(In)organic Plasticity: Work (Water)
I first came acrossSadamasa Motonaga’s (1922-2011) Work (Water), 1956 (recreated in 2011 for the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York) whilst lazily perusing the Guggenheim Facebook page one morning. Instantly, I felt a tension and infatuation with the piece and needed to feverishly begin deconstructing and attempting to answer the age old question, “what does it mean?” The contemporary version of the piece is constructed with multiple huge industrial-grade polyethylene tubing holding coloured water of varying hues, suspended in the rotunda of the Guggenheim above the heads of the gallery-goers allowing the light pouring in from the skylight to filter through the coloured water and create coloured patterns on the floor of the museum. Work (Water) was on display at the Guggenheim as part of the Gutai: Splendid Playground exhibition from February 15-May 8, 2013, an exhibition devoted to Japan’s most influential avante-garde and postwar artists.
Instantly, the bright colours reminded me of Wassily Kandinsky’s (1866-1944) work with his bold use of colour and abstraction of form and figure. The plastic tubing of Motonaga’s piece acts like the brushstroke of the painter, separating each colour from one another and clearly defining each pool of water from the other in a sort of colour blocking. This allows the viewer to both appreciate each colour for its own value as well as how each colours plays off the other intensifying and contrasting with each other, harking to integral colour theory of visual art especially poignant for the modern art movement with its abstraction of form and bold use of colour. Motogana breaks down colour theory to its essence: separating each colour to study singularly but on the same token, the array of colours can be considered collectively. The piece has almost a prismatic quality with the light constantly reflecting and refracting through the water and plastic tubing for the viewer to indulge in the colour.
Not only does each colour work off of each other, but the select installation and choice of exhibition space is key. The original version of the piece (1956, seen in the third image above) had the plastic tubing suspended from the trees creating a sort of ethereal and almost surrealistic environment with a web of plastic and colour—a reflection of the growing use of plastics and bright hues of the 1950’s and 1960’s aesthetics. Since the tubing is such a large scale, the original site-specific installation was able to dwarf the viewer, allowing them to be completely consumed by the piece. Work (Water) (1956) holds a tension between the organic natural surroundings of the trees and outside landscape and the decidedly inorganic man-made plastics and dyes used to create the piece—one can infer, given our contemporary context of living green, a comment on our growing social awareness of man’s impact and imprint on our environment.
On the other hand, the Guggenheim rotunda installation space is particularly interesting, then, given that the piece is housed in a completely man-made building in an expansive open space and therefore has the opposite effect on the viewer. Of course, one can appreciate the huge scale of the piece, but since Work (Water) (2011) is now suspended in a space that is more proportional to its size, the piece does not necessarily evoke the same consuming and overwhelming feeling of the original plastic web. Rather, one can simply walk up the ramps of the rotunda to get a better all-around view of the sculptural piece (giving a new outlook on the term, sculpture in the round) to get a better view from above and to figure out the logistics of the piece. Rather than focusing on the experience of the piece and its overwhelming nature, pushing us to consider the materials used and their own significance, we are instead focused on trying to “figure it out.”
Although it is incredibly enticing to look at, it is also this enticement that must be explored when considering site-specificity. There is no doubt that the curators and Board of Directors at the Guggenheim saw the commercial value in having a large, colourful, and, I would argue most importantly, “cool-looking-shiny-art-object” in the middle of their museum as the focal point for visitors. It is this quality that seduces the gallery-visiting consumer clientele, looking to stretch their legs from the long winter and step into spring at the Guggenheim, to view the fresh colours and textures with Motonaga. Not to commercialize Work (Water), in fact I argue that the piece is brilliantly progressive with it’s conceptual quality and use of material fused with classic colour theory, but it is quite interesting to step back from our high-art theory and criticism and to look at the work through the prism of the art market world to view the work entirely different.
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