TOSHIHIRO KOMATSU – OPTICAL ARTEFACTS FOR THE BODY
This text was written for O Monografias Body issue published in May 2002, Barcelona, Spain
The space of a gallery or of a museum can identify itself with a fabricated historical space. The main task of the commissioner of an exhibition, and even more so the director or programmer of a museum, is to furnish an initial setting with a mixture of works and lend it a contextual structure which facilitates its assimilation within the wider organised frame of that which we know has taken place before this exhibition, from the past. In this way it is possible to establish the figure of the analogy between a space where works of art are exhibited and the history of art itself.
Toshihiro Komatsu makes perforations in the walls and floors of the areas where he exhibits his periscopes-kaleidoscope, that is to say, he builds a net, a den, which crosses walls and wrought iron beams. By way of this net den the spectator is invited to follow a route which will lead him to places which are outside of the exhibition area, or more to the point, to places which are latent in the exhibition area itself but which are usually covered by the new, by each work of art which is exhibited there.
The periscope, built with mirrors in its inner face, provokes two phenomenon in the observer, the first is the multiplication of the optical field, and the second is the prolongation of the body and of its sensory faculties, that is to say, the stretching of its senses to infinity. The second term is only possible due to the existence of the first, which catapults the sensory organs outwards.
Thus the kaleidoscopic prisms establish an intricate web, but continuous, which more or less simulates the burrow of a rodent, a hare or mole. A spatial scheme which is imposed on that which already exists but which illuminates the dark or veiled areas having perforated the surface of the walls and ceilings, connecting different spatial areas, be it two adjoining rooms, the exterior and interior of the exhibition area, the upper or lower floors, etc.
It is obvious that the periscopes transform the spatial perception of those things which they perforate, but to what extent do they perforate time and our representation of time?
It could be said that in the same way that they have repercussions on spatial differences between areas they also have repercussions, in another order, on time differences, making everything happen at the same time, but therefore they would function in the same way as a closed circuit recording, and this does not occur here.
In the work of Komatsu both situations are given simultaneously: the launch of sensory channels in space (exposed space, art space) and in time (the time of the perception of the work and of the life of the perforated place). When we look into, for example, a periscope which perforates the ground making the floor below visible we are not only discovering what is happening below due to our pan-optical vigilance, but we are also projected below by the periscope, which alternatively situates us below and above, in both spaces and in both times, different as they are in themselves, multiplying our body analogously in the same way that the kaleidoscopic images of the mirrors, with which these artefacts are made, are multiplied.
In Adjoining Spaces and in Observatory this operation is carried out in an exhibition area, tunnelling in the space provided by several rooms of a museum and by one room respectively, installing dens which connect one place with another.
This very same operation carried out on an abandoned, traditional, Japanese house, O-House, results in another type of perforation, carried out in space and, more emphatically in this case, in time. In this case moments of the past of this house are illuminated along with its day-to-day existence. Again the effect is the same as that of an excavator, opening canal ways or sensory channels, between places and moments which belong to co-ordinates more or less distant from each other, but building with the exercise a new picture or scene, which is none other than the infinite multitude of images which each spectator generates by looking into and submerging himself in each of the periscopes. The fragmented image is neither a mimesis of a chaotic and kaleidoscopic surrounding reality nor is it a microscope, a camera or a documentary, that is the product of a reproduction of a scene. The fragmented image is more like a representation projected into the future, not into the past, although in the crossbeam, because each spectator, once submerged in the kaleidoscope, experiences a simultaneous projection towards another moment in the same place, but at the same time is completely conscious of his own moment. It can be as well put inversely, projected to another place in the same time being fully conscious of his spatial position. The observer is installed optically in the past and the present, here and there, to produce, in this simultaneousness, an incessant chain of new images.
In the middle of the nineteenth century Baudelaire called the experience of looking through a kaleidoscope the quintessence of the modern gaze, the fragmented look, produced by the sensorial shock of the large city. In those days the kaleidoscope was an optical artefact which enjoyed an enormous popularity for the simple reason that it made possible the impossible: to trap within a controlled frame the fragmented world of reality. And at the same time it trained the people’s eyes to practise the inevitable kaleidoscopic look avoiding the trauma of an injured retina produced by the stimulated chaos.
