Exhibition: Bones

A surreal and innovative exhibition in Roppongi takes a fresh look at "internal design"

You probably made up your mind about bones around the time you doodled your first skull and crossbones in grade school. But the good people at 21_21 Design Sight are not content to allow us our sketchy, throwaway notions of our internal architecture. With their latest exhibtion, Bones, they're frantically tugging at our elbows, trying to get us to take a fresh look at the osseous matter that holds us together—all because bones really do matter, both biologically and in the sense that almost all manufactured products have some kind of internal framework analogous to the skeletons of animals.

According to the show's director, Shunji Yamanaka, bones support and protect while also transmitting muscular and mechanical energy to create movement. They also go a long way to determining shape, elegance and even size. Nothing makes this clearer than Kotaro Maeda's Endoskeleton Spiders, a group of 12 identical skeletal sculptures that imagine how spiders might have evolved if they had had an internal skeleton instead of the external one that limits their growth. Measuring a meter across, these giant arachnids are scattered throughout the exhibition, adding to the atmosphere of surrealism that characterizes this show.

The inspiration and starting point for the exhibition was Bones: Animal Anatomy and Functional Beauty (2008), a photo book by Eiji Yuzawa that emphasized the shapes, lines and textures of various animal bones. This led Yamanaka to his basic concept of drawing analogies between animal skeletons and the structures of designed goods. In the first section of the exhibition, "Specimen Room," Yuzawa's elegant monochrome photography is suitably complemented by English photographer Nick Veasey's X-ray photos. Normally used to photograph bones, the X-ray lens is here turned onto products, including a hairdryer, a vacuum cleaner and even an entire jet aircraft, resulting in images of manufactured objects that have an odd intimacy.

The highpoint of the exhibition is found downstairs in the large underground chambers beneath the 21_21 building. Entitled "Laboratory," this part of the show presents several mindboggling and interactive displays, including Galvanic Frame, a steel bench with LEDs attached to each of its many joints. When visitors sit on it, the LEDs light up to reveal the stresses in the structure caused by their body weight, reminding us that "bones" exist to deal with the invisible stresses all around us.

By the time you encounter this work, you will already have heard the strangely sad and menacing laugh of Maywa Denki's Wahha Go Go, a kind of laughing robot that's operated by spinning a large wheel. Odd as it may seem, this queer sound is entirely appropriate to the designer’s concept, which was to demonstrate that laughter is the product of a simple overload of one of the three basic human emotions of joy, anger or sorrow: too much of one and we laugh.

In the same way that Galvanic Frame copes with physical stresses and makes them visible, Wahha Go Go symbolizes the way the human spirit deals with psychological stress, making it audible in the process. This simple yet astounding sculpture suggests that the human soul itself is a kind of bone, designed to support, protect and communicate the stresses placed on us.

The most entertaining exhibit in this fascinating show is also interactive. Another Shadow, designed by Hisato Ogawa and Takeo Igarashi, is a large video installation that captures your shadow as you walk, skip or jump past the screen. A computer algorithm then generates an internal framework for it and sets this in motion. In short, the installation steels your shadow, gives it its own bones, and liberates it—a surreal and magical moment at a fun and thought-provoking exhibition.

"Bones," through August 30 at 21_21 Design Sight. See exhibition listings (Akasaka/Roppongi) for details.

3rd July, 2009
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