Interview: Wakiro Sumi

Evidence, 2006

Wakiro Sumi's works invite quiet contemplation

Maybe it's just as well that the Kamakura Museum of Modern Art is as deserted as it is because the sculpture of Sumi Wakiro is art that whispers rather than shouts. At one of Tokyo's busier museums or galleries, with people's heads still abuzz with the screech of traffic, the blitz of advertising, and the hustle and bustle of the crowd, Sumi's art could quite easily be drowned out

As it is, before encountering it, I've enjoyed a calming walk through the streets of this charming old town, where rickshaws still ply their trade, and spent a relaxing half an hour in the cherry-clad gardens of the Tsurugaoka Hachiman Shrine, where the museum is located. Relaxed, with my mind emptied, my mobile phone switched off, and with no other visitors to distract me, Sumi's sculptures have a chance work their delicate magic.
"The point of my work is not to enjoy it through photographs," the 57-year-old artist later tells me. "You need to look at it in the place. You need to be in the same atmosphere, just looking at my work face-to-face."
As part of it's 11th Artists Today series of exhibitions that aims to introduce active contemporary artists to the general public, the museum is showing Sumi's sculpture in the museum's lower galleries and courtyards, while displaying the cityscape photography of Naoya Hatakeyama on the upper floor.

While Hatakeyama's photography of the deserted aspects of cities and architectural models brings a minimalist aesthetic to the Japanese urban environment, Sumi's sculpture creates its own unique sense of space by positioning itself between artistic categories.
"My work is between painting and sculpture, figurative and abstract," the artist explains. "I called my work sculpture but everybody thinks it's not sculpture because my technique is to make works looks like painting."
Although this is a simplification, there is much in Sumi's sculpture to cause category confusion. Kamakura Veil (2006) is an excellent example of this. This presents the viewer with a 3m x 6.4m object that exists uneasily between its 2-D and 3-D characteristics. On a bright red board, the artist has brushed on a mixture of melted wax and paraffin, just as if he were painting. The wax, dribbling down, has hardened, creating a kind of abstract frieze of solidified droplets and rivulets that sometimes mask and veil the board, but sometimes translucently transmit the under color. Sumi raises additional questions by cutting a door through the center of the board, which leads to the beautifully textured Oya stone wall, and by having the right end of the wax surface – supported by hidden wires – peel away from the board.

The effect of this work is to gently exercise the mind without taxing it as one's attention focuses on the random patterns made by the wax before it solidified, and by taking in the delicate sensation of release that the peeling surface creates.

Other effects in Sumi's works are equally subtle. Evidence (2006), with its slightly anthropomorphic and feminine mass of bronze is more obviously a work of 3-D sculpture, but by setting an upright fluorescent tube a discrete distance from the sculpture, Sumi delicately offsets the cozy one-to-one relationship between viewer and statue. We are now forced to bring the neon tube – an inconvenient third party – into the equation. I tried to do this by moving to the side, thus bringing the two elements closer together in my field of vision. But again Sumi has incorporated an element of 2-dimensionality into what is a 3-dimensional work. Only by looking at it face on, as with a picture, can you achieve a true sense of aesthetic balance.

It is at this point that the artist’s intention becomes clear. Instead of switching uneasily between the two discrete and difficult to integrate elements, you reach a synthesis by focusing not on the objects, but on the void between them, and then by focusing on the light traveling through that space from the tube to the bronze. Encountering this work at a quiet, publicly funded art museum helps the viewer get the most from this work, so how does the artist feel about appearing in more trendy venues
"Of course, if they want to exhibit this at the Mori museum, that's OK," Sumi responds. "But my work is very quiet, so placing it in a simple and quiet place helps."
The enjoyment of the subtlety of Sumi's sculpture takes time and patience, and is at odds with much of the sensory overload of modern life and contemporary art. But taking the trouble to listen to the whisper can also help you escape all the noise.

The Japan Times
8th March, 2007
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