This kaleidoscopic look sent the body to sleep and completely minimised the exercise of the rest of the senses. The kaleidoscope thus became popular, but it was unimaginable that, for example, a sonorous artefact of similar characteristics could ever have converted itself into an object of mass entertainment during the second half of the nineteenth century or even later. We just need an example, the intonarumori of the futurist Luigi Russolo, which was a musical instrument which imitated the urban cacophony, was a rarity even in the first decade of the twentieth century when it was invented and utilised. It was an artefact which had absolutely no meaning whatsoever outside of the circles of the elite experiments of the historic avant-garde. Due to the popularity of the optical artefact Baudelaire was prompted to describe thus the modern citizen, that of the great city, a “kaleidoscope equipped with conscience”.
It is important to compare these kaleidoscopes with one of the best known examples of architectural spectacles, that which was built in Cologne by Bruno Taut for the Werkbund Show of 1914. In this piece of work, a tribute to the poet Paul Scheerbart, we have a kaleidoscope positioned above a cave. A modern archetype – optical, translucent, sparkling, ethereal – above an ancient archetype – tactile, shapeless, dark, cavernous. In Taut’s pavilion the translucent dome produces a series of kaleidoscopic constructions created by the way it was built with coloured glass and its faceted shape. The resulting effect must have been something similar to a pure spectacle of light and movement, a translation of the kaleidoscopic optic to three dimensions, an architectural visual symphony. However, under this dome the spectator does not gain admittance to any reality, to another space or time distinct and different to his own, but to a place outside of reality and history, without co-ordinates, in which the body takes on a conscience of its own, although not to autonomously steady itself, but instead to merge with the sensorial environment generated by the dome of coloured glass.
In Komatsu’s periscopes the body also merges, although only for a moment, with the environment which surrounds it, like a first step to awakening, for which the first state is optical saturation. However, having generated images which do have definite co-ordinates, the body is immediately returned to reality, as happens when we observe through the periscope the passing of another spectator situated on the floor below or in the adjoining enclosure. In this way no construction is being pursued from a totality formed by the union between the surrounding environment – spatial and sensorial medium – and the body itself, but it is more like an exaggeration of the presence of the body which power, technology and means of communication tend to make disappear.
In 1745 Condillac said that the ray of light, that which strikes our retina, produces a sensation in it which is not reflected in the other end of the same ray, that is in the observed object, but only in our eye. Every strike on the retina would thus be equivalent to grasping a stick with the hand for the first time. The eyes are for Condillac exactly like two hands supplied with sticks, and the little sticks, present in the eye, make of this the place of the fixation of our representations. Thus speaking we would be, above any other thing, an eye.
It seems on first sight that these observations could be taken as predictions, in as much as our culture is completely ocular-centred: everything passes for the eye and everything is flattened.
In the traditional perspective we have the vanishing point and the point of view as symmetrical and empty moments, ideal, always to be filled. Condillac has already placed something in one of them: the retina. Since then we can say that in the contemplation of a modern painting the body is made to disappear, and is made a pure eye. However, in every historical moment in which this polarisation towards the disembodiment of the spectator has been stressed, in particular with the revolutions of perspective, of photography, of cinema and finally of the computer and its extra-flat screen, a factor of compensation, of realignment or reinvention of the spectator as a body which sees, and not a pure eye, has always been introduced. Following this other tradition the optical kaleidoscope of Komatsu is installed.
The view through his artefacts is not optical, but physiological, and therefore not equivalent to looking at a modern painting. Apparently the kaleidoscopic prisms are machines for producing abstract paintings, however, again, this does not happen here. Time enters to form part of the painting that they offer us, corporeal time, and no other. The incorporeal eye of the abstraction once again reclaims its body, and the clearest manifestation is the introduction of physical time in these kaleidoscopes.
The space which they generate becomes thus an enveloping space, not a scene set before the spectator but around the spectator, and time does not become fabricated for the spectator but it has to be built with the act of looking at the artefact, each time. It deals with a localised time, of a now. And the same can be said with respect to space, it deals with a very determined here, for that which the periscope does not offer any time-space totality, but co-ordinates which continually change depending on the position of the spectator and the moment in which he observes, as well as the presence of other spectators in the adjoining spaces which the periscope connects.
