Rie Kawakami made my day on Saturday. When I arrived at the Lab to see her installation Living Cube three women were already there chatting in the front of the gallery. Before them was a room full of twisted shapes of various sizes, looking like the detritus of a thousand discarded clothes hangers. Many conformed to a roughly boxy outline, so that at least one side could still lay flat on the ground, but a few were a compact tangle compressed to the size of a basketball.
I was eager to walk around in the space, but they had headed into the gallery to snap some pictures, so I tried my best to stay out of the way. I had the vague suspicion that one of them might be the artist herself by that point, but typically I felt too shy to enquire so I decided to make the most of the opportunity I’d been given.
When faced with a roomful of art that, yes, you can touch, there is the moment where you stand there tentatively realizing you’re on the brink of breaking a taboo deeply ingrained. I think I read the posted print outs two or three times anyway (which really need to more pointed about what you can do rather than only mentioning what you shouldn’t) just to have some way to justify myself in the imagined eventuality that someone leapt out of the office space demanding that I explain myself.
I started off with the hazy idea that I’d like to leave the arrangement different than the way I found it, so I grab a lot of lonely looking tangles lining the periphery and relocate them to the front of the room or around the pillars. I try balancing some of the smaller pieces on top of others with varying degrees of success. Pretty soon I’m creating pathways through them by butting them up against one another and shutting others off by making it impossible to get through without removing the roadblocks. There’s nothing quite so tantalizing, I thought, like finding some semblance of order: all the better for the next visitor to muck it up.
Completely absorbed, I’m holding one of the deformed parallelograms when one of the women, wearing a neat looking suit and dress skirt, approaches me and introduces herself. She is indeed the artist and she expresses how pleased she is that I’m participating in her work. Right off the bat I thank her for making sculpture that people can touch and manipulate. “When they started out they were all like that,” she says, pointing at the pristine cubes suspended from ceiling, the only hands-off part of the exhibit. She derived a great deal of satisfaction on opening night as visitors eagerly got to work mangling them into their present state.
I realize that I had never considered deforming them further. I’m so used to visiting exhibits and accepting that what I was looking at was the end product that it never occurred to me. She is called back to the two women accompanying her and I continued to arrange things to my liking before changing my mind when new opportunities present themselves. Deep down I think we all still have buried in us those dormant impulses to engage with objects in space abstractly, just as a child lacking a toy car will impose her imagination onto a plastic horse to serve, or a group of kids by collective agreement will a cardboard box to become a space ship.
Now that I’ve arranged a group to ring a spindly tower like campers settled around a bonfire, she returns to ask if she can snap a few pictures of me moving the cubes around (heh, heh, okay). I explain afterward my reticence to change their shapes still more. At this point many of them appear to be characters, people or animals, and the thought of bending them up feels like wringing a bird’s neck. She nods and explains some of the ideas she is exploring relate to a life force that could be applied to living and non-living objects. She hit on the wire frames as a vehicle for this exercise since they are malleable and retain the evidence of manipulation by participants. Just as a child can create a race track in miniature in a sand box, the elements within the room can represent any number of relationships within systems, an entire city or a forest.
I mention that to me it’s a reminder that even things that seem static, like a building, change over time. She brings up that life force again: buildings weathering, moving through time, floors capturing slowly over time the impressions of a thousand footsteps, exterior signage scraped away imperceptibly by the wind. I mention how dripping water will bore through stone, given enough centuries.
She is called away again and I shake her hand as she and her companions head out. I’ve never had the opportunity to talk to an artist about their work on-site and it was a true thrill. I feel especially grateful to her since it was clear she was on a time table. Check out her website to get an idea of some of the ways she has tackled her interest in capturing and exploiting visually signatures of life in previous works like Landscape WIll II, 2004 and Two in Blank, 2006.