has the potential to spark a paradigm shift dramatic enough to change our view of the world. Nakanishi's work continues to activate our senses in a place where the known and the unknown stand back to back. And while he continues to be driven to answer the enormous question of who we are as people, Nakanishi gazes into the abyss of perception.