Japan Times: Resurrecting Akitsushima

November 20, 2019

John L. Tran

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One reason to enjoy Yukinori Yanagi’s solo show at Blum & Poe is the eeriness with which the centerpiece of the exhibition matches the color of the leaves outside the gallery window.

Yanagi’s rusty cast-iron 1:50 scale model of the Imperial Japanese Navy ship Akitsushima, a seaplane tender sunk in 1945, looks properly absurd and forlorn on the floor in the middle of the room. Parts of the model are scattered around the hull “ambivalently in a process of either construction or deconstruction,” the Blum & Poe website says. Either way, we are viewing the model in an intermediate state — caught in a moment of becoming something else, over and above the corrosion that makes the piece the color of burnt ochre.

On a wall behind the model is a large azure blue painting depicting a diagram of how the model parts fit together. There are also photos of the actual wreck of the Akitsushima, which now rests at the bottom of Coron Bay in the Philippines, and several watercolor sketches of Yanagi’s diving logs, all of which date back to the year 2000, when the work was first produced. In one photo, coral growth and other accretions can be seen to have turned the guns into a grimy Rococo candelabra. More transitioning.

When Yanagi showed the Akitsushima project in 2001 at the Hiroshima City Museum of Contemporary Art, the metal components of the ship model were displayed attached to a frame, as they would appear coming out of a plastic model kit box. In that version, the surreal scaling-up and change in material of a hobbyist’s plaything was a dramatic way to explore and connect personal memory and national history. It also drew attention to Japan’s collective skittishness and despair with regard to political consciousness, of which the growth of otaku and kawaii culture are partly a symptom.

The fact that this second version of the Akitsushima is nearly completely assembled seems portentous: Something destroyed and better left submerged is being reconstructed. The ambience of Yanagi’s show is contemplative, rather than confrontational, though. The rust on the model, and coral on the wreck of the real ship are memento mori; reminders that whatever fractious adventures we get caught up in, as individuals or nations, these will eventually be overcome by nature.

For Yanagi, whose work from the late ’80s and ’90s featured ants burrowing through national flags made of sand, nature is not synonymous with an anthropomorphically friendly “harmony” or “balance”; it’s disruption, chaos, decay and metastasis. It’s not hard to imagine that the artist likely winced when Japan’s new era was named Reiwa (Beautiful Harmony), and found it disturbing that Prime Minister Abe gleefully yelled “banzai” at the recent enthronement of the new emperor.

Ashley Rawlings, director of Blum and Poe, Tokyo, says of this update of Yanagi’s work: “It is essential for us to reflect on how history repeats itself, in light of the current tensions in the South China Sea and the global shift toward right-wing populism.”

If you get low to the floor at the Blum and Poe, Tokyo, exhibition, you can look at the model of the Akitsushima with the reds, yellows, greens and browns of the Meiji Shrine forest behind it. The forest was planted in the 1920s using 120,000 trees gathered from around the greater Japanese empire, which at the time included Taiwan, Korea, and parts of China and the Sakhalin islands in order to symbolically connect its disparate territories and naturalize Japan’s claim on them. The timing and location could hardly be more auspicious for contemplating the import of Yanagi’s work.

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Blum & Poe Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo will be closed for the summer from August 14 through August 28.