The mirrors are positioned in such a way so that they literally reflect our image, but also multiply fragments of that which surrounds us, thus constructing an environment in which the body finds itself submerged, surrounded, immersed, returning its carnality without alluding in any moment to it, without naming it. The periscope-kaleidoscope, however, is an optical instrument, meaning that we can be immediately induced to think that it will disembody the spectator, which is accentuated by the nature of the images which it registers: repetition, series, variation, all favoured themes of abstract painting.
Moreover, in opposition to the painting in perspective, where the surface is the veil of contact and superposition of the real and the ideal, the periscope-kaleidoscope clearly shows that at both ends of it there are two completely adjacent realities, behaving therefore as an element of continuity between two fields of the same nature. The look thus recuperates desire, the carnal impulse denied it by the technology of vision. That which we observe through the artefacts of Komatsu returns our glance, it is not like pornography, but like practising the act of love.
The path covered seems to be a path in reverse, towards the embodiment of the look. However, it is carried out within a purely optical discipline, the game of abstraction. The territory of the body is recuperated without touching it, without mutilating it and even without even rubbing against it, in a completely hygienic manner, without any exhibitionism. The most difficult route has thus been chosen: to work on the body without even naming it, without falling into the celebration of revenge, that is, without demonising abstraction, and more so, making use of it as an instrument, not as an object.
Toshihiro Komatsu and His Work
Hitomi Iwasaki, Director of Exhibitions/Curator, Queens Museum
2020, New York
“Seeing comes before words. […] It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world.”
Ways of Seeing, John Berger, 1972.
The utterly natural human desire to see thing and phenomena
The urge to see, the very natural human desire to comprehend the world by seeing it. The role of an artist is not to newly create an unknown matter that does not exist in the real world, but is rather to “re-” present what has always been right there but fell out of our everyday vision and recognition. Using both visuality and spatiality as its subject, material, and method, the work by Toshihiro Komatsu brings to the fore principle of visual art -- often so too common and basic to the extent that we, viewers become oblivious or misunderstand it. Mettere al mondo il mondo is the title for a series of works by the Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994) in the 1970s. This phrase, bringing the world into the world in English summarizes his consistent attitude in his artistic practice in which Boetti freely and playfully inserted philosophical and political nuances underneath as if to say “I am just pointing out at the things you are not looking.” Art may just be a reset button when our visions and perceptions become too habitual.
Porosity, or the gap between vision and visual perception
Space and vision. To transform a physical space into a two-dimensional image. Komatsu's CT series complicates the flatness of photography and the fictitiousness of represented spatial realism by manipulating its pictorial surface. He introduces various ‘pores’ into the photographic expressions that may be a visual, physical, or at times conceptual rendering of reality. Incorporating highly sophisticated mediation with optical and constructive knowledge and technology, Komatsu juxtaposes elements that seemingly diametrically oppositional: personal vs. socio-historical, emotional vs. intellectual, active vs. passive, or systematic vs. poetic. While ubiquitous, the densely layered complex imagery of digital imaging is presented in CT as printed photograph on paper in a traditional picture frame, not on a computer or a large LED screen. The colorful interior walls of an European house are penetrated by (instead of superimposed with) impactful graphic effects of geometric patterns, which result in disrupting the autonomy of the foreground. By cancelling off the perspective balance of the depicted space with this effect akin to an optical illusion, it confuses the border between reality and fiction. A tension rises between the visual/optical cognition and the habitual imprinting of our eye and mind, which makes us believe “it appears this way, so it should be this way.”
SCOPE further accelerates this tension. The SCOPE series, installed on the wall, are objects that could be described as sculptural works. With its mirror-lined inner structure, the work promotes viewers’ anticipation for unpredictable visions it might offer. SCOPE generates an infinitely fragmented visual experience where reality and illusion are intertwined. Inside the object, geometric forms such as triangles and parallelograms are formed by the reflected mirror surfaces facing each other. Functioning as a reflector that expands and agitates the viewers’ vision into unexpected directions, SCOPE is an optical trap, or a rabbit hole, mounted on the wall. By confusing the expected results of the act of seeing, the work challenges our visual habitude.
“The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge ,the explanation never quite fits the sight.” --Ways of Seeing, John Berger, 1972.
The urge to see and understand—whether in a physical environment or a realm of consciousness—is a constant human exploration to visually grasp the world in order to position ourselves within. Komatsu's work lies as a very natural extension of the mechanism for human existence.