Rituals of play and rigour

Thomas von Taschitzki (Art Historian)

Knitting a sweater for a giraffe takes time. Artists Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi took that time, just as they took the time to watch over the germination of a seed for more than a week or joined in licking a hard candy the size of a bowling ball day after day for six months.

This tendency to favour long-term projects is one of the characteristic features of many of these artists’ actions. Realized as video films in most cases, their works convey a sense of the unusual real experiences shared by the artist duo over the course of their projects. Just as they challenge themselves and their own perseverance, the viewer’s temporal imagination is activated through interaction with their works.

The huge investment of work and time required for some of these works is even more remarkable in view of the minimal, ephemeral nature of many of the crucial processes involved. In the performance Waiting for sprouting, the artists submitted completely to the rhythm of plant growth. For eight days, they devoted their lives and their full attention to a sprouting seed held constantly in their hands in order to witness the birth of the plant. The concentration and dedication accumulated over the course of this unpredictable process reached significant symbolic and emotional proportions.

In their action entitled Release of Mineral Water, the artists travelled from Japan to Germany with bottles of German “Tönissteiner” mineral water bought in a shop in Tokyo and poured the water back into its original source in the Eifel region. This arduous yet ultimately fleeting action may be interpreted as a ritual reunion of the mineral water with its own source, but also as a subtle, critical play on the absurdities of the global export trade and the marketing of a natural element.

With these and other, comparable works, the artists engage in a practice that stands in opposition to the realities of a social order governed by economic principles, in which time is money and saving time is given the highest priority. By using their time wastefully – according to prevailing standards – they call attention in an unspectacular yet radical manner to the fact that time has no intrinsic value but can be imbued with value through the realization of ideas and the experience gained as it passes.

Consistently developed from their everyday observations and personal lives, the works of these two artists touch upon very different facets of life, from their relationship to nature to social and autobiographical aspects. Each work focuses intensely on a specific aspect of the real world, transforming and presenting it in a clearly formalized process. That elements of play and humour are always evident in these works, despite the artists’ conceptual rigour, is surely attributable at least in part to the fact that their childhood experiences and the child’s perspective on the world play an important inspirational role in their work.

The meditative action in Waiting for sprouting and the gesture of Release of mineral water contain a strong ritual component, and this tendency to seek symbolic forms of action is characteristic of their more recent works as well. A survey of their oeuvre as a whole clearly indicates the consistent presence of a personal form of ritual artistic practice.

An example of an eccentric group ritual is the work entitled Pierced People, a participatory performance in which a relatively large number of people are linked together by a thin metal chain. The piercing holes in the ears of the participants play a crucial role in this work as highly sensitive points of linkage within the temporary community. This basic structure which generated solidarity and mutual dependence in a striking substantial form “choreographed” the behaviour of the participants in quite a remarkable way during a group walk, as it had an immediate sensitizing, harmonizing effect on everyone involved.

The element of ritual assumes the character of personal rituals of luck in several works of Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi. Different approaches are used to transform realities into fictional visions of extraordinary good fortune. In the video piece entitled Miracle, the artists toss dice, and to the viewer’s astonishment, every throw of the dice produces five of a kind. In this case, the incredible run of good luck is constructed with the resources of film. In Unfortunately, impossible, the artists use a simple object, an eraser, to turn the bleak negativity of certain words into positive expressions of hope. At the purely linguistic level, it is indeed possible to achieve happiness simply by eradicating a single syllable.

The popular ritual of making a spontaneous wish when one sees a falling star is the basis for the video installation When I wish upon a star. The artists performed a brash fictional cinematic intervention into cosmic processes and slowed the image of a falling star travelling at lightning speed to a snail’s pace. The extensive catalogue of wishes relating to all areas of life that Mai Yamashita sends out into the universe during this window of time may be seen as a self-portrait created with different means, but also as an act of taking the wish ritual to the point of absurdity.

While the falling stars move slower and slower, movements on the earth below are accelerated. In the high-speed time-lapse video entitled infinity, the artist duo runs for days along a course describing the infinity symbol. At the end of the truly endless process, their footprints have carved a path in the meadow. The path represents not only the infinity symbol itself but also its creation and the intensity of the creative process. As in a magnifying glass, the diverse characteristics of the art of Mai Yamashita and Naoto Kobayashi are concentrated in this work: the element of childlike playfulness in which time is forgotten, formal conceptual rigour and goal-consciousness and the love of temporally structured symbolic acts. The unique qualities developed by the two artists through their collaboration become evident as well. Mutual, reciprocally enhancing and supportive action appears to be the most important source not only of the highly concentrated energy but also of the lightness and humorous self-irony that emanate from many of their works.


Translation:John Southard