Takahiro Iwasaki is recognised as one of the leaders of Japan’s new generation of young artists. In recent years he has exhibited at the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts, Taichung; Palais De Tokyo, Paris; Hong Kong Arts Centre; Gallery C24, New York; and at the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo. Paying great attention to craftsmanship, visual presentation and philosophical content, Iwasaki creates intricately detailed models that reinterpret iconic historical buildings and contemporary cityscapes.
His most acclaimed works are from the Reflection Model series that focuses on Japanese sacred buildings and the reflections they cast in water that surrounds them. Playing with this striking visual relationship, Iwasaki constructs precise three-dimensional models that are suspended in a way that combines the building with its illusionary reflection to create a single, complete form. Commissioned by the National Gallery of Victoria, the third and largest work in the Reflection Model series takes as its subject the Shinto shrine of Itsukushima, located on the tidal flats of Japan’s Inland Sea.
Itsukushima Shrine and its famed Torii gateway is one of Japan’s most revered and spiritual sights. The shrine complex was established in the year 593 and rebuilt and expanded into its current configuration by Taira Kiyomori (a twelfth-century military ruler) in 1168. All of the shrine, including its many corridors, sacred buildings and historic Noh theatre, are constructed over tidal flats, and as the tide rises the entire complex is reflected on the water’s surface and appears to float. During the sixteenth century Itsukushima became widely known as one of Japan’s Nihon Sankei (three most celebrated sights) and was the subject of luxurious painted golden screens and woodblock prints. With Reflection model (Itsukushima), 2013–14, Iwasaki pays homage to these historical traditions and challenges our traditional perceptions of three-dimensional art and sculpture. The sculpture, overwhelming in scale and surreal in appearance, is astounding in its attention to detail and accuracy of representation.
Iwasaki, along with a skilled assistant and a small group of volunteers, produced Reflection model (Itsukushima) over an eight-month artist-in-residence period at the Aomori Contemporary Art Centre, Japan. The sculpture, comprising fourteen interlocking parts, is primarily constructed from the traditional building material of Japanese cypress wood and the more contemporary Japanese basswood ply. In the tradition of Japanese architecture, Iwasaki has maintained the timber’s natural finish, using no treatment or coatings, thus leaving the colour and surface of the wood to gradually mature with age.
The actual shrine complex of Itsukushima consists of numerous buildings, platforms and roofed corridors that serve to enshrine sacred objects, facilitate ceremonies and performances and to connect its various sections. The fourteen different parts of Iwasaki’s model not only acknowledge the specific functions of sections of the shrine, but also pay attention to their unique design features. To meet the structural engineering challenges of size, fragility and strength, Iwasaki incorporated the age-old Japanese concept of ‘durability found in flexibility’ that has been a key to creating earthquake-resistant buildings in Japan. When suspended in position, the fourteen individual parts nestle into each other with a slot and tenon system that does not lock them firmly in place. This, in the vein of Taoist philosophy, creates strength through flexibility and in doing so allows the eight-metre-wide model, with its fragile and delicate components, to move without causing stress points and breakage.
The artist passionately expresses his emotional connection to Reflection Model (Itsukushima) and its importance to him personally. Itsukushima shrine is located in Hiroshima Prefecture, where Iwasaki was born and raised and, as he explains, is his spiritual home: ‘I have been waiting for a time when my artistic process had matured and ripened to a suitable level before embarking on such a massive and important project’.1Takahiro Iwasaki, email to author, 4 February 2014. All following quotes from Iwasaki are from this source, unless stated otherwise.
During the Japanese middle ages the religions of Shinto and Buddhism offered the promise of a world existing in a dimension beyond normal experience. This idealistic realm is known in the Buddhist faith as Nirvana, or paradise. Those entering this world would be released from desire, delusion, torment and all ties to the present. People interpreted Nirvana as a floating world released from the confines of gravity. With this idea in mind, architects worked on an ingenious concept whereby actual buildings and their reflected image fused together to create a huge three-dimensional object. Like a spaceship, the temple or shrine appeared to be from another world; an object that defied gravity and floated in silence under the blue sky or in the darkness of night, softly illuminated by the moon. Iwasaki’s Reflection Model series uses this principle both to pay homage to these historical architectural masterpieces and to create a new three-dimensional dreamlike experience of weightlessness and paradise.
During the Heian period (794―1185) the most important buildings in Japan were built in and around the country’s capital city, Kyoto. The cultivated members of the powerful Taira Clan, who were vying for control of Japan, had established their stronghold in the western region of the Inland Sea near Hiroshima. Here they would yearn for the refined architectural structures of the capital, such as Byōdō-in Temple and its magnificent reflections cast in ponds that surrounded it. The famed Taira general Kiyomori displayed his sophistication and great imagination by selecting the idealistic location of an existing shrine on Miyajima Island to construct Itsukushima Shrine, his masterpiece of platforms, roofed corridors and prayer halls. Unlike similar structures in Kyoto created within the restricted confines of a small garden, Kiyomori’s paradisiacal vision was built over the expansive waters of the Inland Sea.
Itsukushima Shrine’s structures are calculated to attain their most perfect form when tide levels are just below the complex’s pier platforms, during the high tide of the autumn full moon. As Iwasaki says:
The experience of approaching the shine by boat through its Torii gateway cannot be matched anywhere and leaves me in awe of Kiyomori’s great creativity. While many artists have left Hiroshima in search of ideas in larger cities and foreign countries, I personally find my greatest inspiration here in the place of my origin.
In his sculpture, Iwasaki displays great attention to the detail and craftsmanship for which Itsukushima is renowned. Due to the shrine’s unprotected location and vulnerability to severe weather conditions, it is regularly battered by typhoons and has been destroyed on many occasions. After each such occasion local fishermen collect the pieces that have drifted away and carpenters that specialise in shrine construction restore its many components back into their original form. This process of destruction and reconstruction has been a regular occurrence throughout Itsukushima’s long history and has resulted in highly developed skills of shrine construction being handed down from generation to generation. Iwasaki can be seen as a present-day practitioner and custodian of these ancient skills, as well as an artist that takes us on a journey beyond our everyday experiences.
Wayne Crothers, Curator, Asian Art, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (in 2014)
1 Takahiro Iwasaki, email to author, 4 February 2014. All following quotes from Iwasaki are from this source, unless stated otherwise.