Text by Ella Mudie
“I am drawn to simple and iconic formless elements that evoke people’s emotions,” says Japanese designer Tokujin Yoshioka of one of the driving principles that informs his work. In his current exhibition, Waterfall, now showing at Sherman Contemporary in Sydney until mid December, Yoshioka explores the myriad associations conjured by water although not in the guises one might expect. Presenting two masterfully crafted design objects within a kind of dreamscape, Yoshioka melds the conventions of design exhibition with an immersive art installation to fashion an interior landscape that effortlessly transports the visitor into a realm of sensorial wonder.
An object designer renowned for his technical excellence and ingenious manipulation of materials, Yoshioka trained extensively with one of Japan’s foremost designers, the late Shiro Kuramata, and fashion designer Issey Miyake before establishing his own studio in 2000 which has since seen him collaborate with a string of high profile brands including BMW, Hermès, Swarovski and Toyota. In particular, his design/art creations often garner praise for their mystical and ethereal qualities, whether it be a range of ‘disappearing’ clear acrylic furniture for Kartell or chairs sculpted to evoke the curves of the moon to the towering 9 metre high window he created from 500 crystal prisms, known as the ‘Rainbow Church.’
In promoting this exhibition, Sherman Contemporary have kept relatively tight-lipped about the actual components of the installation and for good reason as the surprise visitors experience when entering the space is critical to its appeal. Without wanting to spoil the experience for others, it’s perhaps enough to say here that in the alchemical hands of Yoshioka a very ordinary, everyday material is imaginatively employed to construct a spectacular sensory environment of metaphysical dimensions, sending the visitor on a journey not unlike sifting through clouds or meandering through an enchanted fairytale forest. The form of the installation reflects the exhibition’s overall concern with meditating upon water as an effervescent natural phenomenon, endlessly delightful in its capacity to assume a multiplicity of states – evoked here as vapour, ice and liquid, as well as the various emotional registers the substance can strike in us.
The immersive installation is impressive, yet the centrepiece of this exhibition is in fact two design objects that represent a considerable technical achievement on Yoshioka’s part – a sleekly futuristic 4.5 metre long bench, titled Waterfall (2005-06), and a smaller predecessor of the same design, Water Block (2002). Both benches are created from large folded sheets of fibre optical glass (the same glass as used in observatory telescopes), the intense light reflecting properties of the glass mimicking the shimmering undulation of ripples of water spilling over a precipice. The optical glass benches are very much representative of Yoshioka’s approach to design, which aims to delight and amaze through the realisation of products never before created. Here, the mental qualities one experiences while looking at trickling water, from a sense of contemplative stillness and clarity to a feeling of calm and well-being, are evoked by the refining and polishing of the optical glass, resulting in a pleasing aesthetic and conceptual harmony.
Despite the growing cross-fertilization of art and design, the fact remains that presenting design objects in a compelling way in the gallery space can be a challenge. Yoshioka’s Waterfall succeeds not only because of the extraordinary scale and ambition of the supporting installation, which activates the space and creates a sense of drama around the two objects, but also because it synthesizes with Yoshioka’s design philosophy, which involves “a shift from creating shapes to constructing sensations.” For Yoshioka, design elements like transparency, light and motion are not simply ends in themselves, rather their value lies in the quality of feeling they produce and in this way his designs, no matter how fantastic, effectively provoke questions about what it means to be a thinking and experiencing human being in, and of, the world around us.
Waterfall by Tokujin Yoshioka continues at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Paddington, Sydney, until 17 December 2011.
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Tokujin Yoshioka, Waterfall, 2011.
Courtesy the artist.
Commissioned by Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation.
Photo: Paul Green.