This past Monday, Japanese artist Yuji Ueno enlivened the forum of Sawyer Library’s first floor with a performance piece entitled “Ikebana: Epiphany of Life.” Ueno was introduced by Professor of Japanese Kasumi Yamamoto, who explained that the artist had been trained in ikebana, a traditional art form of Japanese flower arrangement since the age of 19. Over the course of this career, however, he had developed his own style of the art called hanaike, which alternates between pure floral ikebana and performance and draws inspiration from his surroundings.
Ueno derived this performance in particular from the general College environment – specifically including the surrounding Williamstown area, Hopkins Forest and even the setting of the new Sawyer Library.
To some extent, the inspiration for this piece was interpreted literally into its raw materials, which essentially boiled down to a set of wooden Windsor chairs sourced from the old Sawyer Library and branches gathered from Hopkins Forest. The two were again, quite literally bound together against the backdrop of the library’s broad-paneled windows, which bared the distant but vibrant autumn-leaved mountains singing in the late afternoon light.
Aided by translator Daishiro Nishida ’18, Ueno explained, “These chairs have been used in the library for a long time. By putting them in the air, I wanted to express the history of the chairs and of the library. I started by fully communicating with the place, the College and the land. I wanted to show respect to the place. I was very surprised by the nature, and of the beauty of the College. The most important part [of my piece] was the mix of the new, beautiful building, the chairs from the old building and the plants from nature.”
Ueno began his performance by circling the forum around a large pile of the aforementioned Windsor chairs, which was covered with a large white plastic tarp. Examining his raw material and peeking under the tarp as if devising his plan of attack, Ueno then whipped off the plastic sheet and began to unwind a coil of rope, carrying out a repetitive and almost ritualistic process of climbing, knotting and hoisting. The artistic process was a clear theme running through the 80-minute performance. Ueno stated in the beginning that his piece, as an “art performance … might get a little boring;” and to be sure, the sheer ordered repetition and regimented procedure which involved climbing, tying, knotting, cutting, pulling and pushing forced the audience to witness the unexpected tedium that methods of creation can entail. The repetition also reflected an element of thorough craftsmanship in Ueno’s performance. The audience experienced the steady complexity of the artist’s secure knots, in contrast with the seemingly nonchalant gravity-defying nature of the free-floating structure,. More than anything, the piece seemed more reflective of a private studio space exposed to the public rather than a staged performance.
Ueno’s method also laid bare the physicality of the artist and his ensuing art. With one end of the rope affixed to the ground, then looped around the chairs, the artist would painstakingly heave the other end of the rope in a crude pulley system to lift them. Once secured in the air, the intertwined chairs would hover, seemingly weightlessly and effortlessly. The artist’s performance, however, denied the fantasy implied in the final product, as the audience witnessed the massive amount of brute force and energy necessary to create it – evidenced not just through the visible strain of muscles, but through the artist’s genuine groans which echoed through the silent forum.
Ueno remarked that his performance, to some extent, was a comment on life itself. “Because both humans and flowers are alive, we are all affected by gravity on the earth. Because we are alive, we can stand. When we are dead, we must lie down. The fact that I can pull it up is because I am alive that I have the force. Going against gravity is a force of living.”
Toward the end of the performance, Ueno incorporated the first true element of nature, curious considering that they marketed this piece as a flower arrangement performance. Large, twisted branches and vines harvested from Hopkins Forest were taken from another large pile and attached to the existing chair structure.
The integration of branches into the piece stood in multiple contrasts to the existing chair structure. The unwieldy branches stood as a testament to the artist’s ability to solve the problems that arise with the use of different mediums in his work. The branches also arched over and around the chairs in an organic, flowing form that stood in juxtaposition with their more severe architectural structure.
Ueno’s final obstacle was one he could not have anticipated, however. Ten minutes before the performance was scheduled to end, the artist was notified that due to liability issues, he would have to stop early, and that the piece would have to be taken down shortly afterward. Yamamoto informed the audience that Ueno had “intended to put up more colors to represent the colors of fall” that currently abound in Williamstown.
Ueno commented on the unexpected truncation, “Art always involves some danger with life. That is how I have always expressed art – with danger. I take responsibility because I feel that is the role an artist should take. Because I was not able to accomplish what I set out to do, I must go back and think about this.”
In a response to a question concerning the life and the necessary lack of life concerning the arrangement of flowers, Ueno concluded his performance with a statement on beauty and the nature of art.
“What do people think is the most beautiful? People. The most important thing to people is themselves. In order for people to think something is beautiful, we must place plants in a balance that looks like people. We must think about what art is for – and this art is for people. Plants provide us with oxygen and water, so their existence controls our lives. We must remember that their existence is important for us, and art acts as a symbol that gives us an opportunity to think about these things.”